Meet the Kansans fighting conservatives tooth and nail for gay rights

Home to the Westboro Baptist Church, the state is as homophobic as any in the union. A brave few are taking a stand

Published October 26, 2014 12:00PM (EDT)

       (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Michael Nelson stared at the room packed with students from the University of Kansas’ various LGBT groups. The 2014 school year had barely begun and the white-haired pastor, poet and gay rights advocate had come to talk about his lawsuit challenging Kansas’ same-sex marriage ban and other discriminatory laws in state court. Nelson could not help but see his younger self in the students’ eager, contempletive and occasionally vulnerable faces. So as he started to speak, he took a personal turn, because in Kansas, as he and the students already knew, anti-LGBT discrimination runs deeper than what is written into law—or deliberately kept out of it.

“People do ask us, ‘Why are you continuing with the lawsuit when it looks like the U.S. Supreme Court is going to rule in favor of gay marriage equality?’” he began, glancing at Charles Dedmon, his husband of 30 years who stood steps away. “Well, let me tell you, there’s a lot more to this effort than seeing marriage equality happen in Kansas, which in time it will. It’s about every human rights effort in this state that needs attention. Every part of what we’re doing overlaps with every need of a person that has been denied their right to live a full and good life.”

Nelson and Dedmon’s story started at that same campus in Lawrence four decades ago. They fell in love but hid that reality for years, from themselves, their friends and others, causing personal, family and professional turmoil that took years to unwind. Some of what they said, such as police raiding gay bars when they were at KU, was unfathomable to the students. But other prejudices still endured, which led them to add their names to one of the legal fights for equality, they said, as they kept returning to their experiences as youths trying to make their way.

“Forty years ago, I would not have guessed we would be here today, because I did not even know what the word gay meant,” Nelson said. “But when you find out at the age of 20 that your best friend is someone more than that; that your girlfriend is not the person that you feel the strongest attraction to; and there is no organization on campus that is public enough for you to find a home in that will allow you to begin to articulate and identify who you are, you do it all in the dark—literally.”

There is no one storyline that traces the journey of an estimated 80,000 LGBT Kansans. There are gay farmers in the state’s western plains just as there are gay librarians and theologians in university towns. Some are out and some are closeted. Some are still in traditional marriages. But there seem to be common threads in their lives, where the personal almost always collides with outside pressures—as a child at home, growing up in schools and church, in family and career choices, or on the receiving end of politics in a state where social conservatives, including many top Republican elected officials in the state, still demonize LGBT people and don’t want to treat them equally under law.

These currents are still alive in Kansas today, even as it is increasingly likely that the federal court overseeing Kansas may rule any day now that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, or short of that, decree that the state must issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples who want them. But even if the U.S. District Court takes that step, the state’s political culture continues to be dominated by those like GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, a longtime opponent of LGBT and abortion rights, and a Republican-dominated legislature that is not likely to start repealing state laws that treat LGBT Kansans as second-class citizens—which is why Nelson and Dedmon, a lawyer, sued in state court: to start the repeal process.

As that history-making confrontation unfolds, it’s important to note that anti-LGBT attitudes are not merely in state law. They are in families that until recently could not accept interfaith marriages. They are in right-wing churches where the clergy preach that LGBT people are sinners who cannot have a relationship with God. They are in jobs where bosses do not want LGBT employees to speak up or fight for the same rights as others in the workplace. They are in state politics where Democrats are often reluctant to defend LGBT rights, and where right-wing Republicans keep pushing bills to stop same-sex couples from raising children and to allow businesses to discriminate against gay customers. Beyond the fight for marriage equality, there is a stubborn status quo that preserves many state laws that do not protect LGBT people, or grant benefits given to heterosexual couples. These laws range from putting a spouse’s name on a driver’s license to more dire matters such as one’s rights in family medical emergencies.

“People react against it—people react in a range of ways,” said Tami Albin, a librarian at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who has been compiling an oral history archive of LGBT Kansans. “People in Kansas do not want to be represented or seen as tragic, lonely, sad queers in the Midwest who can’t figure out how to get to a large urban city on a coast where life is supposed to be better, safer and more welcoming,” she said. “Kansas isn’t any better or worse than any other location.”

The U.S. Census reports that there are several thousand same-sex couples in the state, a figure Albin said was ridiculously inaccurate. She points to a study a decade ago by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, which tracks LGBT statistics and estimated there were almost 80,000 LGBT Kansans, or 3.5 percent of its population. “We know it’s more than that,” she said, “if you start to include trans people or people who identify as queer or gender non-conforming.”

Following are the stories of several LGBT Kansans. Their lives reflect the difficulties of growing up different in rural communities that were often hostile to the mere notion of homosexuality—and the sense that although official anti-LGBT bias remains ingrained, change may be on the horizon.

Sandra Stenzel

Sandra Stenzel turned her aging pickup truck onto another dirt road south of Wakeeny, a northwestern Kansas town founded in 1879 along the old Union Pacific rail tracks that sit in the shadow of Interstate 70. In every direction, manicured mile-square fields of straw-colored grass or brown milo, a feed grain that looks like corn, color the landscape. Stenzel’s family were Russian homesteaders and she lives in the small house built a century ago by her grandfather, who also helped build the austere white Zion Lutheran Church whose spire rises above the rolling horizon.

She passed the two-room schoolhouse she attended in the early 1960s and slowed down, pointing to nearby sheds. “Right here is a chicken house. First time I kissed a girl. We said we were practicing for boys,” she said, proud of her deep links to a community built by immigrants. Stenzel drove into Zion Lutheran’s parking lot, where she and the pastor reminisced about Mark Deines, a musician who grew up with her, played the church organ and sang, but left the state as a young gay man and returned more than 20 years ago as he was dying from AIDS.

Stenzel is still moved by Deines' granite tombstone in the cemetery, complete with its engraved rainbow flag, next to the graves of Zion’s other founding families. “Mark’s death brought some awareness in this county, in this church,” she said. “These guys came home to be buried. They ended up not being ignored….Was it too high a price to pay? Yes, it was. But Mark’s been dead for 20 years and people are still talking about him.”

Stenzel came back to Trego County a dozen years ago and tried to revive its economic life. Its largest towns were filled with empty storefronts as its population dropped when children like Deines left. She was adopted, an only child, and knew early that she was “very different” from her family. “They didn’t know what to do with me. I always had a sense that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know what was wrong, but it was pretty fucking horrible,” Stenzel said. “I was queer like a three-dollar bill. There’s tomboy and then there’s—I don’t know what it was. I had no context for it. I didn’t know any other people like that. I just didn’t know what was wrong with me. When I got to junior high or so, I’d be sitting next to girls and I think...this is how I would phrase it, ‘If I were a boy, I’d really like to kiss her.’”

Stenzel got married when she was age 20, to prove there was nothing wrong. She was the first of 17 cousins to graduate from college, and studied economics in graduate school. She returned with her husband to the family farm and also found work at a bank. After eight years, they divorced and she left for Austin, Texas, where at age 32, Stenzel came out and found work at a national consulting firm. But after 16 years, she returned to an aging parent and her farm. “There’s a saying: You can take the girl off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the girl,” she said.

When a county economic development job opened, she applied and got it. Then, working with a board that didn’t care about her sexuality, Stenzel did something remarkable. She didn’t organize parades or class reunions, but instead raised several million in grants to spruce up Wakeeny’s neglected downtown and build a 30-unit senior living center. She became the Trego County Democratic Party chair – all before 2004, when the religious right launched its major campaign to amend Kansas’ Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

The beginning of the end of her career came when Stenzel crossed a line she did not know existed. She got permission to take a day off and go to Topeka, the state capital, to testify against the amendment. “I got up the next morning and I was on the front page of every newspaper in Kansas,” she said, after saying that a marriage ban would be bad for business­—which, today, is commonly heard in the hallways of corporate America. “I don’t know why, but for some reason, apparently this 'bad for business, bad for depopulation' argument, really hadn’t been made and it just splashed all over. My phone started ringing, e-mails started pouring in, and I thought, oh shit."

Stenzel didn’t want to be the face of LGBT issues statewide. And neither did local clergy. “Some of the ministers in Wakeeney got together and went to the city council and said, you know, this is not good for our community to have an openly gay woman being our economic development director and representing us with this kind of visibility,” she said. “They said, ‘We need to get rid of this woman.’ And my board of directors said, ‘Screw you. We like her. She’s doing a great job.'"

But a course was set. The Trego County economic development agency didn’t get funded the next year, which prompted an unprecedented fight in which county taxpayers raised the sales tax to support Stenzel’s eforts, yielding hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in February 2005, newly elected officials found a way to shut down the agency and seize that money, using it to build a pool. That April, Amendment 1 passed with a 70 percent majority, banning same-sex marriage.

“I had people in the community who were willing to give me money to wage a legal fight,” Stenzel said, but there was no fight to be waged because under Kansas law there was—and still is—no penalty for firing a person based on sexual orientation. “The other interesting thing that happened was people would sort of sidle up to me on the street and say, ‘My son who lives in Chicago is gay,’ or ‘My daughter who lives in Dallas is gay.’ There’s no family in Trego County that isn’t touched by this.”

Yet even as her neighbors confided in her, Stenzel’s life fell apart. “I was devastated,” she said. “I would sit on my farm and I wouldn’t come to town for six weeks, and then I’d slink into town to buy groceries and slink back out. Or I would just go to a grocery store 40 miles away so I didn’t have to talk to anyone in Trego County. I quit the Democratic Party. I quit political activism. I quit everything.”

A decade later, Stenzel is still struggling. She gets spotty freelance work. She is the last of her cousins left on a farm, which she might be forced to sell. She is in a new relationship but will still drive three-plus hours to Wichita for Pride weekend, to feel less alone. She says she loves the land and her ties to it, but that western Kansans are not her people anymore.

“Talk to me about gay marriage and religious dogma,” Stenzel said, as she leaned against her doorstep. “It was a generation ago that Lutherans and Catholics didn’t intermarry. And it was a very big deal what religion their kids would be if they did. You’ve got all this religious dogma here and the descendants of that culture have heard the world would end if they intermarried. I wonder in a generation if people will say, ‘Really, gays weren’t allowed to marry?’”

Stephanie Mott

More than 200 miles east of Wakeeny sits Topeka, the sprawling state capital where skyscrapers tower over the commercial and government center. As one drives into the city, passing malls filled with chain stores and franchise restaurants, it is easy to forget that much of the state’s political identity comes from an earlier era, when farming, family and faith were the anchors.

Social conservatives from both political parties still invoke nostalgia for a Kansas where people farmed, raised families and lived by the Bible. The view that LGBT relationships are sinful comes from clergy and believers who are drawn more to the Old Testament’s fire and brimstone than to the New Testament’s spiritual renewal. The state’s best-known example of an anti-LGBT ministry is the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church. Pastors and parishioners from the church protested at gay-themed events long before it became known nationally for interrupting the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kansas politics is filled with conservatives who only are slightly less extreme than the Westboro clan, such as top legislators promoting bills in 2014 to criminalize surrogate parenting, because it is seen as bringing children to LGBT couples; or proposing that women who miscarry must register with the state, under the guise of stopping abortion. After the same-sex marriage ban passed in 2005, the LGBT community began organizing and lobbying. For the past half-dozen years, Kansas politics on LGBT issues have been deadlocked. Right-wingers cannot pass their bills, and the LGBT community cannot pass its bills protecting gay rights or ending unequal treatment under state law.

But this stalemate hasn’t stopped LGBT activists from being visible in other ways. In September, Topeka held its first Pride weekend, drawing 2,000 people when organizers expected 300. Like many of the state’s cities and university towns, there are ministries that welcome LGBT Kansans and gay-straight student alliances in the public high schools. It was here, not in the Statehouse’s ornate chambers where Stephanie Mott, a transgender women in her mid-50s and the Kansas Equality Coalition’s past president, decided to confront the religious roots of discrimination.

“I found a church where I could be who I was and it opened up doors for me that had always been closed,” said Mott, whose soft voice belies a steeliness. “It was the Metropolitan Community Church here in Topeka. One of the ladies there asked me to go speak at a local gay-straight alliance. I said okay and I did. I was really nervous….but afterwards, this 17-year-old transgender girl came up and gave me a hug and said, ‘Oh, my God, you changed my life.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, no, you just changed my life, because I didn’t realize that everything I had gone through had been preparing me to be able to do something like this.”

As a leader for Kansas Equality, Mott had spoken to educators, school nurses and police about LGBT youths and their struggles. But she had not taken that talk, with her life story as a starting point, into conservative churches. “My journey is a faith journey because I was seperated from God for a very long time,” Mott said. “As I’ve discovered that I could be who I am and have a relationship with God, my faith has grown tremendously. I have this relationship with God that I never knew I could have, which is a source of energy for me being able to accomplish stuff that I might not otherwise be able to do.”

This phase of Mott’s advocacy began after a Baptist preacher in Seneca, a town 75 miles north of Topeka, gave a sermon saying that government should execute gays. “He said they wouldn’t, but they should,” she said. “I went to Seneca and I did a public library presentation. The Seneca newspaper asked me, ‘Why are you coming?’ I said I wanted them to hear a different message. I wanted them to hear a message of hope because that’s a very dark message that you are unacceptable to the Creator.”

Mott said that she has been “compared to the most horrible things on the planet” in public hearings. “I guess it comes down to, do I want to respond to that or do I want to be effective at creating change?” Her conclusion is “the Transgender Faith Tour…where I am going to different religious institutions, faith institutions, and sharing my journey of faith.” She has spoken to Unitarian Universalists, Baptists, Catholics and Methodists in Kansas, and this month held events in Norman and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Mott says she starts by telling her story before turning to the Old and New Testaments. “The very first thing I remember knowing about myself is that, on the inside, I was like my sisters. On the outside, I was like my brothers,” she said. “The second thing I remember knowing about myself was therefore, that meant that I couldn’t talk to anybody about it; that there was something dreadfully wrong with me that I couldn’t be who I was. This is [when I was] a six- or seven-year-old.”

“I just go through and start telling what it was like to grow up with this chain I carried around for a long time,” she continued. “I got involved with alcoholism and spent a long time, 30 years of my life, abusively using alcohol to hide from my reality. I share that. Then I talk about finding a church where I could be me. Finding a way to have a relationship with God. Then seeing my life come back into focus, and being able to do what I hope is God’s will in the community; which is to feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, and take care of the oppressed and the marginalized.”

Mott said it is hard to underestimate the psychological damage and undermining of a person’s potential that comes when they are on the receiving end of negative stereotypes and constant reminders of second-class status. In a deeply religious state like Kansas, where there are so many ministries with differing interpretations of scripture, Mott said it was crucial to challenge the religiously observant to open their hearts.

“Three years ago, the idea of me talking to a Sunday school class in the Baptist Church, I wouldn’t have even dreamed of it,” she said. “Today, I walk out of that church thinking I’m going to give a sermon here one day.”

Ryon Carey

Today, the faultline that separates western Kansas’ cradle-to-grave Republicans from easterners who will vote for Democrats literally runs through Ryon Carey’s 40-acre farm at the end of Main Street in Lindsborg, a town founded by Swedish immigrants after the Civil War. Carey is a muscle-bound man who grew up on a farm 25 miles away. He went to Bethany College, a private Lutheran school in town, and returned home, only to become frustrated as his community withered. He ended up buying 40 acres and literally moving his woodframe house there (there were no buyers) after putting in a new foundation. Carey wears many hats: he is a chicken breeder; he chairs the Kansas Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus; and he works as a campaign consultant to elect Democrats who will embrace LGBT issues, when many will not.

Carey knew he was gay as a teenager, but, “I was busy enough on the farm and had enough things going on that I just didn’t worry about it.” By age 30, he said he didn’t care what anybody thought about him. “I just do my thing and I really don’t care what people think….There’s a lot more [gay] farmers than you would ever think, too.”

One of Carey’s political consulting partners is Tom Witt, the brash Kansas Equality Coalition director, who, among other things, has been working to get cities that are near tipping points on supporting LGBT issues to add sexuality and gender protections into local anti-discrimination laws. The coalition has waged four tough campaigns and only one anti-discrimination ordinance—in Roeland Park, a Kansas City suburb—remains on the books. Social conservatives repealed or blocked the others. Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, has the state’s only other local LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance, adopted years ago.

“The biggest obstacle to passing non-discrimination ordinances is frankly that there isn’t a lot of overt discrimination,” Carey said, sitting at a table under a peeling antique ceiling and surrounded by oil paintings by local artists. “There are so few people who will tell someone you’re fired because you’re gay. There are so few landlords who won’t rent to people because they are gay. They are never going to tell you that.”

Deliberate silence is a predictable part of rural and small state politics, where everybody quickly knows everybody else and their stances. That silence can be a wall, or even a cancer, Carey said, that resists change. “Small towns in Kansas are dying because of their intolerance and it’s not just about gay rights. I like to describe small towns as a pot of water that’s been left on the stove on low boil. Eventually the water is gone.”

That resistence can also be found in Democratic Party circles, Carey said, where, for example, House Democratic leaders did not wage a fight earlier this year when right-wing Republicans brought and passed a “religious liberty” bill. That bill, which died in the Senate but is expected to be revived in 2015, would allow any government or private employee to refuse service to a person, such as an LGBT individual. “They were corralled by leadership not to” oppose it, Carey said.

Like other LGBT activists, Carey has found a way to speak out that fits his personality, which, in his case, is trying to remake the state Democratic Party from the inside out. The party “basically doesn’t exist west of Highway 81, which is Lindborg’s Main Street,” he said, and is “scared to death of social issues.” His response, working with Witt and Chris Reeves—who is straight but was nearly killed in a knife attack in 1995 at Kansas State University in Manhattan, where his assailants later told a judge they thought he was gay—is to try to elect Democrats who will show some backbone, including on LGBT issues.

“There are districts in Kansas where you can be pro-gay rights and pro-choice and still win,” Carey said. “We have candidates who are pretty good but don’t know how to run a campaign.”

Carey's team is now working with four Democrats running for the Kansas House of Representatives and one Democrat running for Congress. In the U.S. House race, their candidate,  Jim Sherow,a history professor and the former mayor of Manhattan, has already had an outsized impact. Sherow, who was Reeves’ professor when he was nearly killed in that hate crime, later helped to pass that city’s LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance—which right-wingers overturned. This August, at their urging, Sherow surprised the state Democratic Party establishment by not endorsing its U.S. Senate candidate, Chad Taylor. LGBT and women’s groups said they could not back Taylor, who, as prosecutor for the county containing Topeka, refused to pursue domestic violence cases because of a budget spat with the city. That helped to push Taylor out of the race, boosting independent Greg Orman, whose upstart candidacy is considered key to which party will control the U.S. Senate.

But Ryon Carey’s crew is hoping to do more than remind Democrats that there are consequences for willful inaction. Even if Paul Davis, the House Democratic leader running for governor who is tied in polls with Brownback, wins this fall, Democrats need five more seats to stop Republicans from overriding gubernatorial vetos. Carey said his candidates, such as Democrat Von Peterson, running in the Kansas House district in nearby McPherson County, are running competitive races.

“We have a chance,” he said. “And if we don’t win, we’ll get into the 40s [percent-wise], which is something that has never happened before….That’s the reason why Tom and I and Chris are working on campaigns, because these candidates are pro-choice and pro-LGBT. If they win, we’ve changed minds.”

Michael Nelson and Charles Dedmon

Back at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Michael Nelson turned to the room packed with more than 50 students from various campus LGBT groups. The Unitarian Universalist minister described how he had met his husband, Charles, almost 40 years ago, when both were KU students. That was followed by a decade of turbulence, he said. The two didn’t know what to do about their attraction to each other after they graduated.

“Charles, being the analytical one, decided that he could not be gay,” Nelson said, saying that Dedmon went to law school and he left Kansas for San Francisco. “I did my very, very best to forget him, to absolutely try to eradicate him from my heart, and I found that was impossible to do,” Nelson said. “No matter how many people I thought I might be in love with, it never touched the depths of experience and that profound place where everything comes together, and you know yourself as a real and vital human being, in a way that you haven’t known before….You don’t walk away from that.”

Nelson said both of them lived through “a decade of torture.” Dedmon got married to a woman and Nelson was his best man. He graduated from law school and passed Kansas’ bar exam, which he could not have done if it was known that he was gay. Lawyers must pass a moral fitness review to get their license, and Kansas had, and still has, criminal sodomy laws, which meant Dedmon could not swear he was not engaging in illegal activity.

By the mid-'80s, Dedmon gave up on his marriage. He and Nelson reunited and moved to Oklahoma City, where Nelson had gone after graduating from seminary. There, supposedly progressive church leaders and social workers told him to hide their relationship or give it up. The pair came back to Lawrence, where Nelson opened the city’s only LGBT bookstore. Dedmon, meanwhile, became a top public defender in the federal court system, until a freak accident in which he was disabled in a lightning strike. Both of their families came around to accepting them, after some skipped their wedding or others wouldn’t display photos of them in their homes.

Nelson and Dedmon told the students their intensely personal story because they wanted them to know that they too are deserving of equal and dignified treatment. Nelson asked how many students had come out to their parents and half raised their hands —which would have been inconceivable when he was at KU. Then he turned the podium over to the quieter Dedmon, who began by describing how deeply interwoven their lives are: buying cars and a home, combining finances, taking turns being the breadwinner.

“If you think about it, what is a household?” Dedmon asked. “All of the decisions get so inextricably entwined that you are in a marital relationship. That’s what it is. It doesn’t make any difference what someone else really calls it—unless they make sure it makes a difference. And so, that’s what all this [fight for equality] is all about.”

Dedmon said there was one story that propelled him to put his name on the lawsuit in Kansas courts to challenge the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and other state laws that treat LGBT people unequally. Several years ago, a gay couple who were married in New York moved back to Alabama, when one of the men had a very bad car accident.

“The other man went to the hospital and tried to find out how he was doing—and they wouldn’t let him,” Dedmon said. “He said, ‘Look, we have the documents right here. We have medical power of attorney. I need to know.’ And they said, ‘Sorry, this is Alabama, and we don’t recognize gay marriages in Alabama.’ He tried. He tried. He tried. And finally when the rest of the family came, which did not like the relationship, they said, ‘Okay, you can see him.’ So he’s walking down a corridor and he asks a nurse, ‘How’s he doing?’ and she says, ‘He’s dead.’”

Dedmon paused and looked at the students. “These are the kinds of things that can happen if a relationship isn’t recognized,” he said. He then referred to the legacy of similarly discriminatory policies and laws that remain on the books in Kansas.

“There’s no way to come back from that. No way. There’s no way for that ever to be made right,” he said. “To be made right requires us, who aren’t in that situation, to file a lawsuit before there is harm. Not after there’s harm. Before. Because there’s so many areas which federal law does not reach.”

This story was supported by the American Independent Institute.

By Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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