The Sharon Kowalski Case

Lesbian and Gay Rights on Trial

Casey Charles

Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction, Finalist

While car-crash victim Sharon Kowalski lay comatose in the hospital, battle lines were drawn between her parents and her lesbian companion Karen Thompson, initiating a nearly decade-long struggle over the guardianship of Kowalski. The ensuing litigation became a rallying point for gays and lesbians frustrated by laws and social stigmas that treated them as second-class citizens. Considered the most compelling case of his lifetime by the late Tom Stoddard, former executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, the Kowalski legal saga also resonated deeply among AIDS patients who worried that they too might be legally deprived of their partners' care.

“Charles’s compelling and crucial study should also appeal to the general public, including lesbians and gays, and to activists in human rights: lesbians and gays, women, the disabled, and persons of color.^

—Journal of Lesbian Studies

“A valuable addition to the field of LGBT studies and to the burgeoning area of scholarly interest in sexuality and the law. . . . Interesting, accessible, and important.

—Committee on Lesbian and Gay History
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A gripping story of love and law, The Sharon Kowalski Case chronicles one of the true landmarks in the fight for the rights of same-sex partners, fully framed for the first time within its social, political, and historical contexts. Drawing on trial transcripts, medical records, newspaper archives, and personal interviews, Casey Charles goes well beyond Thompson's own highly personal account in Why Can't Sharon Kowalski Come Home? In the process, he brings to life emotions and personalities that dominated the courtroom dramas and illuminates the highly contested judgments emerging from supposedly "objective" authorities in journalism, medicine, and the law.

Charles weaves together various versions of the story to show how one isolated dispute in Minnesota became part of a larger national struggle for gay and lesbian rights in an era when the movement was coming of age both legally and politically. His account recalls the rough road lesbians and gay men have had to travel to gain legal recognition, examines how the law is politicized by the social stigma attached to homosexuality, and demonstrates how conflicted the decision to "come out" can be for lesbians and gays who view "the closet" as both prison and refuge.

For Charles himself—as a gay man with HIV—this story greatly transcends mere academic interest and necessarily addresses the broader implications for lesbians and gay men for legal recognition. His book should be both instructional and inspirational to all readers concerned with the evolution of civil liberties—especially for lesbians, gays, and the disabled—in America today.

About the Author

Casey Charles is a lawyer who maintained a civil trial practice in the San Francisco Bay area from 1980 to 1986. He is currently associate professor of English at the University of Montana and is one of the founders of the Western Montana Gay and Lesbian Community Center.