Kansas is not known for being terribly enlightened, particularly regarding the LGBT community. Home to the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church and a slew of political leaders hostile to LGBT causes, its geographically and philosophically far from the coastal cities more often associated with progressive activism.
However, this stereotype ignores a little-known, but highly relevant tradition of LGBT activism throughout Kansas – from the college towns of Manhattan and Lawrence, to small agricultural cities in the sparsely populated Western side of the state.
This history is covered by C. J. Janovy in her new book, No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Janovy, arts reporter and editor for KCUR 89.3 and former editor of The Pitch, spent the past three years traveling through Kansas and listening to the stories of people who have taken on the task of changing perception and legislation in a staunchly conservative state.
Janovy spoke about No Place Like Home at the Lawrence Public Library on Jan. 29, along with two people featured in the book, Sandra Stenzel and Stephanie Mott.
Stenzel, an openly gay woman, was the director of Economic Development in Trego County when she was fired shortly after speaking publicly against a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage.
Stephanie Mott is a trans woman, president and executive director of the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project (K-STEP). Mott spends much of her time sharing her story and educating people on transgender issues.
The story of LGBT activism in Kansas contains a great deal of loss. Stenzel spoke of the pain and stress she experienced during and after being removed from her job. The process moved slowly because Stenzel was an exemplary employee; there were no concrete grounds for dismissal.
“They were going through every e-mail I ever sent, every letter I ever wrote, every speech I ever made – and they couldn’t find anything,” said Stenzel. “The county attorney paid someone $600 to go through my computer because he was convinced I had gay porn.”
In the end, the Trego County Commission eliminated the department of Economic Development, leaving Stenzel unemployed.
Initial efforts to fight the gay marriage ban and pass anti-discrimination laws were largely futile. When anti-discrimination ordinances did pass, they were usually repealed shortly after. Regardless of these setbacks, LGBT people and allies continue to stay active, with the result having unexpected legislative success.
Roeland Park passed an anti-discrimination law in 2013 that was not repealed. And in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled same sex marriage a constitutional right, although that, too, would be challenged by Kansas officials. This was perhaps as important as the legal advances were to the societal changes.
“People are telling their stories, and those stories are going in the newspaper and the town’s talking about things and people are getting educated,” said Janovy. “The activists involved in these causes changed hearts and minds.”
When Kansans came to the realization that the LGBT community existed not as an abstract idea, but in the form of friends and neighbors, classic Midwestern hospitality overrode prejudice.
Janovy mentioned a story in the book about two newly-wed women who received an outpouring of support, including wedding cards from strangers.
Through persistence and hard work, activists have created a Sunflower State that is more open and accepting; a place the LGBT community can proudly call home.