Partner Jack Kersey
1328 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40204
Calvary Episcopal Church Burial Grounds Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky, USA
Charles Raymond Gruenberger (July 26, 1924 - March 16, 2004) was a dentist from Kentucky. His longtime partner was Community Health Trust founder and activist Jack Kersey. Kersey, a realtor, was instrumental in furthering gay rights in Louisville, breaking down stereotypes, and promoting compassionate care for HIV/AIDS+ Kentuckians. He was famously the first Louisville man to come out as gay on television when he was featured on a WLKY segment in 1978. Kersey, along with his partner Charles Gruenberger, was instrumental in the establishment of Glade House when they donated the property in 1986.
Charles Raymond Gruenberger was born in Bellevue, KY, the son of Charles Moritz Gruenberger (1880–1927) and Ida Agnes Fister (1883–1930). he attended the University of Kentucky at Lexington and later taught dentistry at the University of Louisville and Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He retired from private practice in Louisville in 1997.
Jack Kersey moved to Louisville in 1951, two years after leaving his Washington D.C., home at age 17 to move in with Charles Gruenberger. The two had met at a gay house party, events that were common in the capital at the time. Kersey knew right away that Louisville was different from the relatively open environment for gays that he had experienced back home. “Just very conservative,” he said. “Everyone was very, very discreet.” The couple remained in Louisville for only two years, but returned in 1953 and stayed for decades. When the AIDS crisis hit hardest in Louisville, Kersey was one of the founders of the Community Health Trust, and later provided the house that became an informal AIDS hospice for patients with no where else to turn. “We were in Louisville for two years and then Charles was drafted,” Kersey said. The military sent him back to Washington because they needed a root canal specialist at the Pentagon. “Raised his rank from lieutenant to captain.”
Kersey returned to his life in Washington without regret, but he couldn’t live completely in the open. He had taken a position as a dancer with the Washington Ballet, and was surprised one day by investigators from the military who unexpectedly stopped by the apartment he shared with Gruenberger to clear him for his new assignment. “I was going to rehearsal, dressed in leotards,” Kersey said. “The investigators asked me several questions and I don’t think there was any question that we were a gay couple.” Kersey knew things could have been a lot worse than a few questions. The Pentagon had begun broadly employing psychological screening to weed out gay draftees for the first time in the early ’40s. A corresponding pursuit of homosexuals serving in the federal government was now underway. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare had given way to the Lavender Scare, which came to a head in 1953 when President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, making homosexuality a disqualification for federal employment. Thousands were investigated and eventually fired. Kersey figured that they were spared because of Gruenberger’s talents as a pioneer of root canal surgery. “We were pretty sure they didn’t do anything to us because they needed him with his specialty at the Pentagon,” Kersey said with perhaps some ironic amusement. Washington D.C. in this era was divided, with a public face that evinced an intense homophobia, one that seemed to have little connection to the thriving underground where men and women met easily.
“I always knew that I was gay,” Kersey told. “I knew always you had to be careful about what you did and whom you did it with. My father told my brothers to beat me up to make me less feminine. That never worked, and they stopped when I learned how to fight back.” Yet when Kersey left home as a teenager, he found a city full of opportunity. “During World War II and just after in D.C., there were five men to every woman,” Kersey said. “I was very active when I was away from school and home. The movies were cruise-y and so were the parks.”
Kersey also liked to cruise gay bars with suggestive names like the Chicken Hut. But being gay meant being on guard. “Living in the McCarthy times was very frightening for gay people,” he said. “We had a private party in our home when we heard a siren pass and stop close by. Several people climbed out the windows and ran out the doors for fear of a raid.”
The couple moved back to Louisville in 1953 when Gruenberger opened a private practice, and he joined the faculty at the University of Louisville. That bifurcated existence grew tighter, and their social lives became far more proscribed and private. Gay bars and meetups in upscale hotels were just coming on the scene. For men or women with jobs, or families, the risk of exposure was great. “Most of the socializing for gay people was done in the home,” he said.
Gruenberger established what became a longstanding dentistry practice in the Highlands at 1328 Bardstown Road, and the two resided in Old Louisville, where Kersey went into real estate and became a leader in shaping what remains Louisville’s leading gay-friendly neighborhood.
The city’s first gay bar had opened shortly before Kersey arrived. It was the Beaux Arts cocktail lounge in the lobby of the Henry Clay Hotel on West Chestnut Street between Third and Fourth streets. "We wouldn’t recognize it as a gay bar now, as it was a far more subdued affair." In 1953, the Downtowner — which featured servers in drag, and shows in the back room — opened at Third and Chestnut streets.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when the couple vacationed in San Francisco that Kersey began to understand how far into the background gay lives had been pushed in Louisville. The gay clubs along Castro Street had big windows and open doors. “For the first time I saw what it meant to live out of the shadows,” he said. “I was used to Louisville, where the windows on the clubs were always blacked out.”
Like the Regal Queen, a drag bar in the historically black Smoketown section of Louisville, which was located in a dilapidated building that had previously housed a bordello. Or the Falls City Businessman’s Association, which was actually a lesbian bar. Or the private parties for gay men and women, where people would arrive in hetero couples, and then separate once everyone was inside and safe from prying eyes. Or the classified ads men used to place in The Courier-Journal—male roommate wanted, female roommate wanted—which were really solicitations for lovers.
It was an atmosphere of fear, and the resulting repression remained strong in Louisville for decades. Jack Kersey allowed himself to be interviewed on the local news and became the first gay man in Louisville to be publicly outed on television. It was 1978. “I was tired of people not knowing who I was,” he said. “I wanted to come out of the closet and be myself.” The reaction to his interview took two forms, both of which surprised Kersey. Most straight people who knew him didn’t seem to care. But many of his gay friends no longer wanted anything to do with him. They were too scared that the straight people in their own lives would realize that they were gay if they were seen with Kersey. “This was very hurtful,” Kersey told.
Kersey and his generation continued to stay mostly out of the public eye well into the 1970s, even as other people were emerging with entirely different sensibilities. When the drag queens in New York’s Greenwich Village began chucking rocks at the police outside the Stonewall Inn in the summer of 1969, Stinson, for example, was still entirely enmeshed in the underground gay world in Louisville. The significance of those days of anger in New York did not register with him at the time. “We were all aware of Stonewall, but it seemed like a tale told of a place far away.”
He passed away on March 16, 2004. He was survived by his life companion, Jack Kersey.
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