No Place Like Home: Lessons from Activism in LGBT Kansas

C. J. Janovy

308 pages, University Press of Kansas, 2018

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Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, continues to be a touchstone for people analyzing our current political situation. “Kansas” became shorthand for conservative social and economic policy informed by the values of the Religious Right. And, when many of us who live on the coasts or in big cities think of Kansas, we think of the hateful practices of the Westboro Baptist Church (whose URL is www.godhatesfags.com), which targets reproductive health clinics, the LGBT community, and many other minority communities, or we think of Governor Sam Brownback’s extreme opposition to gay marriage and transgender rights. But we forget that Topeka is also the site of the important Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that led to the desegregation of schools, or that Kansas was home to abolitionists and socialists in the 19th century.

It is into this complex setting that journalist C. J. Janovy wades with her new book, No Place Like Home: Lessons from Activism in LGBT Kansas. Janovy, a reporter and editor at Kansas City’s NPR station, KCUR, reminds us that not all LGBT Kansans want to migrate to the big city. Plenty want to stay put. Kansas is home. They love the prairies, the expanse of the blue sky, and small-town life. They also want to be able to live dignified lives, free from prejudice and violence, and with access to the same rights as everyone else. The narrative she pens is one of bravery and resilience in the face of very long odds, and, eventually, one of triumph. She documents the transformation of a state that supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, to one where gay pride events come to take place in notably conservative towns like Salina and Wichita. In short, she tells us what is right about Kansas, and the story she tells has lessons in it for anyone trying to work towards social change:

1. Recognize the wins behind the losses. No Place Like Home is filled with failure. LGBT people and allies run for local and state office and lose. Proposed city ordinances to prevent discrimination against LGBT people are voted down. Efforts to oppose a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage fail. And, yet, each time, the activists made gains in unexpected ways: More people volunteered to canvas; more people came out as gay and publicly told their stories. Every failed attempt emboldened grassroots activists and helped them hone their skills. One gay man spontaneously spoke up at a public event because he just couldn’t sit quietly anymore, and that was the start of his activism: “It was so amazing to get up and take a stand,” he said. After tracking all of the various efforts in cities and towns to introduce anti-discrimination ordinances, Janovy concludes that “citizens knew they would lose, or that they might win at city hall, but that their victory might be reversed by angry petitioners. But part of the point was to engage in a few months of debate that brought news coverage, forcing their friends and neighbors to think about things that have never occurred to most people in these communities.”

2. Start conversations. At the very least, the failed attempts at policy change catalyzed public debate on previously ignored issues. On a personal level, as more and more people came out, they gave others a chance to put a face on what it meant to be LGBT. Said one activist, “When people get to know you, their opinions change and they’re pretty good about it.” Another said that once the media covered her activism, people approached her and said, “I’ve never met anyone like you—can I ask you questions?” A trans woman who worked as ranch hand—as she had before she transitioned—showed at least a few ranchers in the small town of Kalvesta that a “trans woman could keep their cattle alive all by herself.” Another transgender woman said, “[The opponents] don’t win through giving truth. They win by giving misinformation and preying on the most base of instincts, which is fear. The only way to combat that is, number one, visibility of people like myself, but number two, we know the messages now and we’ve got better answers.” Just being out, living regular lives, goes a long way. When two lesbians married just after the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the country, they got congratulations cards not just from family and friends, but from anonymous people, who only signed their first names, with no return address. According to Janovy, these were “quiet but solid, classically Kansan, gestures of support.”

3. Use the opposition to make you stronger. The Westboro Baptist Church, led by the Phelps family, put forward some of the most vitriolic opposition to the LGBT community’s fight for equal rights. Their constant picketing, hateful faxes and petitioning to government officials, and incendiary language appealed to those of the same ideological persuasion, but their actions also turned others into LGBT allies. Evangelical ministers and business leaders came out in support of equal rights to directly counter Westboro’s hateful messages. When one woman was beaten up for having a yard sign supporting an LGBT city council candidate, she showed up at the candidate’s house—bloodied and battered—not to complain, but to ask for a replacement yard sign. That candidate said that when she and her father canvassed her district, some people shouted that they were “going to hell,” but others would say, “Come in, you’re our hero, I baked you lemon bars.” After the defeat in the marriage amendment fight, LGBT activists reflected on how they were surprised by the outpouring of support: “I thought we had no support. I thought we were going to face baseball bats. We didn’t. Maybe that’s because Kansans try to be polite, but we found support everywhere. What people didn’t realize is that the attacks brought us together.”

4. Give yourself a title. Telling one’s story is important. Advocating for change is important. But sometimes it is hard to get an audience. One transgender woman who wanted to tell her story throughout the state realized she would need credentials. So, she created a nonprofit called the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project (KSTEP). Establishing this venture got her more invitations to speak—in classrooms, church groups, and conferences—and each time she would speak in her official capacity as a representative of KSTEP. People can do this in organizations, too—just create an employee resource group or committee and appoint yourself the chair. Suddenly, you have public standing to comment on issues that are important to you.

5. Don’t just focus at the top. Middle management matters. When we think about fighting for equality in organizations or jurisdictions, we tend to focus on the CEO, the governor, or the president. But, story after story in Kansas shows that the city council members, country planning commissioners, and state representatives all matter. When Tiffany Muller ran to fill an open seat on the Topeka city council, she became the first openly gay elected official in Kansas. From that perch, she was able to shepherd through an ordinance that prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation. The story of Kansas’ evolution on LGBT rights coalesces around the activism that occurred in small towns such as Manhattan (population 53,678), Roeland Park (population 6,786), WaKeeney (population 2,154), and Salina (population 47,707). Sometimes we underestimate the power of local action—not just from the top administrators or leaders, but from the middle and from the grassroots.

No Place Like Home is a powerful read. Beautifully written, well-researched, and, most importantly, evocative of the essence of Kansas life. Janovy takes us beyond the “Kansas” stereotype to show how LGBT activists transformed their own society rather than abandoning it for big cities or more tolerant climes. From the vivid storytelling of these people and places, we learn a great deal about how we all can take part in making social change.

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