Patty Bresser, Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson (left to right). Photo courtesy of Thompson. Karen Thompson in the late 1980s. Photo by Marcy Hochberg
Eight years after the accident, she got to go home. Seven years after that, she can stand with a brace. Eight years after that and Sharon Kowalski, age 50, is starting to talk.
Kowalski was hit by a drunk driver on Nov. 13, 1983, in an accident that killed her niece. It left Kowalski with a traumatic brain injury and several physical impairments—but what disabled her most was being torn away from her home. She lived in St. Cloud, Minn., with her lesbian partner of four years.
Kowalski could not go home because of a lack of legal documentation stating that in case of an accident she was to deem Karen Thompson, her partner, her guardian and caretaker. Without an advance directive, which is a section of a durable power of attorney for healthcare decisions, Thompson was forced to turn to the justice system.
At the time Thompson went to court, she and Kowalski had been 'roommates' to anyone who had an inquiring mind. When her father, Don Kowalski, was exposed to the truth of their relationship, he broke the agreement he made with Thompson to grant her full visitation rights to see his daughter.
Thompson had never used the word 'gay' the entire time she lived with Kowalski, and now she had no choice but to do so if she were to obtain visitation rights. Thompson may not have foreseen Don Kowalski's acidic reaction, and she certainly did not expect a similar reaction from the justice system.
'You expect the judicial system then to be fair, to be just, but that just isn't the case,' said Thompson. 'She had that window of opportunity for learning to take place and she didn't get the help that she needed at the most vital time. The first three to four years is the most important time for cognitive training, for motor retraining—and I had been specially prepared to work with someone like Sharon without even realizing it. I've used everything I've ever learned in any of the [ physical and occupational therapy ] courses that I've ever taken when I worked with Sharon, and somehow I wasn't the best qualified!'
Court date after court date left Karen Thompson in a conflicted role, she said. She could either be the big bad wolf—which is how she appeared to Kowalski's parents and neighbors as well as the judges—or she could simply be misunderstood. It took about eight years before the Minnesota Court of Appeals made a decision according to the ward's wishes. Although she was ready to communicate her wishes to reside with Thompson, not all of the discrimination against Kowalski was based on sexual orientation. Some of the fear came from the idea that a person with a disability could make her own decisions. As Thompson explained to her father that Kowalski 'was like as a baby, wearing diapers, who needed to be changed every two hours, he got caught in his own able-ism,' she said. 'He didn't have people around him to help him to understand how Sharon's life could be.'
It took more than three attempts to gain custody of Kowalski, but Thompson was actually the third guardian awarded to Kowalski. Even after Don Kowalski relinquished his rights as guardian, Thompson did not get to take Sharon Kowalski home. A neighbor who was previously an outside party to the custody battle was awarded guardianship over Thompson.
A case that began on July 25, 1985, handed down its final decision Dec. 17, 1991. It was a small victory for the LGBT community but a large one for Sharon Kowalski, who got to be reunited with her lesbian partner.
Under her father's care, Kowalski received virtually no visitors in the nursing home and, apparently, few check-ups. Without any direct care or contact, nobody noticed her toes gradually curled under her, for example. ( The problem was corrected through surgery. ) According to Thompson, the most surprising thing is that Kowalski never seemed to scar emotionally. Kowalski still has many physical scars, but she's standing in a walking brace, talking and cheating at cards. Today, 23 years after her accident, Kowalski seems to be doing the impossible. Thompson said that all she ever asked was for people to not 'put limits on a human being.'
Thompson and Kowalski have found new causes to fight for, namely disability access and people-first language. They host workshops on anti-ableism and they teach people just by going through their normal day's activities. Thompson may get frustrated when people stare, 'but I'm an educator. People need to see people with disabilities out and about so we can get past our fears.'
They were a couple who came out nationally before they even knew how to identify with being gay. 'Short of what happened I wouldn't know what would drag me out [ of the closet ] ,' Thompson admitted. 'Coming out I realized that as long as we're invisible, we're vulnerable.'
The gay community taught Thompson how to cope with her identity, while Kowalski taught Thompson about living with a disability, Thompson said. But together, they give back by being advocates within the community that supported them. 'I would think with AIDS, a rupture within our community, that one would think [ more about disability issues ] ,' Thompson said.
Also, although Thompson and Kowalski may not have ever had children, they do have an addition to their family—Patty Bresser, Kowalski's current girlfriend. It was because of Bresser that Thompson could find comfort during her forced period of separation from Kowalski. 'I didn't think I was going to survive. ... There were times that I cried myself to sleep one time too many and just didn't care if I ever woke up,' Thompson said.
Their family may not be the typical family, but who's to say what's typical?