Fruits and vegetables

Robert A.Bernstein

January 22, 1992|By Robert A. Bernstein

MAINSTREAM America's inability to deal with cultural diversity -- with those who are "different" -- has never been more tragically evident than in the ongoing drama of the Kowalski family of northern Minnesota's Iron Range.

Sharon Kowalski is a lesbian who incurred brain injury in 1983 when the car she was driving was struck by a drunken driver. Shortly thereafter, her parents isolated her from her life partner, Karen Thompson. Now, after nearly eight years of highly publicized litigation, a state appeals court has ordered that Ms. Thompson be named her legal guardian.

The protracted legal battle has left a wake of emotional debris. Family ties have been irretrievably shattered. The pain of numerous individual lives has been needlessly exacerbated. For years, Ms. Kowalski's rehabilitation was seriously jeopardized.

It is not clear which of the four principals -- Ms. Kowalski, her parents or her lover -- has been most grievously harmed. But it is clear that the villain of the piece is no one of them. It is rather a set of shopworn cultural standards -- "traditional family values" -- in the twisted parlance of the fundamentalist religious right -- that boomeranged against the parents and victimized all the parties.

As Ms. Kowalski once put it to Ms. Thompson, homosexuality is a virtual "hanging offense" on the Iron Range. And physical disability -- judging by the subsequent actions of Ms. Kowalski's parents, Donald and Della Kowalski -- ranks not far behind as a perceived dehumanizing factor.

The case, indeed, marked one of the first occasions to bring together gay and disability activists, in recognition of a common foe: society's disdain for those who deviate from its idealized norms.

For a considerable time, Sharon Kowalski's parents were successful in shutting Ms. Thompson off from any contact with their daughter. Ultimately, Ms. Thompson gained visitation rights. But it was only last month that a court finally acknowledged the true significance of the relationship between the two women.

That ruling, by a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, reversed a lower court holding denying Ms.Thompson's guardianship claim. In so doing, the panel recognized that Ms. Thompson and Ms. Kowalski are a "family of affinity, which ought to be accorded respect." By apt chance, the opinion was filed on the 12th anniversary of the date on which the couple had exchanged vows and rings in a ceremony of union.

The decision recognizes two important truths. One is that even the most severely disabled person is a human being with very real quality-of-life issues. The other is that a couple's love and commitment are not necessarily any the less real because the partners are of the same sex.

There is no reason to believe that Donald and Della Kowalski do not love their daughter, but they reacted in this instance, apparently, largely out of conditioned cultural reflexes that obscured their daughter's real needs.

Thus, the parents ignored the fact that their daughter and Ms. Thompson had been in a long-term committed relationship and together owned a house with a mortgage protected by a joint life insurance policy. They ignored the fact that Ms. Thompson was a university professor of physical education, with special skills in physical education and motivational therapy. They ignored the fact that for some months after the accident, and before Ms. Thompson was banished, Ms. Kowalski had responded encouragingly to Ms. Thompson's care.

Sadly, what they did not ignore were society's mindless stereotypes of homosexual and disabled persons. Donald Kowalski was quoted as describing gay people as "queers" and "fruits" and calling Ms. Thompson an "animal" who had forced her attentions on his daughter.

At one point, he pronounced his daughter as wholly "helpless" and moved her into a nursing home that provided little more than custodial services. He saw her, it would seem, as a sort of vegetable beyond hope of rehabilitation -- much less of the consolation and inspiration of a devoted life partner.

It is probably true that produce stand images -- characterizing gays as "fruits" and the disabled as "vegetables" -- reflect some commonly held views of those minorities. But they are not images that reflect the kind of family values many of us cherish.

Robert A. Bernstein is a retired U.S. Justice Department attorney and vice president of the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. He writes from Bethesda.

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