Fred Phelps is gone, the Westboro Baptist Church patriarch and “God Hates Fags” sloganeer departing this earth more than four years ago.
Stephanie Mott soldiers on.
Mott, born Steven and raised on a farm outside Lawrence, is the indefatigable transgender activist who rolled through 30 Kansas cities in four days in 2011 to talk to folks on the street — and in Wal-Mart parking lots, restaurants, gas stations and doughnut shops — about the trans experience. She remains a kind of Phelps antidote, a strong LGBT presence in the state who writes and speaks at colleges, hospitals, prisons and jails about gender identity, about the merits of understanding and acceptance and inclusion.
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As journalist C.J. Janovy amply illustrates in her new book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism From LGBT Kansas,” she’s not alone.
Accounts of America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender turning points tend to concentrate on the two coasts and, indeed, LGBT Pride Month is celebrated each June in commemoration of the Stonewall riots that began in New York’s Greenwich Village in June 1969, igniting the gay rights movement. But each area of the country counts its own hard-fought gains. Even deep-red states like Kansas, whose national identity has been shaped at least in part by the tiny but fervent congregation at Westboro and right-leaning official policy, including a pushback against gay marriage for more than a year after it was sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.
“Here,” Janovy writes, “well below the national media’s radar … and worlds away from the national gay rights organizations that threw big money behind high-profile legal battles, were a few disorganized and politically naïve citizens who, realizing they were unfairly under attack, rolled up their sleeves, went looking for fights, and ended up making friends in one of the country’s most inhospitable states.”
In Wichita, quiet computer consultant Tom Witt channeled his anger over the state’s gay marriage ban of 2005 (ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision) into a late lifetime of activism. He became the first chair of the coalition of gay rights organizations now called Equality Kansas. In Manhattan, transgender professor Alley Stoughton fought to make Kansas State University more accommodating to trans people, from restroom access to gender listings in the school’s human resources database.
Sandra Meade, a Navy veteran who went on to work for a number of Department of Defense programs including the space shuttle and B-2 bomber, pushed as a transgender woman for Roeland Park’s passage of a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2014 — at the time making it the only city in the state besides Lawrence to spell out LGBT protections.
The 55-year-old Janovy lends journalistic rigor to “No Place Like Home.” A Kansas Citian since 1990, she spent a decade as editor of The Pitch and now is the digital content editor for public radio affiliate KCUR. She spent three years chronicling the stories of activists across Kansas and the evolution of public attitudes and LGBT rights in the state.
Her first book also reflects a personal passion. Janovy, who is gay, participated in rights marches on Washington in 1987 and 1993. She married in July 2015, two weeks after all state bans on same-sex marriage were rendered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell.
She’s not declaring Kansas an LGBT haven. Among other things, it just passed legislation allowing private, faith-based adoption agencies to veto placements of children into homes with LGBT parents based on “sincerely held” religious beliefs.
And Gallup studies suggest that at least some of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender population is leaving the state. The proportion of Kansans identifying as LGBT dipped from 3.7 percent to 3.1 percent in the four years from 2012 to 2016. The national ratio, meanwhile, was rising a full point to 4.5 percent. Missouri’s went up a tick, from 3.3 percent to 3.4 percent.
But Kansas, Janovy says, has more heart than its politics and stereotype imply. In “No Place Like Home,” she fleshes out example after example of “quiet and sometimes surprising progress” on LGBT acceptance and rights. It’s fitful, but progress nonetheless.
Tami Albin, an associate librarian at the University of Kansas who has collected the oral histories of more than 75 LGBT individuals in the state, lauds Janovy for fleshing out this chapter of state history and underscoring Kansas’ place in the national gay rights story arc.
“Gay marriage passed on a national level and had to be recognized in Kansas. And at that point, people were like, ‘There are gay people in Kansas?’ There’s always this kind of battle for people in the Midwest, trying to justify their lives,” Albin says.
“You can throw numbers at people – there’s 70 percent blah blah blah, this and that. But it’s when you hear the stories of people, when you hear the nuances of their experiences, that I think you begin to connect and understand what challenges people may have faced in Kansas. What the good times were and what the bad times were.”
Janovy, who has begun discussions with a Kansas filmmaker about a documentary drawing from “No Place Like Home,” recently discussed the book and her perception, as she put it, that “Kansas was the perfect place to tell a story of America at a turning point.” Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: Beyond the documentary possibility, are you getting much feedback from the LGBT community?
A: From all the people who are in the book, absolutely. I’ve heard from people who aren’t in it but are close to the story in one way or the other. And I’ve heard from strangers who’ve thanked me for writing it.
Sandra Stenzel, who’s in the second chapter and is the person who maybe suffered the most professional and mental harm (losing her job as economic development director in Trego County after speaking out against Kansas’ anti-gay marriage amendment), had maybe the most powerful response. She said the book gave her life back to her. Which is not literally true; she’s done a lot of things in between getting fired and today. But I think being able to see a sense of meaning around what she went through was extremely healing to her.
Q: The book serves as a sort of how-to guide for local activism. Was that part of your intent?
A: Exactly. The subtitle is “Lessons in Activism,” and I think people will find different lessons to relate to in these different stories.
If I had to narrow it down to three main themes that kept coming up for me, No. 1 would be: Prepare to lose. In the months-long efforts for a nondiscrimination ordinance, for example, they might lose at City Hall but, in the effort, they’ve made all these new allies. They’ve educated the community. They’ve opened the eyes of a lot of people who weren’t even thinking about this issue before. That’s a victory in and of itself.
No. 2 is to be gentle with your allies. You see a little bit of infighting in the book among people who all have the same goal but can’t get past egos or differences in tactics. That hurts everybody, especially in this day of social media where it’s very easy to attack each other.
No. 3 is just to do something. There are people in the book who were uncomfortable leading rallies on the statehouse steps and being on TV, and then there are people who were happy to bake lemon bars. All of it matters.
Q: Do you consider yourself an activist? The book itself could be considered a form of activism.
A: That’s an interesting question. I’m first and foremost a journalist, and there’s a lot of debate about whether journalism is activism. When I was going to those marches in Washington, one of them was part of my job at the time. I was working for a gay rights group. The other part of it is that this (being a journalist) is my life. It helped me see good stories that needed to be told, maybe, that other folks didn’t see.
I think about what (writer) James Baldwin talks about in terms of being a witness, about the importance of having people witness the movement. I see myself more in that role.
Q: In the book, you illustrate acts and attitudes of common decency and acceptance — or at least tolerance — by ordinary people across Kansas. Do the state’s politics reflect its people?
A: I think that’s a question that Kansans have been wrestling with for the last few years. There are a lot of people in my book who say “no.” The last couple of elections have been interesting, and we’ll see in the next cycle whether the representation changes as a result of Kansans realizing the stakes of not paying attention to what’s going on in Topeka.
Q: Where would you rank the state in LGBT livability at this point?
A: I think in general that LGBT people are more accepted in Kansas than the stereotype. That doesn’t mean they’ve arrived at the other end of the rainbow. There’s still a lot of struggle, and there still are lots of ways that living in Kansas could be better for LGBT people.
Q: Many of the subjects of “No Place Like Home” are older, retiring or moving on. Is there a new generation of activists ready and willing to step in?
A: Tom Witt is still with Equality Kansas. Sandra Meade moved to California. It’s some of the same people and, in other cases, new people have stepped in. They may not be the exact same roles.
For example, there’s an LGBT lobby day at every legislative session. Equality Kansas sets it up and, this year and last year, the biggest presence was high school and college kids from Wichita … a strikingly young crowd like I’ve never seen before. I’m happy with where they are right now, regardless of where they might be in a couple of years or in five years.
Q: Is there a similar book waiting to be written on Missouri’s LGBT history? Would it show the same kind of progress?
A: My guess is that it would. I focused on Kansas because of Westboro and the state’s reputation. But I’m guessing a similar book could be written about any middle-of-the-country red state minus Westboro.
Q: Are you tempted?
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Another thing always amazes Mott, something she feels after her travels around the state. She might have grown up on a farm outside Lawrence, but it was Topeka where she found salvation. She lives in a small house across the street from the old Monroe Elementary School, where she used to vote. In 2008, it was where she first voted as Stephanie. “I hadn’t legally changed my name yet, but I was presenting as Stephanie. The lady handing out ballots was like, ‘How can you be Steven?’ I explained that I was transgender. She got a confused look on her face, but this other lady where you pick up your ballot was just smiling. I had to publicly explain what transgender was.” Then, in the home of Brown v. Board of Education, she voted for the man who would become the first black president. These days, the rest of the world might know the capital city of Kansas as the home of the Westboro Baptist Church and a scary legislature, but that’s not all it is. Heading back into Topeka on evenings after trips west, as her Hyundai tops the hill just outside of town on Interstate 70, Mott always catches her breath at the sight of the city’s lights. “Wow,” she thinks. “This is my home.”
From Chapter 11 (Trans Kansas) of “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism From LGBT Kansas” by C.J. Janovy, published by University Press of Kansas.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism From LGBT Kansas” by C.J. Janovy at 2 p.m. July 29 at the Kansas City Center for Inclusion, 3911 Main St.
Janovy will join the conversation. She also will discuss her book and the LGBT rights movement in Kansas at the Olathe Public Library-Indian Creek Branch, 13511 S. Mur-Len, at 7 p.m. June 28, and at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at 6:30 p.m.