Transgender veterans build community in Kansas

Activists Brenda Way and Elle Boatman survived the worst. Now they're making a difference for others

Published September 20, 2017 6:00PM (EDT)

Activist Brenda Way (LaRissa Lawrie)
Activist Brenda Way (LaRissa Lawrie)

This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

Young American

Wichita, Kansas may not seem like a city that hosts pride parades complete with rainbow flags, balloons and banners. Kansas is traditionally known for its conservatism, not for people working on advancing lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender rights. But activists Brenda Way and Elle Boatman are working on challenging those notions, one resource at a time.

Brenda Way is in her fifties and moved to Wichita Kansas in 2005 to help a family member run a restaurant. Way is a green-eyed blonde who’s fond of wearing pink polka dot sunglasses. Her friends describe her as bubbly — a mother to them. Way’s fellow activist, Elle Boatman, is also her roommate. Boatman is a brunette in her thirties and stands several inches taller than Way. Boatman’s known among friends and acquaintances for a distinct humor and being genuinely funny. 

The two women met during difficult times in both of their lives and bonded over their joint experiences. Way has dealt with three failed marriages, while Boatman’s spouse asked for a divorce over the phone on her birthday.

Each woman has experienced the horror of homelessness and trouble finding housing. Both have also battled depression and survived suicide ideation and attempts. 

But, before they found themselves on south-central Kansas streets, both of them have experienced battlefields before. Way was a Quartermaster in the Army for four years during the Granada conflict in the early 1980s.

Way said that she was court martialed and discharged for homosexual activity after being raped and left for dead by a fellow soldier.

Boatman, a Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force who served in Kuwait and Japan, also experienced trying times while in the military. She battled depression and alcoholism before being discharged after her 10-year career.

“Joining the military was an opportunity for me to try to prove to myself and everybody else that I could be a successful man,” Boatman said.

It was not until later in life that something became clear for both of them. They both made the decision to start being themselves.

For Way that meant finding the right vocabulary to verbalize how she had always felt.

“I always felt like a lesbian stuck inside a man,” Way said. “Growing up, I didn’t know what ‘trans’ was — my father was a minister and I grew up in an era when that sort of thing didn’t get talked about. We didn’t have the vocabulary to do so.”

The realization that they were transgender was a difficult journey for both women.

In July, Boatman wrote in a viral Facebook post that “[Transitioning] cost me everything. It cost my family. It cost my career. It still threatens to cost my life in routine ways every day.”

Each woman went through transitioning and learning about the transgender community on her own.

“When I went to transition, it wasn’t like I wanted to transition in Wichita. But I couldn’t afford to move and I couldn’t afford to not transition.” said Boatman. “It was incredibly difficult to find resources. I found a therapist who would treat me by googling and seeing a footnote in an article online. She was the only resource that I had.”

Meanwhile, Way remembers that after her transition,“As happy as I was that I was Brenda, I got depressed because I had no friends. I made a noose and was ready to step off the toolbox I was standing on when I heard my computer ping. I decided to see what the message said and stepped down. It was someone who wanted to meet me on Monday. Suddenly I had something to do; I had to wait. That kept me alive that weekend.” 

The near suicide gave Way a purpose. She has made it her goal to make sure that transgender individuals in Wichita have a meeting to look forward to, by creating a community that didn’t exist yet, and she asked Boatman to help.

In April of 2015, they founded Wichita Transgender and Community Network (WiTCoN), an organization that provides social, legal, medical, educational and transitional support for the local transgender community. Way and Boatman say that the aim is to create a loving network, because many transgender individuals lose friends and family when they come out.

Since the inception of WiTCoN, both women have been outspoken about educating the greater community about what it’s like to be transgender and advocating for transgender rights.

Boatman’s work, in particular, has had a significant impact on Debbie Ojeda-Leitner, a doctoral student studying community psychology at Wichita State.

“It is not easy, especially in a state like Kansas, to be out and open about your gender identity. It is a dangerous place to be when you are an open trans activist, especially in a state where transgender rights are not protected,” Ojeda-Leitner said. “Elle’s work has impacted me tremendously. I am a social scientist, and a lot of the research that I do involves LGBT health equity, and she’s been a strong role in my understanding of gender identity.”

Their advocacy has resulted in progress, but the journey has not been easy.

Way can no longer compete in disc golf tournaments since transitioning, a hobby she spent years perfecting.

Boatman was a victim of doxing in July. Someone publicly posted in a Facebook comment where she worked, after she spoke out against the proposed ban on transgender individuals in the military.

“My gender identity seems to take precedence over my status as a veteran or anything else, and it can be incredibly frustrating,” Boatman said.

Way believes that the struggle has been worth it and that education and support are the best ways to move forward as a society. The sentiment is shared by Jackie Carter, the Senior Pastor at Metropolitan Community Church in Wichita that works closely with WiTCoN.

"The bigots and the people who hate are afraid of something they do not understand; once you bring it out and humanize it, it becomes more difficult to hate. Once people begin to see the person, it’s much more difficult to hate. And Brenda is so good at telling her story and accomplishing that," Carter said.

The ultimate goal of WiTCoN is to expand into a larger community center that is open to everyone regardless of race, nationality, gender identity and sexuality. Their vision is of a community center that serves as a unifier of the LGBT+ community and the rest of Wichita.

“I’m so thankful to have discovered my purpose and that I’m not alone anymore,” Way said. “I just want the people that use WiTCoN to know that I’m here to help save their lives, but they all have helped save my life. They all matter to me.”

By LaRissa Lawrie

LaRissa Lawrie is a photojournalist and writer for Salon’s Young Americans. She decided to pursue this fellowship to showcase Kansas as a community rooted in connection and empathy. LaRissa graduated from Wichita State in May of 2017 with a B.A. in Strategic Communication and will return to pursue a Master of Arts in Communication this fall. LaRissa is a lifestyle photographer and co-owner of Modberry Market. She is also a University Innovation Fellow with the Stanford Design School.

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