Obituary: Regional Trans rights activist, loved by many, Sarah McKinney

Sarah Janine, McKinney, 64, passed away unexpectedly on Thursday, May 5, 2022, in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. She was born on July 30, 1957, to the late Robert Gillenwater and Nora McKinney in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Sarah was an advocate and pillar of the Trans Community and kept many of the community organizations in Louisville, Kentucky communicating with each other, and helping provide a safe and thriving community. She an inspiration for many, and was always there to help “In her high heels and tool belt”, as she liked to express it. Sarah will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved her.

In addition to her parents, Robert and Nora, Sarah is preceded in death by her brother, Stephen Dale Gillenwater.

Left to cherish her memory, Sarah leaves behind 6 children, Chad Gillenwater (Jody), Alexis Gillenwater, Roxanne Gillenwater Chantiny (Joey), Alyssa Gillenwater, Morgan Gillenwater, and Billy Wulf; 2 siblings, David Lee Gillenwater, and Sharon Ann Peers; 1 grandchild; and a host of extended family and close friends.

A Celebration of Life Memorial for Ms. Sarah Janine McKinney will be held on Saturday, May 14, 2022 from 1 PM to 6 PM at Scott Funeral Home, 2515 Veterans Parkway, Jeffersonville, Indiana.

Below is an article written by Kaela Dickerman for the University of Louisville Alumni Association : We believe that it beautiful sums up the life of Sarah


Humankind is described as “human beings considered collectively.” For Sarah McKinney ’11, there have been moments in her life filled with loneliness. That loneliness has inspired her to create collective, welcoming spaces to positively impact humankind.

McKinney started working and studying at UofL in 1987 and has been there ever since. After working for multiple departments, McKinney was recruited to the Department of Pediatrics in 2006 and is currently the technology consultant senior/facilities director. Thirty-five years later, McKinney still feels a connection to UofL.

“UofL has been very good to me. It’s been an important part of my life for over half of my life,” said McKinney. 

Within the past three years, McKinney has given back to UofL and the city of Louisville in impactful ways. When she transitioned five years ago, McKinney’s feelings of fear and loneliness were so powerful that she vowed to help others going through the same situation.

“Coming out for an LGBTQ person is always tough; it doesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 60,” McKinney said. “The people you love the most are the ones you’re most afraid to tell. At the time of my transition, I had worked at UofL for over 30 years. ‘Terrified’ was not an accurate word of how I felt telling the people at UofL who I was.”

While processing this transition on her own, McKinney felt an overwhelming need for help and contacted the student-run LGBT Center at the HSC campus. Though it’s a student-run organization, they met with McKinney and helped give her the strength to tell her boss.

“It would be another six months before I told anyone else,” McKinney said. “That time was very dark for me, but I made it through with the help of the LGBT Center and my boss’s support.”

This life-changing experience inspired McKinney to look outside of herself and instead to others who might be in the same situation on campus. UofL does have the LGBTQ center for students, but at the time of McKinney’s transition there was no organization created for the faculty and staff.

“I didn’t have anyone to discuss with outside of the SRO, no mentors or peers,” said McKinney. “It would’ve been really nice to have an LGBTQ organization for someone like me, a faculty member. I met with the director and staff of the LGBT Center, asking if I could start one for faculty and staff, and they said yes.”

That “yes” has now grown into the LGBTQ+ Faculty and Staff Association, a community with more than 100 members entering its third year. The mission of this group is to provide support and build community among faculty and staff who identify as LGTBQ+. Though over half of this association’s life has been during a time where little in-person gatherings happened, McKinney is proud of its growth and goals.

“We are having activities, and there will be more to come,” McKinney said. “When I started this process, I was hurting and in a very dark time. I found it important to work at UofL and other groups in the area to make the hurt be less for others in this situation.”

In addition to the welcoming organization McKinney created at UofL, she is a founder of the Transgender Wellness Coalition, a local group that includes more than 900 people. In March, the coalition will host a Transgender Wellness Summit, located on campus in the Student Activities Center.

With McKinney once again focusing on others, the Transgender Wellness Summit will provide legal workshops, surgeons to present on different surgical options, doctors to discuss hormones and mental health professionals to guide those who are looking for the guidance McKinney once was looking for.

In addition to the Transgender Wellness Coalition, McKinney has worked with Louisville Pride and is in the process of starting a non-binary group.

“I’m seeing a real need for people who are non-binary to connect with other people who are non-binary,” said McKinney. “It’s important for people to talk about their experiences and learn about different resources that might be available.”

Both UofL and McKinney have had incredible impacts on one another, and UofL is proud to have alumni and faculty who care so much about others who may be experiencing what she experienced in the past.

“Coming out is still scary, but we can make it less scary for people,” McKinney said. “If I can do anything to keep anyone from being where I was, I feel like I should do it.”

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