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Couples Chronicles — Interview 14
I've Become an Activist and Feminist
by Demian
First published in April 1988
© January 7, 2018, Demian

A drunk driver struck Sharon Kowalski’s car in November 1983, leaving her with a serious brain stem injury and in a coma for some time. At the time of the accident, Sharon and Karen Thompson had been lovers for four years. They had exchanged rings and jointly purchased a house in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Doctors pronounced Sharon a severely brain-damaged quadriplegic. But Karen, a physical education professor at St. Cloud State University with a background in physical therapy, began working with Sharon and soon she could use her hands to eat and wash. Sharon could also communicate and answer questions with a typewriter.

Karen told Sharon’s parents about their relationship when they questioned her devotion to their daughter. They told her she was sick and a liar, and tried to prevent her from seeing and working with Sharon.

Karen sued for guardianship of Sharon in 1984, but agreed to allow Sharon’s father, Donald, to be named Sharon’s guardian in return for a court order allowing her unlimited visitation. Donald went to court to revoke Karen’s privileges and, upon winning, immediately barred Karen from visiting and moved Sharon to a nursing home three hour’s drive from Karen.

Donald insists that Sharon is a quadriplegic, functioning as a six-year-old who cannot answer questions or express wishes. He denies that Sharon has asked for Karen, although visitors from the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union have witnessed her requests.

Donald continues as Sharon’s guardian, despite overwhelming evidence that he has flagrantly disregarded his legal obligations with respect to Sharon’s medical rehabilitation and legal representation. He has, for instance, refused to have Sharon annually tested for competency, or to abide by her expressed wishes.

Karen had been legally prevented from seeing Sharon from August 19, 1985, until December 17, 1991. See second box at end of article.

What’s the current status of your attempts to regain access to Sharon?

Karen: At a February 5 [1988] hearing the judge ordered that Sharon finally be tested for competency. Right now we’re waiting for a determination of the conditions under which that will happen.

The guardian statute says that testing shall be done at least on an annual basis. The order giving Donald Kowalski guardianship says the same. She has never been tested in four-and-a-half years. I don’t understand why it has taken us this long to “win” the right for Sharon to have the law apply to her.

We asked that a time frame be set, that all types of tests be done, psychological as well as physical, and to establish whether Sharon responds better to some people than to others. If, for instance, she responds more when I’m present, then, even if she is found to be incompetent, we’ll press to have visitors she’d like to see.

Hasn’t that always been your desire?

Karen: The judge finally said a lot of the same things I’d been saying all along. When the parents and their attorney argued that it would be too costly to Sharon to have her tested, he said it wouldn’t cost Sharon anything at all, the state will pay.

The judge ordered that the guardian look into an electric wheel chair. I said over three years ago she should have one. He also ordered the guardian to check into communication devices, such as a computer.

This is the first judge to have actually seen her. He was concerned about the tightness in her leg tendons. I watched that tightening process take place, and I asked for help, saying that Sharon was regressing and wasn’t being stretched properly.

Finally, there seems to be an interest in getting Sharon the types of things she needs, and that’s exciting. It’s sad it has taken this long to hear some of these things said in court, but better late than never.

Have you been in any kind of communication with Sharon?

Karen: No. I don’t think any of my letters get through. There is a note in her medical file that says “all mail to be forwarded to the guardian.” I’m not allowed to call and ask for information, they won’t give me anything.

The only time I get any information at all is when something comes up regarding her condition in the courtroom.

What is her condition, so far as you can tell?

Karen: The new, court-appointed attorney for Sharon recently saw her and he believes she understands everything he says, that she can respond when she wants to. That was good to hear. I’ve said all along that she understands everything.

He said he made a bet with her on the Super Bowl. I appears that when she is treated like an adult, as if she does have comprehension, she responds to some people, at least part of the time.

What are the ramifications of the recent legal judgment?

Karen: This is our first breakthrough in the legal system, it can be extremely important. If they find competence, that would be great. If they find a less restrictive form of guardianship, that too would be good. If they at least find what form of care Sharon should be getting, that would be real helpful.

The judge specifically asked the guardian if he though his daughter should be tested. He responded “no.” The judge then ordered it to be done. Because he refused to do it for years, it shows he wasn’t looking after the best interests of his ward. Also, the judge limited the guardian’s duties by asking the new court-appointed attorney, rather than the guardian, to talk with Sharon, to make sure she understands all of her rights.

I think this hearing set the stage for the removal of Donald Kowalski as guardian.

How is the national organizing going?

Karen: We now have 17 Free Sharon Kowalski Committees across the country. That’s exciting! There is lots of interest shown to help do fund raisers, help get word out on this case.

We’re fund raising all over the country, and it has been going well. My current outstanding legal debts are under $25,000. My total fees to date have been over $115,000. Between what I’ve been able to pay, the donations, and the honorariums I get from speaking engagements, we’ve made quite a dent in the bill.

Is there support from organizations?

Karen: Last summer, the National Organization for Women passed a resolution to support the case. They are now helping with fund raisers and setting up speaking engagements.

United Handicap Federation has volunteered that, if we have to appeal this again, they will file an amicus brief. It’s good to have the disability groups finally understanding how important this case is for them. We also received support from Jesse Jackson. [See below.]

The gay press has been attentive. Any others?

Karen: We are starting to get the kind of attention that will help break this case open. CBS is planning a special on the story, which will be done through West 57th Street. They have permission and budget to do at least a thirty-minute segment. I’m hopeful that they understand the issues and plan to do a sensitive show.

They were in the courtroom on November 18, the first hearing on this most recent motion to restore Sharon to capacity. They saw Donald with his Bible in one hand saying that to test Sharon for competency would cost her thousands of dollars out of her personal injury suit against the drunk driver “because it says here in the Bible this is a sin.”

That’s unbelievable, but what he was clearly saying was that to test for competency would somehow prove she was a lesbian, and that lesbians are not worth as much money. It was no longer subtle homophobia we were dealing with. Everybody could now see what we’ve been up against.

Do her parents still deny she is a lesbian?

Karen: They still try to say that she’s not, but that’s ridiculous. We already proved that in court. We should never have had to do that, but there is proof of our relationship.

They also say that even if she was a lesbian, she’s brain-injured, that she’s nothing, that you loose all sexuality if you ever have an injury.

How are you doing emotionally?

Karen: Well, it’s been a long struggle. I’m tired, but I’ve gotten so much support from people all over the United States, from my university, peer group and students, as well as from my family. I’ve been very fortunate.

I finally learned to pick up energy from groups where I speak, rather than let it sap me. I’ve learned we have a choice of letting our pain and anger eat us up and immobilize us, or channelling it into constructive outlets by becoming change agents. I now share the story, not to depress people, but to empower.

I’ve learned how to tap into the power that’s ours in fighting back. It’s an amazing process. I’ve become an activist and feminist through this, and those were words I didn’t understand before.

“I wish to express my support for Karen Thompson. She is to be commended for her dedication and courage in seeking the best possible care for Sharon Kowalski, her life partner. Ms. Thompson has been infinitely patient, but there comes an end to patience with a system that is unfair and unjust. We question the wisdom of any legal ruling which seeks to separate mutually consenting adults that have made a life commitment to each other. Homophobia, sexism, and handicapism should never again be allowed to limit the potential and abilities of any person. It’s my fervent hope that very soon now, Sharon Kowalski will come home again.”
- Jesse Jackson

“After a seven-year legal battle that became a rallying cause for gay rights groups, a Minnesota appeals court yesterday (December 17, 1991) granted guardianship of Sharon Kowalski, a 35-year-old woman left brain-damaged and quadriplegic in a 1983 car accident, to her lesbian lover.”

“ ‘This seems to be the first guardianship case in the nation in which an appeals court recognized a homosexual partner’s rights as tantamount to those of a spouse,’ said M. Sue Wilson, the lawyer for Ms. Kowalski’s lover, Karen Thompson.”

- from “Disabled Woman’s Care Given to Lesbian Partner” by Tamar Lewin, New York Times, December 18, 1991

For further information read:
“Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home?” by Karen Thompson and Julie Andrzejewski. Spinsters Ink (March 1, 1989)

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