Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Hannah is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee and women in higher education administration in the south during the 19th century. 

When first introduced to Women’s Studies in college, I initially gravitated toward studying the educational discrepancies I noticed in my high school regarding sex education. Growing up in a relatively small town in the Bible Belt south, I can assure you, there were several. I look back at the startled young woman, realizing for the first time, that her Physical Education and Health classes were nothing more than half facts and shame tactics, and I’m thankful that my college professors were encouraging that I explore that missing part of my education more. In this post, I’ll be looking at state sex education laws, the heteronormativity of the curriculum, and some long term effects of skewed facts and questions left unanswered. 

In my freshmen year college dorm room, I found myself talking with my peers about our experiences with sex education. Students from northern states quickly realized that their experiences were vastly different from those of southern states. Those of us from Kentucky thought we might have similar experiences if we went to public schools, but we found that was not the case. According to federal law, states are allowed to determine their sex education curriculum. Broadly, states’ choices range from one of three mandate options: “sex education,” “HIV education,” and “sex education and HIV education.” Within that’s collection of options, states are allowed to push abstinence only education.  Looking at the map below, you can see which states ascribe to which educational theory. Notice a pattern? 

https://infographic.statista.com/normal/chartoftheday_18825_state_laws_sex_ed_in_the_us_n.jpg

Yep, that’s right, a lot of southern states coming in strong on that abstinence only curriculum. Digging even deeper, we find that several states, Kentucky included, allow for each county or school district to decide the sex education curriculum. In some states, the Superintendent of a school district can decide what the curriculum will include. In others, site based councils (which often include parent membership) decide what is taught. That kind of power in the hands of few, with varying agendas, leads to inconsistencies in educational outcomes. 

As you may have noticed earlier, when I listed the main types of routes for sex education curriculum, they are all based to some degree in the assumption that sex happens between a cisgender male and cisgender female. The phrasing of abstinence only and other aspects of sex education are extremely heteronormative. That is to say that, in most teacher’s curriculum, straight and monogamous relationships are set as the norm. With that comes strong and harmful gender norms that pigeonhole young people. One study even found that the curriculum taught in several schools, because it plugs heteronormative relationships so strongly, promoted homophobia. 

When we look at the sex education system in the US, there are several long term effects. Mentioned above, one ends up being a complete intolerance for people in relationships that are non heteronormative. Another is a higher rate of teen pregnancy and STIs in states that lack more comprehensive and medically accurate sex education. Another is a friend from college not knowing that the urethra and vagina are two different holes. The system is flawed and it leads to unhealthy relationships with others and our own bodies. If you get nothing else from this piece, look at this website to see what your state says about sex education. If you can reach out to your local school board and ask what the curriculum is and find out if it is medically accurate. Work with parents and site boards to create more inclusive and comprehensive sex education. 

Sources: 

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1363460713497216?journalCode=sexa

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.statista.com/chart/amp/18825/state-laws-sex-ed-in-the-us/

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.statista.com/chart/amp/18825/state-laws-sex-ed-in-the-us/

https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/SIECUS-SP-FY17-State-Law-and-Policy-Chart.pdf

Being Gay for Halloween

Written by Sidney Wegener

Sidney is a first year MA candidate studying Women’s and Gender History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920’s to the 1930’s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

Halloween, 2014, I was a senior in high school. At this point in time, I was already out of the closet; not necessarily by choice, but rather because some kid named Alex stole my phone in AP Environmental Science at the end of my sophomore year and read my text messages with my girlfriend at the time. He spread the news to just about everyone and by the end of the day the entireschool knew: I was a lesbian. My first high school did not find this amusing; my teachers found it intolerable, my coaches found it unathletic, and my “friends” found it shameful. Thankfully, I was able to transfer to a different high school a few towns over, and at this one, it seemed okay to be gay. I brought my girlfriend to homecoming, prom, and one of my basketball teammates, Sarah, was also a lesbian. I was no longer trapped in a nightmare of an institution, populated by a tiny town known for generation after generation settling back down in the same community. Everybody’s grandparents knew everybody’s grandparents, and everybody’s business was everybody’s entertainment. So by the time I was a senior at my second high school, I remember thinking to myself, “wow, this is what it’s like to be free, to be myself”. Looking back now, I laugh at how I felt so freely lesbian that I made myself into a costume. 

In 2014, Halloween was the Friday of Homecoming week. So, naturally, the students, teachers, and administration all wore their costumes for the last spirit day. Sarah and I coordinated our costumes. We both wore lab coats with large name tags reading: “Scientist for Straight Girls Wanting to Experiment”. Walking around campus, I remember thinking to myself how many of my female identified classmates were sporting costumes which seemed, to me at least, pretty sexy for walking from class to class. My second high school was a lot more lenient on the rules, and it showed during spirit week. However, that did not stop an administrative member from intervening in my stroll to chemistry. Despite my lab coat attire being quite fitting for a science class in which we wore protective eye gear, my name tag was inappropriate. When I met up with Sarah before basketball practice, she had also changed her costume and by the end of the day we were both just regular scientists. 

Now, I contemplate what it means to wear a “costume” and where the boundaries lie in terms of what is “appropriate.” I mean, how is it that Kaylee got to walk around in a see through Tinkerbell costume, and my pun on my own sexuality was “distracting”? If it was not a school spirit day designated for wearing a costume I wouldn’t have even been breaking the dress code. In a holiday themed effort to express myself, part of me realized that being gay was not something I could wear, unless it went without being said. Apparently, I was “promoting” homosexuality. Kaylee’s costume didn’t have a label on it reading “sexy, hyper-feminized Disney character”, whereas my costume’s meaning rested solely on a nametag, categorizing what kind of “scientist” I intended to be perceived as. Furthermore, Kaylee was not a Tinkerbell-identified human, while I was (and still am) a raging lesbian. So what is the difference for a high school, that allows everyone to wear costumes, between my “Scientist for Straight Girls Wanting to Experiment” lab coat and Kaylee’s “sexy seventeen year old girl take on Tinkerbell” costume? From where I stand today, it seems that dressing in a sexy costume as a seventeen year old girl in high school is okay, so long as it silently complies to a straight, male gaze. A lab coat, jeans, and a t-shirt are also fine-  until you label the outfit as a costume. Well, a lesbian costume.

Jennifer’s Body (2009): Sexuality and Social Relevance in Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama’s Cult Classic Horror Film

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year graduate student studying Women’s and Gender History at Sarah Lawrence College. Her interests include LGBT+ History, Media and Film Studies, and the use of music and movements.

This post contains spoilers for Jennifer’s Body (2009)

    Ten years ago, in the Fall of 2009, I was thirteen years old. I was hanging out at the mall, waiting for the moment that I could enter the movie theatre and see the film I’d been obsessing over for the entirety of the summer – Jennifer’s Body. Surrounded by fellow mallrats, I was wearing the “I Eat Boys” shirt I purchased from Hot Topic, and a messenger bag filled with dollar store candy. I was ready. As we all know, the film didn’t quite garner the success it deserved upon release. Now, ten years later, Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama are finally receiving praise for creating a brutally honest depiction of bisexuality and what it means to be a woman growing up in a patriarchal society. 

    The film follows best friends Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) as they face the hell that being a teenage girl is, figuratively and literally. Friends since the days of sandboxes and playing house, the two exhibit a bond that cannot be broken by high school popularity and even demonic possession. Jennifer plays the beautiful cheerleader, and Needy, the unpopular and awkward teen. In the first moments of the film, the audience finds Jennifer begging Needy to attend a concert for indie band Low Shoulder. The scene quickly escalates, and ends with the two escaping a music hall engulfed in flames. Once they’ve made it out, the band offers to take the two to safety. Needy begs Jennifer not to go with them. Ignoring her best friend’s pleas, she enters the sinister van.

The next time we see Jennifer is in the van. Now that they have her alone, the lead singer asks if she is a virgin, to which she responds “yes” with the hopes that having little to no sexual experience will save her from the unknown. What she doesn’t expect, but becomes swiftly informed of, is that they need a virginal body to sacrifice to the devil in exchange for fame. As she begs and pleads with them not to kill her, the men begin to sing Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” in a taunting manner as they slash and stab her. What they don’t know is that Jennifer Check is no virgin. The sacrifice that they enacted results in the demonic possession of her body. 

This scene is disturbing to say the least, but it is also familiar. Not in the sense that being a literal blood sacrifice is common, but her total loss of control and bodily autonomy at the hands of men that wish to grow into a place of power feels all too familiar. The sacrifice of Jennifer speaks to personal and publicized stories of assault by the hands of privileged white men that hold high positions of power politically and socially – for example, the case of Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh. Cody presented her audience with a story that begins with trauma, is fueled by heartbreak, and ends with revenge wrapped up in demonic possession and teen drama. 

In recent years, many have come to realize that the film was well ahead of its time on social commentary, and its rise in popularity has sustained a steady increase since 2017. Fans of the film have marked it as a symbol of bisexuality, featuring lesbian overtones between Jennifer and Needy. The film itself is a larger statement on women’s sexuality, but the relationship between the two friends is a love story and it permeates throughout the entire film. When we first enter the film, we see them looking at each other with complete adoration as the lyrics for I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You by the band Black Kids plays in the background – “You are the girl, that I’ve been dreaming of / Ever since I was a little girl.”  The love between Jennifer and Needy isn’t simply sandbox love, and Cody never intended it to be read as just that either. 

Cody’s film starts, climaxes, and ends with the two women as the primary focus. Kusama and Cody created a unique and honest depiction of a lesbian relationship; one filled with longing, resentment, joy, and love. It’s one that we don’t see in mainstream films that identify as marketed towards an LGBT+ audience. Despite this, Jennifer’s Body was unable to escape the male gaze and poorly executed marketing team that manipulated the trailers to appease an audience of teenage boys. Back when I was thirteen and walked into the theatre, most audience members were indeed men. I remember hearing my classmates talk about how incredibly hot the “girls kissing on the bed” scene was and how Megan Fox was the epitome of sex. To this day, I get a little aggravated by these remarks when I look back on it. It’s so obvious that the director and screenwriter did not want this to be the takeaway.

Jennifer’s Body is a movie about a teenage girl that was brutally taken advantage of by men for their benefit. It follows the relationship of two friends that are actually deeply in love with one another. The ending showcases the revenge that Jennifer wanted and the love that Needy felt for her, even when she killed Chip. I refuse to spoil the ending for any of you, so what I will do is suggest that once you finish reading this post, go online and rent the film, watch for the details, and appreciate what Cody and Kusama gave to their audience in 2009; how deeply it reflects what we see today in politics, society, and culture and how important it is for teenagers to see accurate depictions of bisexuality to combat against its erasure.

Liberation in Women’s Healthcare

Written by Alison Feese
Alison is a student working to become a Certified Nurse Midwife. She is a birth doula and advocate for women’s health. She is from Columbia, Kentucky and provides services across Central Kentucky.

Liberation is the act of setting something free from imprisonment or oppression. Whether it is our mind, body, or soul, we are often not aware of the imprisonment we are trapped in. Modern women are in a system that teaches us to fear our body, to not trust it, and that it is broken. These messages are sent from a variety of places. In 2019, we expect movies, advertisements, and social media to make us feel less than perfect; but what about our healthcare providers and hospitals? What happens when the very people we trust with our health doubt the ability and strength of our body? That is why I have chosen to go into midwifery. It is an art that trusts the mind, body, and soul of a woman as it is.

Midwifery is arguably the oldest profession. It has been around since people started procreating. Nobody knows when midwives appeared in history, mainly because they were always there. Where there was a birthing woman, you can bet that there was a midwife next to her. The term midwife literally means with-woman. They are primary care providers in women’s health specializing in the childbearing process. They care for women of all ages and even assist in newborn care. Midwifery is an art that blends science, tradition, and the trust of a woman’s body. 

As cheesy as it sounds, midwifery chose me. I couldn’t escape this career path. Midwifery in the United States was born just a few miles away from me in Eastern, KY where nurse midwives would ride horseback into the rough mountains to deliver care to the nation’s poorest and sickest. Appalachia was left medically isolated. These pioneers rode through snow and storm expecting to provide child birthing care, but ended up caring for the whole family. This care alone cut the infant and maternal mortality rate, and increased the quality of life for thousands without the expectation of payment. What an honor it is to place my hand in a profession that was built upon helping the poorest in my own backyard. Today, the United States is the only developed nation that has a RISING maternal mortality rate. We are also the only industrialized nation that does not use midwifery care as the standard practice. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disrespecting the wonderful OB/GYNs I will work next to. I am so thankful we have technology and physicians to provide life-saving surgery. Modern medicine is a fantastic thing when it is used appropriately. But something has to change in the United States. If trusting the art of midwifery will reduce these mortality rates, why aren’t we doing it?!

Midwifery core-competencies include things like assisting with breech deliveries, out of hospital births, and holistic treatments. However, these things are not commonly practiced in the United States. Midwives are taught to trust the female body, and allow it to work as designed. They use a hands-off approach. If something isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Problems happen when we use unnecessary interventions in healthcare and tell women that their bodies are not capable. This includes things like unnecessary cesarean sections, inductions, and augmentations of labor. These practices not only increase undesirable outcomes, but they make women question the ability of their bodies.  Midwifery is the ultimate liberation from the body-shaming world we are surrounded by. 

Midwives today play different roles in different states. Some provide childbirth care for women in and out of the hospital. Some work to provide abortion care. Some midwives assist with fertility within the LGBTQ communities. Many serve our amish communities in rural areas. They work with victims of sexual violence. Midwives fill different roles dependant upon their community’s needs, but they all have the same goal. To provide patient-centered care to the populations they serve. They trust the female body, and reject the idea that women are not capable. They stress the importance of informed consent and make women the most important member in the healthcare team. Midwifery care is counter-culture to the world around us. For instance, midwives do not deliver babies. They catch babies, and mothers deliver them. This profession is selfless and places the honor on the patient. Women are more than capable of making choices for themselves and their family. We run into problems when we tell them they can’t. Whatever a family chooses, midwives are there to support and educate them along the way.

Featured Photo: Frontier Nursing Service midwife makes postpartum visit, slide, c. 1930s. Nurse-Midwifery Program Records.

Transgender Incarceration and Kamala Harris

Written by B. Clark.

Clark is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Transgender visibility week serves as an important and influential time for transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex people across the world to come together through social media and community work to create an atmosphere of support and acceptance. It also creates a platform to address the challenges and systematic forms of discrimination that our communities face such as economic (in)security, access to reliable transitional health care, and mental health resources. One issue that has emerged at the intersection of these problems is the targeting of TGNCI communities for mass incarceration, prison violence, and police brutality.

Among the people tweeting support to TGNCI folks during this week was an unlikely supporter, former California State Attorney General and current 2020 presidential candidate, Kamala Harris. Harris began by tweeting a picture of a transgender pride flag with the caption: “This week, we’ve proudly added the transgender flag in front of my office. I want all transgender Americans to know that I see you, I’m with you, and I stand by you in the fight for equality. #TransVisibilityWeek” This was followed two days later with another tweet that stated, “Transgender people deserve to openly live life without fear. This Transgender Day of Visibility, let’s show dignity and respect to trans friends, family, and the community as a whole. #TransDayOfVisibility.”

While at face value these messages of support seem inspiring and a symbolic promise to politically uphold the rights of transgender people, Harris’s political track record tells a different story. In 2014 Harris’s office argued that supporting a program to parole more people who were currently incarcerated would drain the state’s source of cheap labor. This ensures that those who are incarcerated in California serve longer sentences in their facilities for the purpose of providing the government with unpaid labor. In 2015, Harris fought to stop a Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a trans woman in California’s prison system, from getting reassignment surgery. (1)

Also in 2015, Harris adamantly supported California’s criminalization of sex work. Harris’s office stated that this criminalization is necessary because “[p]rostitution is linked to the transmission of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases”; the state has an interest in “deterring the commodification of sex”; and “[p]rostitution creates a climate conducive to violence against women.” (2) Not only are these statements factually incorrect and contribute to the stigmatization of sex work, but they also disproportionately lead to the incarceration of transgender people. Many transgender people, and specifically transgender women, rely on sex work for survival because of their hyper-sexualization and discrimination in other sectors of employment. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 19 percent of all trans people, and 47 percent of black trans women, have engaged in sex work. Those who lost a job as a result of anti-transgender discrimination are three times more likely to engage in the sex-trade. (3)

Incarceration is an obstacle to transgender liberation. Lambda Legal reports that one in six transgender Americans have been incarcerated, while half of all black transgender Americans have been incarcerated. (4) Issues concerning transgender people who are incarcerated should concern all of us, because it a system of discrimination deployed through the policing of our communities.

While Harris’s tweets and messages of support could be interpreted as a sign that she has reformed her views and now prioritizes addressing the challenges that face transgender people, it is more likely that she is voicing her support for transgender people as a tool to gain political leverage by rallying support from progressive voters, most of whom are not transgender.

Kamala Harris’s moderate reputation and confidence in policing and the criminal justice system has already gained her criticism from progressive Democrats, the same faction of the Democratic Party that demonstrated its power in influencing elections through its support of the Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign in 2016. Transgender rights have emerged as a key topic of discussion surrounding social justice and progressiveness. By voicing a message of support for transgender people she is attempting to rally the support of progressive voters who are not transgender and may have no relationship to the problems facing transgender people. If elected into office, Harris’s political background as a state attorney suggests that she will likely continue to rely on the criminal justice system as a mechanism for targeting crime, which in turn will only reinforce incarceration rates for transgender people.

Kamala Harris’s support for the transgender community is nothing more than an empty promise that offers no material support to the hardships that we currently face.

Work Cited

  1. Beckett, Lois and Sam Levin. “Kamala Harris: Can a ‘top Cop’ Win over Progressives in 2020?” The Guardian. January 19, 2019. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/19/kamala-harris-2020-election-top-cop-prosecutor.
  2. Samudzi, Zoe. “Incarcerated Transgender Women’s Lives Must Matter.” The Appeal. January 28, 2019. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://theappeal.org/incarcerated-transgender-womens-lives-must-matter/.
  3. James, Sandy E., et al. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality, December 2016. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf.
  4. “Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis.” Lambda Legal. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/article/trans-incarcerated-people.

Marsha P. Johnson, the Revolutionary

Written by Nico Lueba Jones, a second year at Sarah Lawrence College.

Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 4, 1945 in Elizabeth, NJ. She self-identified as a street queen and “transvestite” at a time when the word transgender did not yet exist, but she always called herself a woman and used “she” pronouns. The P stands for “Pay It No Mind,” and that was her attitude much of the time, with her friends saying she had an exuberant personality and a penchant for optimism. She dressed in brightly colored outfits and cared deeply for the people in her community, often praying for them. She was so generous, some of her friends even called her “Saint Marsha.” She has gotten a lot of attention lately as one of the trans women of color that Pride has forgotten, and many credit her with being an instigator at the Stonewall riots in 1969. The truth is much fuzzier than that, with Johnson herself saying she didn’t arrive until the riot was already underway, and her close friend and partner in activism Silvia Rivera saying she was there when the riot started but did not instigate it. She is remembered as a prominent figure nonetheless. Regardless of her involvement in the Stonewall riots, what I think makes Marsha so amazing is all the activist work she did after the riot.

    After the Stonewall riots, Marsha P. Johnson continued to advocate for LGBT rights, participating in and organizing protests. It was following one of these protests, a sit-in at New York University in 1970, that Johnson and Rivera decided to found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR. At the protest, many groups had come together to protest for gay rights, but Johnson and Rivera noted that there were no groups protecting the interests and livelihoods of street youth, particularly transgender youth. Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were themselves homeless and working the streets to make money, and they knew how dangerous it could be. Rivera even credits Johnson with saving her life, after meeting her in 1963 and offering her some comfort and constancy in her life. STAR was the first documented LGBT youth shelter in North America, and by the next year they had opened their first house for street youth in a trailer parked in a parking lot in Greenwich Village. When that shelter fell through, they got a building. Together, Silvia and Marsha provided a safe living space, a gathering space, and a space for LGBT youth to learn. STAR expanded to multiple cities before having to close in the mid 1970’s.

    Johnson’s activism did not end, though. In the 80’s she worked with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) as an organizer and marshall. Johnson herself was HIV positive, and participated in direct action demonstrations with ACT UP for much of the 80’s, and cared for many of her HIV+ friends. Johnson dedicated her life to activism, to protecting LGBT youth, homeless LGBT folks, and making her community better and safer for herself and everyone. She was an active member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), marching every year on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and her direct action both personally and through STAR helped feed and house many trans and gay homeless youths. She was also an activist against police brutality, regularly engaging with police who harassed her and addressing their harassment in court when she was arrested. Marsha P. Johnson’s activism extends far beyond Stonewall. As a trans person myself, I am happy to have Marsha as a radical trans icon, to remind me to always look out for my community, and when it comes to those who don’t like us, to pay them no mind.

Works Cited

Brockell, Gillian. “The Transgender Women at Stonewall Were Pushed out of the Gay Rights Movement. Now They Are Getting a Statue in New York.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 June 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/06/12/transgender-women-heart-stonewall-riots-are-getting-statue-new-york/?noredirect=on.

Feinberg, Leslie. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries .” Workers World, Workers World, 24 Sept. 2006, 11:53pm, www.workers.org/2006/us/lavender-red-73/.

“Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries Found STAR House.” Global Network of Sex Work Projects, NSWP, 12 July 2017, www.nswp.org/timeline/event/street-transvestite-action-revolutionaries-found-star-house.

“From Cowtown to Gaytown”: Kansas Politics and Gay Rights in Wichita, KS

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 korbin-painter@uiowa.edu.

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).

Anita Bryant and “Save Our Children”, 1978 https://timeline.com/anita-bryant-anti-gay-dade-county-christian-conservative-video-history-e026fd5bfad8

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.”

Governor Laura Kelly, Representative Sharice Davids, Janelle Monáe, Former Governor Kathleen Sibelius https://twitter.com/laurakellyks/status/1051187659878612993

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.

References

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