Lesbian Wins Appeal to Be Guardian of Ailing Lover
A state appeals court on Tuesday granted guardianship of a brain-damaged woman to her lesbian lover, whose petition had been denied by a lower court even after she built a wheelchair-accessible house and offered at-home care.
“There aren’t words to express the hell the system has put us through,” Karen Thompson said after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that she was the most qualified person to act as Sharon Kowalski’s guardian.
Kowalski, 35, a former physical education teacher, suffered brain damage and was forced to use a wheelchair after an auto accident in 1983. Over Thompson’s objections, Kowalski’s father, Donald Kowalski, won guardianship in 1984 and terminated Thompson’s right to visit.
Thompson, a professor at St. Cloud State University, continued her court battle. Kowalski resigned last year as his daughter’s guardian, citing medical problems of his own. A judge appointed Sharon Kowalski’s former high school track coach, Karen Tomberlin, as the new guardian.
That decision was overturned by Tuesday’s ruling, which said that Sharon Kowalski had indicated that she wanted to be with Thompson and that Thompson is the only person willing or able to care for her lover outside of an institution.
“Today’s decision is not a victory,” Thompson said. “It is a right decision, a just decision that should have been made eight years ago.”
M. Sue Wilson, Thompson’s attorney, called the ruling a victory for the disabled as well as “a significant affirmation that moves gays and lesbians and the way the law treats them in this state into the 20th Century.”
The case drew the attention of feminists and gay rights organizations and was unusual in that it pitted Thompson against Kowalski’s parents, said Suzanne Born, an attorney for Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund Inc., a gay rights organization that filed a brief supporting Thompson.
“I’m sure there are cases where a partner was appointed a guardian or conservator for a partner, particularly in the men’s community with AIDS,” Born said. “But I’m not aware of a case where it was contested . . . by the family” and made it to a state appeals court.
Since guardianship laws vary from state to state, Born said, the ruling does not set a legal precedent outside of Minnesota.