Korbin Painter (he/him/his) is an M.A. candidate in the History Department at the University of Iowa. He was born and raised in Kansas and he is an alumnus of the University of Kansas. His research interests include LGBT history of the United States and Germany, focused on LGBT politics, social movements, and the history of emotions. Korbin can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Kansas, before the election of Governor Laura Kelly, there were no laws on the books at the state-level to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination in employment, housing, and adoption. However, individual cities such as Lawrence, Topeka, and Kansas City have enacted such laws. In 2007, during her service as Governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius issued an executive order protecting state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, in 2015, former Governor Sam Brownback revoked this order. In fact, during Brownback’s tenure, there had been many attempts by the Kansas state legislature to restrict the civil rights and protections of LGBT people in both the public and private sectors. Former interim Governor Jeff Colyer signed a law in May of 2018, which allowed adoption agencies in Kansas to refuse to place a child with LGBT couples on “religious or moral objection” (Polaski).
It is clear that many Kansas leaders do not support LGBT Kansans. In at least the last decade, many Republican legislators have not only refused to support or enact legislation that protects LGBT people and their families, but they have also championed discriminatory and harmful legislation that threatens the lives and livelihoods of LGBT Kansans (Mallory and Sears). The elections of democratic Governor Laura Kelly and democratic Representative Sharice Davids signify the resilience and efforts of LGBT Kansans and serve as reminders of Kansas values and spirit. As we move into Pride Month, I am reminded of the radical history of LGBT people in Kansas.
Often, people who live in “blue states” and large coastal cities are quick to dismiss Kansas as merely “fly-over” country, characterizing Kansans as “backward” and deeply conservative. Without dismissing the patterns in Kansas electoral politics, this perception and characterization is unfair, inaccurate, and obscures the lives and history of LGBT Kansans, who have been active in fighting for their civil rights and protections for decades.
One example from LGBT Kansas history takes us not to Lawrence or Kansas City, often characterized as liberal hubs in the “red state”, but to the city of Wichita. Wichita, Kansas is perhaps best known as the home of airplane manufacturing, McConnell Airforce base, and the BTK killer. It may be surprising to some that Wichita holds an important place in LGBT history in the United States. In fact, the designer and creator of the iconic rainbow pride flag, Gilbert Baker, was born and raised in Wichita.
In May of 1978, Washington Post reporter Bill Curry visited Wichita to report on a major political battle over a gay rights ordinance passed in September of 1977, which would protect Wichitans from employment and housing discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. While Curry was in Wichita, he observed the anti-gay slogan “From Cowtown to Gaytown” littering car bumpers across the city. Wichita is known as “Cowtown” because, in the 1860s and 1870s, the Chisolm Trail, the Southwest Railroad, and the Santa Fe Railway ran through the newly established city of Wichita. Wichita thus became a major center of commerce and trade, as well as a railhead for cattle drives from Texas. The bumper sticker indeed represented some Wichitans’ homophobic fears about an encroaching degenerate sexual minority who “cannot reproduce so they have to recruit” (Curry).
In the 1970s, there were a large number of gay and lesbian people and organizations in Wichita. Gay and lesbian Wichitans lived and worked, attended Church, and frequented bars and other community gatherings around the city. One of the early gay rights groups in Wichita was called the Homophile Association of Sedgwick County (HASC). In 1977, the HASC took a proposal for a city ordinance to the Wichita City Commission and Mayor Connie Peters. Wichita City Ordinance No. 35-242 would prohibit housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the city of Wichita. Gay and lesbian leaders Bruce McKinney, Pat Kaslo, and Robert Lewis led the fight. “Kansans are conservative, but they’re not bigots, not all of them,” one woman told Curry, “if they were, we wouldn’t be voting on a referendum” (Curry).
Soon after the ordinance was passed by the Wichita City Commission in a 3-2 vote, Anita Bryant – celebrity, anti-Gay crusader, and spokeswoman of Florida Oranges – mobilized in Wichita. Bryant and her organization, “Save Our Children”, had just won a fight to repeal a similar gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Bryant and “Save Our Children” began recruiting many Wichita pastors, like Ron Adrian, and campaigned to put a stop to homosexuality in the heartland. “The whole strategy of homosexuals,” commented Adrian “is to get homosexuality recognized as a normal lifestyle and an accepted lifestyle – and they’re getting a lot of publicity, that’s for sure” (Curry).
A fierce battle played out among Wichitans as the city commission voted to hold a referendum for the gay rights ordinance. In this particular historical moment, Wichita, Kansas became the battleground in the United States over sex, deviance, civil rights, and religious liberty. However, on May 9th of 1978, the ordinance was repealed. Gay Wichitans became the subjects of sensational news coverage across the country. In fact, the night of the repeal, the gay residents of San Francisco’s Castro Street marched on Union Square, chanting, “Wichita means fight back.”
As a gay man, born and raised in the small town of Augusta, Kansas, I was filled with excitement on election night in 2018 as I watched the results come in. Representative Sharice Davids became the first openly lesbian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is openly lesbian but serves in the Senate). Alongside Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Davids was also among the first Native American women to be elected to the House. In the Kansas State Legislature, Representatives Susan Ruiz and Brandon Woodard were elected as the first LGBT state legislators in Kansas history. Laura Kelly’s election to the governorship of Kansas was significant as she expressed support for the LGBT community and has a voting record in favor of LGBT rights. One of Kelly’s first moves in January as Governor was to reinstate former Governor Sibelius’s executive order and restore state-level protections for LGBT state-workers (Shorman). On election night, I felt an immense swell of pride and hope that Kansas leaders may soon recognize the dignity of LGBT Kansans and move to provide us with civil rights and protections.
As we celebrate Pride month on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it is critical now, more than ever, that we remember gay and lesbian radical liberation politics in the 1970s. When we do this, we discover that these stories extend far beyond the “Gay Meccas” of New York City and San Francisco. These stories remind us that LGBT people, love, and resistance are everywhere; even in Wichita, Kansas.
Cover photo comes from the @KansasDems twitter and can be found here, https://twitter.com/KansasDems/status/1134814393101893632
Two brilliant and thoughtful works on LGBT activism in Kansas are Beth Bailey’s Sex in the Heartland (1999) and C.J. Janovy’s No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas (2018).
Equality Kansas, https://eqks.org
Wichita Pride, http://www.wichitapride.org
Curry, Bill. “Wichita Gay Rights Vote Today.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 May 1978. www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1978/05/09/wichita-gay-rights-vote-today/9471d460-49de-4f80-9f59-ba06b6e0bd6b/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee33b7742d0f.
Gilchrist, Tracy E. “Kansas Governor-Elect Laura Kelly Moves to Protect LGBTQ People.” Advocate, Advocate.com, 9 Nov. 2018. www.advocate.com/politics/2018/11/08/kansas-governor-elect-laura-kelly-moves-protect-lgbtq-people?amp&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=politics&__twitter_impression=true.
Mallory, Christy and Brad Sears, “Discrimination against LGBT People in Kansas” UCLA School of Law, William’s Institute, January 2019. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Kansas-ND-Report-January-2019.pdf
Polaski, Adam. “Kansas Governor Signs Dangerous Anti-LGBTQ Child Welfare Bill, Latest in Disturbing Trend.” Freedom for All Americans, 18 May 2018. www.freedomforallamericans.org/kansas-governor-jeff-colyer-signs-dangerous-anti-lgbtq-child-welfare-bill-latest-in-disturbing-trend/.
Shorman, Jonathan. “Kelly reinstates protections for LGBT state workers in Kansas eliminated by Brownback” The Wichita Eagle, 15 Jan. 2019. https://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article224559230.html