History can happen in the most unlikely of places and with the most unlikely of heroes and heroines.
Attendees of the FYI Book Club discussion for “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism From LGBT Kansas,” by C.J. Janovy, were by turns surprised, delighted and chagrined to learn of the potent history of the LGBT rights movement in the Sunflower State.
The group gathered at the Kansas City Center for Inclusion in midtown. Samantha Ruggles, executive director of the Center for Inclusion, welcomed the group and talked about the services the center provides. “More than anything, this is a safe space for members, family and allies of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “We serve the entire metro area. We provide programming that is educational and informative, as well as referrals to other agencies.”
Several readers were surprised to learn how little they knew about the LGBT rights issues that had played such a large role in Kansas politics.
“It wasn’t until I became involved in the issue of inclusion and everything that goes with it that I realized I knew nothing about the issues in Kansas, and it was so close by,” said Judith Reagan of Kansas City.
Amy Bucher Long of Prairie Village agreed. “I had that hunger to understand the history as well, and this was all so new.”
David Whitner of Kansas City said, “Here is a history I thought would be predictable. It wasn’t. The history we think we know surprises us. The people we think we know have richer stories than we could possibly anticipate.”
Everyone agreed that the book was compelling and that they found it easy to get involved in the activists’ stories. But several noted that the book also stirred emotions.
“It was an emotional experience for me to read this book,” said Joachim Seelos of Kansas City. “Sometimes the stories were hard to read, and I couldn’t help reflecting on my own life. So many people before me went through so much to get me here. I didn’t know the history. If we don’t know our history, it will all happen again.”
Leslie Holliday of Kansas City agreed the book could be “a difficult read. I was born and raised in Kansas, and I recognized these places. To realize there were these fights, battles and activism made for powerful reading. I had to put the book aside sometimes. There are victories here, and there are painful stories here, too. It hurt my heart that anyone had to go through these situations.”
Janovy sat in on the conversation and took questions from the readers. LuAnn Fox of Kansas City asked, “You wrote about these people in a loving way and showed that there’s been a road before. How many people did you interview and did you know them all?”
Janovy had a spreadsheet for the 56 people she spoke to. “I tracked down total strangers. Many came as referrals from other people I talked to,” she said. “People like to talk, and I like to listen.”
“This book is a great companion to Thomas Frank’s ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’ Whitner said. “It restores hope that smart, practical, progressive people of Kansas can make a difference. For me, one of the fascinating elements was meeting people in the book and knowing I’ve met that person in real life! The individual I’ve had the most interaction with was Sandra Meade. Yet I knew her story the least while reading the book.”
Readers also talked about the people whose stories resonated strongest with them, including Stephanie Mott, Sandra Stenzel and Jan Pauls.
Long remembered Mott vividly: “Stephanie Mott is perhaps the most courageous person I’ve ever heard of. Her story blew my mind.” Long referred to Mott’s story as a transgender Christian.
Mel Neet of Kansas City recalled the chapter focusing on Stenzel, former director of economic development for WaKeeny, a town in Trego County. Stenzel had secured over $3 million in grants for development in WaKeeny before she lost her job because of personal and political issues. “It was destructive what the city’s officials did,” Neet said. “What a tragic, boneheaded move.”
Helen Faubion of Kansas City added, “I kept thinking ‘What a brave human being out here in the middle of nowhere Kansas.’ I felt like I knew all these people by the end of this book.”
“I think of those who left Kansas and came back and continued to fight,” Seelos said. “It showed the power of resilience. They will not give up. It’s awe-inspiring. This book opened up a door for me, and now I know we have to open all of them. I know my own community now through their past. These people are my teachers in activism.”
Libby Hanssen of Roeland Park said, “This book is also a love letter to Kansans. It did a great job talking about the different regions and the individuals who lived here and those who came back to make a difference.”
Reagan asked Janovy, “How do you write something this beautiful with all these beautiful people and then read today’s newspaper? This book shouldn’t end. There are more stories happening now, and we need to hear them.”
Janovy smiled and said, “I started a blog. I knew that people’s stories had changed. There are updates and outtakes; developments to be tracked.”
Neet summarized the discussion, “No one is a bit player in this book. Everyone plays a crucial role. That’s what makes this fun to read. They were all heroes and heroines.”
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library's Kaite Stover, email email@example.com. Look on the FYI page on Aug. 11 for the introduction to the next selection, “Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America,” by Bonnie Siegler.
C.J. Janovy will discuss her book and the LGBT rights movement in Kansas at the Kansas City Public Library, 14 W. 10t St., at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8. For more information, go to kclibrary.org.