In Memoriam: Penny Campbell

Penny Campbell. It is an unfortunate fact that many within the Tennessee LGBT community may not be aware of what this name means. While the Tennessean’s obituary focuses on her good works on behalf of those with mental illness, it barely nods at the great work of her life: “she was a pioneer in the fight for LGBT rights and a strong advocate for justice and equality.” The fact is, with Campbell’s passing on September 3, 2014, Tennessee lost one of its greatest LGBT heroes, a true pioneer for our rights.

In the late 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS panic was whipping anti-LGBT sentiment up into a frenzy, Campbell was one of the chief organizers of Tennessee’s contingent to the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (1987). She made herself a visible face of the lesbian and gay community in Middle Tennessee in a time when that was truly a dangerous prospect. In 1989, Penny served as Pride Week Coordinator.

Her courage wasn’t dampened by risk of personal cost. Penny was the daughter of famous preacher-activist Will Campbell, a Baptist minister who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., who was once referred to as the “conscience of the South.” Penny clearly was cut from the same cloth as her father. When she was herself a student on Vanderbilt’s campus, she protested Presidential Commission on AIDS when it was hosted there.

A woman ahead of her own time, she promoted visible social acts of defiance and carried our banner when allies were invisible and most LGBT people avoided any scrutiny. For instance, Campbell encouraged and organized a group of LGBT couples to apply for marriage licenses two decades ago. If that action presaged TEP’s own encouragement of LGBT couples doing the same in recent years, Campbell's own legal battle for LGBT equality in her own time paved the way for our present struggle. For all time, the court case which struck down Tennessee’s sodomy laws (Campbell v. Sundquist) will bear her name.

Abby Rubenfeld, who represented Campbell in that case, says, “She was an amazing person—she was the lead plaintiff in our successful challenge to the constitutionality of the so-called “homosexual acts” criminal statute.  We were successful in having it declared unconstitutional in 1996.  She was then, and both before and after that, a fearless advocate for our community and for all people who are not treated fairly. She helped start the first LGBT community center here. She was a reliable supporter of equality for all, and she will be sorely missed. Her dad, who was a pretty big advocate for equality himself, must have been very proud of her.”

Without Penny Campbell’s courage, laws criminalizing homosexual activity might have lingered on far beyond 1996, and it is impossible to calculate the cost that would have had for members of our community. Her work as a community organizer, on the other hand, did much to solidify the LGBT community and to provide a foundation upon which we could grow and develop.

Diane Easter wrote the following in response to a request for comment on her friend Penny’s contribution to LGBT Nashville:

What do you say about a woman who gathered people around her kitchen table in the late 80’s to organize Tennessee participation in the 1987 March on Washington? Three large buses went to Washington, filled with out and proud Tennesseans, many of whom came back and formed the T-GALA organization. What can you say about a woman who was a cornerstone for organization the first several gay pride parades and celebrations in Centennial Park? What can you say about a woman who carried a picket sign on her own university to protest the highly ineffective Presidential Commission on AIDS which was meeting on campus? What can you say about a woman who organized individuals over 20 years ago to go to the County Court Clerk’s office and request marriage licenses for same sex couples? What can you say about a woman who lent her name and her voice to be the voice of the LGBT community when so many were afraid to come out of the closet? What can you say about a woman who co-founded Nashville’s first LGBT community center? What can you say about a woman whose name is on the landmark decision to overturn Tennessee’s sodomy laws?

You can say a lot. But the words pale to the vivid legacy that she has left us. Today’s marriage equality progress in the LGBT community equality stands on the shoulders of pioneers like Penny Campbell. She was our very own Nashville treasure. She was humble, unassuming, funny, charismatic, compassionate and passionate about equality and justice for all. Those of us who were fortunate enough to know her have memories to last a lifetime. Those of us who didn’t know her can reap the rewards of her efforts for a lifetime.

For those who would like to show their respects, the family asks that donations be sent to Park Center, 801 12th Ave. S., Nashville, 37203, or a non-profit service organization of your choosing. But the best way of all to remember Penny Campbell is to take up your own personal torch, and fight the good fight for equality for all people whenever, wherever and however you can.

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