Owensboro activist says much work to be done, but holds onto ‘Fairness’ hopes

By Chelsey Gillum

“Did I know I was different? Absolutely. Did other kids know it? Absolutely. And while I spent some of my childhood wondering why I was different, I don’t ever recall wishing that I wasn’t,” says Owensboro celebrity, Chad Benefield.

I am not an Owensboro native. I have been living in OBKY for roughly two years, and have gotten a good sense of how the LGBTQIA+ community is treated here. For instance, Owensboro is one of the only bigger cities that still does not have a Fairness Ordinance. To a newcomer, Owensboro seems to be behind the times in our push for equality. While working in community awareness for a non-profit, I attended the Chamber of Commerce’s famous “Rooster Booster Breakfast”, where many business owners, community leaders, and elected officials were in attendance. I was a nervous newbie, but my ears perked up at the hilarious emcee, Chad. 

Chad was flamboyant, energetic, and utterly entertaining. In fact, he was the only thing keeping me awake at 7:30 AM. I later learned that Chad is also a morning show DJ on a country station. I thought to myself, how does an openly gay man land such a visible role in a community that seems so lacking in diversity and inclusion? After hearing his story, I was blown away by his courage and pride.

Chad is the ultimate rolling stone. He has lived in many different cities and traveled to twice as many countries – but at the heart of it, he’s an Owensboro native. Growing up, he was a jack of all trades. Chad said, “I had a teacher in high school that suggested once (in a college reference letter I wasn’t supposed to open and read, but did anyway) that she was concerned that I wanted to do too much and needed to learn to focus on one thing. What question was then and always will be – why would I want to do that?” As a child, you could find Chad changing the clothes on his sisters’ Barbies, because the outfits his sister chose were, in his own words: “tragic”. The next minute, he would be lacing up his cleats for little league. 

Chad says he knew he was gay from an early age. He said, “This is slightly embarrassing and highly stereotypical, but my own revelation came while watching…wait for it…the prison movie ‘Midnight Express’. Feel free to insert a laugh track here. I know this is about as cliche as it gets.” After a heated, almost-kiss scene, Chad says, “I vividly remember my sister saying, ‘gross!’. I also vividly remember that I didn’t find it ‘gross’ at all. I knew in that moment how different I was. I suppose I should have also known in that moment the reaction some people were going to have to my attractions.” His own father would call him slurs, and try to shame him for being who he is, but Chad kept pressing forward. 

In 1998, he met his now-husband, Kevin – who is a very popular hair stylist in town. Chad planned on moving to Manhattan to attend NYU, until he was offered a position with Tristate Broadcasting. Shortly after, he and Kevin started dating. The decision to grow roots in his hometown instead of going to NYU loomed over their heads, so Chad decided to do something about it. “During the early years of our relationship, people routinely (and rudely) asked me in front of Kevin, ‘Do you regret not going to New York?’ So, when I decided that I was going to propose to him, I decided that I was going to do it in New York City. For years, New York was this cloud hovering over our relationship as the one thing that could have pulled us apart,” Chad said. “So, I decided to make it a part of our story that truly bonded us together. In March of 2016, I proposed to Kevin in New York City. A year later, on March 13th, 2017, we were married on Bow Bridge in Central Park. Now, every March, we celebrate our anniversary there and we consider it our home away from home. New York is now a defining part of our story, instead of something that could have ended it.”

Another way Chad used negativity to fuel something good was during Pride 2019. A Fairness Ordinance was being discussed among elected officials, and Chad and Kevin decided to share their own stories of discrimination to push the legislation forward. Ultimately, the ordinance died with a 2-2 split – a devastating loss for the LGBTQIA+ community in Owensboro. When asked about Owensboro’s inclusivity, Chad brought up issues regarding more than the LGBTQIA+ community. At Daviess County High School, he mentioned an annual “Slave Day”, in which seniors could own underclassmen as “slaves”. He said, “But, when you review recent history in places like Owensboro- where Slave Day was a thing and a Non-Discrimination Ordinance failed and many public events start with a Christian prayer- it’s clear we have work to do.  And, look!  I love Owensboro and I get to serve the city and its people on a daily basis and I consider that one of the most rewarding parts of my personal and professional life. This is a great place to live. But, I’d be burying my own head in the sand if I suggested that living here is the same for everyone. It’s not. The playing field is not remotely close to level.”

But, there is hope due to ‘red-state treasures’ like Chad in Owensboro. Chad mentioned Bob Coons, the pastor of Unity Fellowship, who has worked tirelessly to create a safe haven for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. He also mentioned Melissa Smith, an LGBTQIA+ business owner – who was turned down by a well-known real estate broker because of her identity. The direct quote was, “We don’t rent to people like you.” Melissa took those hurtful words and turned them into a victory. She is now extending her business beyond Owensboro to a neighboring city, Henderson, KY.

Chad and his husband Kevin travel the world and make it their personal goal to experience and learn about as many cultures as possible. They are open and proud wherever they go, even in countries that are very anti-LGBTQIA+ – because, as Chad says, “I believe visibility is important – EVERYWHERE.” When asked what he would say to someone who is in the LGBTQIA+ community and wants to become a public figure in a place like Owensboro, he said, “This is simple. There may be people in your life who don’t want you to be you. There will be people in your life who try to silence you. But your own internalized fear is far more powerful and crippling than those people. They only have power over you if you surrender to them. They can only silence you if you let them.  I know the journey is different for every single person and I get that self-acceptance and self-love are on a continuum. But you be you. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s their issue and not yours.”

As a newcomer to Owensboro, with no current plans of relocating anytime soon, people like Chad give me hope. I am so happy to see him every time I go to ‘Rooster Booster Breakfast’ or hear him on the morning show at WBKR. Chad is a true Owensboro Treasure, and I am eternally grateful for his openness and love. Chad left me with a quote from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you. More life. The Great Work Begins.”