In Between the Kansas Prairie & the Hollywood Hills

1233609_10100229436170332_771747572_nI’m in between the flat Kansas prairie and the towering hills of Hollywood. Mentally, at least.  It’s an odd sort of purgatory, living in a certain place while planning another life in a distinctly different locale.  This is where I have been for exactly a year. This is where I will continue to be for exactly 3 more months.

I’ve lived in Wichita for 14 years. During that time, I was a political activist, an art promoter, a writer, and a special events manager for a non-profit. I didn’t know a soul when I moved here; when I ran for public office, I had a database of over 10,000 friends, acquaintances, and professional contacts. I used to muse about being the mayor; now I daydream about the day I’ll leave for Los Angeles, driving west on US-54 for the last time.

I’m not the first person to leave a small city for a bigger, bolder life. Most do this at a milestone moment. College graduates take their newly minted degree to a thriving metropolis hoping their ambition will catapult them to success. A job well done earns a promotion, and with it a relocation to an urban locale.  Marriage often leads to moves. Family obligations breed frequent migration. There’s a multitude of reasons why and when people leave cities like Wichita.

 Me?

Well, I’m leaving because nothing else is happening.  Friends have moved away or moved on to marriage and children. Activism turned into cynicism as teabag carrying curmudgeons brain-drained our state into Rush Limbaugh’s creamiest wet dream.  Political ambitions faded into the tapestry of a reality where anything that is meaningful happens far from the edges of politics. Mediocrity replaced motivation as I just sort of settled into an existence that was far from bad, though nothing near what is good for me.

In-between periods are awkward and their parameters are undefined. I should know because I’ve been living one for three years. After I left politics, I was never quite able to regain a distinct purpose to my life. I didn’t find a new passion, form a new group of friends, or shift focus to a different, higher work. I just sort of ruminated in my own head. Sure, I had a job—a great job, actually. And I wrote, lots in fact. I met intriguing people. I saw compelling stuff. But the truth is that I flipped as switch the day I left politics, and I’ve never turned on another light.

But I can see a light now, and it’s not just the distant California sun dancing amidst a glowing sea of palm trees. I see something larger, brighter, grander, and I see it right where I am. At the moment, that’s a bar in Delano. But that glow isn’t indigenous to my surroundings; it’s intrinsic to me.

By the end of the year, I will be 31 years old and unemployed. I’m moving from a city where a 2,000 square foot loft of my own near downtown rents for $400 to a place where a small bedroom in an apartment I’ll share with strangers will cost me $900. The dawn of Obamacare will mandate me to carry my own insurance. This will drain my nest egg about $250 monthly because I’m in that under-discussed group of millennials who somehow are getting financially penalized by this much needed reform. We’re carrying the greatest portion of debt in generations, yet we’ll pay more than anyone else for our own insurance. None of this sounds good!

Most people aren’t willing to upend their comfortable life so late into their youth. But I’m not most people. That light I’ve found inside myself is a laser beam that has burned away doubt and apprehension and illuminated a path forward paved with optimistic anticipation.

I read a blog post recently that advised one should know WHY they are moving to LA before they actually up and go. The truth is that the last 3 years of my life have been an odd exercise in existence devoid of any clear direction or grand meaning. I’ve spent the last year preparing for this move, but really it’s just been in the last few months that the significance of its advent has come into focus. So, here is why I am moving to LA:

1.     I want to be a writer. Most of you know only scattered details of the stories I have to tell. One could say that I already am a writer, but it’s become obvious that I’ve reached the apex of anything I could ever do with my words in Wichita. I’m going to take some classes once I get settled and steadily work my way into the business. In ten years, I want to have at least 2 novels published. I’m realistic about the challenges. I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.

2. I want to be some place bigger than me. It’s the mountains, the beaches, the start-studded boulevards, the iconic buildings, and endless parks that I long to traipse through. I’m highly stimulated by environments. I need a place where organic energy and creative rushes abound everywhere.

3. I want my own family. That will never happen in Wichita. Even if it did, we wouldn’t even be considered a legitimate entity in the state of Kansas. I look forward to putting the disappointments and rejections behind me and embracing truth in love.

4. I’m a liberal Democrat hipster vegan. And I kiss boys. The sate of California was pretty much made for me. Screw Sam Brownback and the never ending slog of brain-draining tea partiers…I’ll be voting for Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, and Jerry Brown next year!!

I’ll continue to be “in-between” for a few more months yet, but finally I feel certain about my focus. There’s a light inside of me and it will illuminate the path forward. I’m about to have an epic adventure—my own adventure. I don’t know who I will meet, what I will do, or where it will take me. It will be highly uncomfortable, but it will always be compelling.

This journey is now what defines me. And that is fucking exhilarating!

Two Americas

ImageWhen we hear the phrase “there are two Americas”, we generally think about wealth disparity or economic inequality. In the post-Windsor world there’s a new divide: those who live in states with marriage equality and those who do not. It may seem like a simple matter of public policy that effects only a small segment of the population. It’s actually creating a large chasm, though, that threatens to drain talent from states clinging to old traditions.

There are now thirteen states where same-sex couples can legally marry and subsequently have their marriage recognized by the federal government. The Gayly is not distributed in any of them. That means if you are reading this paper, you are in the lesser of the two Americas, at least in terms of rights that you are afforded. There’s nothing inferior about the people and the aptitudes of our communities, though. That’s an important point that business leaders, opinion makers, and politicians need to remember.  With equal rights and basic freedom offered in multiple places now, why should anyone who is gay continue to live somewhere where they aren’t treated equally under the way?

That’s a question a lot of people are starting to ask themselves. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, too, because how many people really want to leave their home? All of us have a certain pride in our states. We understand that the Mid-western queer brand of stubborn independence is its own unique phenomena. For a lot of LGBT folks, personal responsibilities and economic realities will keep them exactly where they are. Others, especially those who are young and single, will choose to get educated or start their careers in locales where they won’t have ridiculous burdens placed to their love, though.

There’s a reason our states adopted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Right wing politicos correctly predicted that this day could arrive, and they wanted to “safeguard” their states when it did. They’ve actually set us up for failure, though.

In his 2002 book, “Rise of the Creative Class” urban studies theorist Richard Florida laid out a formula for building a booming city that centers around supporting and developing a creative workforce. A big part of the equation is laws that promote inclusion and diversity, along with a thriving gay community, which is often at the epicenter of creative ingenuity. He found that companies choose what cities to bring their operations to based in part on this because they know that their educated, accomplished employees will want to live someplace where everyone is respected.  Gay rights have become a values centerpiece among the millennial generation because the issue is really a proxy for a more open, multi-faceted, and diverse world.  As this generation rises, states who treat gay people like second-class citizens are starting to look less and less attractive.

Each of us will make our own decision regarding how we operate in this new divided reality. There won’t be an immediate mass-exodus to marriage equality states, but there will be lots of individual choices about where to work and live that will add up and have big effects. A broad, national ruling establishing the right to marry is needed, but we can’t expect the US Supreme Court to save us. We have to liberate ourselves. For those who stay—and I assume that’s most of you—that will mean having some very honest conversations with a lot of people about how this new reality effects you and your family. Midwesterners are great listeners. So let’s talk! It’s a conversation that will ultimate make all of our states stronger.

Courthouse Mocks, but Love Wins.

1013393_10100169247693522_310450197_nI moved to Kansas in July of 1999 with my mother and her fiancé. A few weeks later, they were to be married in an outdoor garden ceremony. I don’t recall many of the particulars that surrounded their wedding, but seared into my mind are all of the details regarding their marriage license. I went with my mom to pick it up at the historic courthouse downtown. Once inside, we climbed several stories of stairs to get to the office where it would be processed. As we trekked up those wide, marbled flights, I ruminated on a single thought: I will never be allowed to do this.

That courthouse was mocking me. Seventeen years old, I dreamed incessantly about getting married.  I wanted to share my life with someone and eventually start a family of my own. That vision was more like a fairytale, though, because I wanted to marry a man.

Gay marriage was banned in most states and the ink was still wet on the Defense of Marriage Act. Having sex with another man was a statutory offense in my new home on the range, a “crime against nature.” I knew enough about American history to understand that the scales of justice were titled to eventual equality, but at the time there was no true movement for same-sex marriage. Gay rights were a radioactive topic in most circles. I would be well into my Medicare years before I’d ever be able to legally marry. Or so I thought.

Discrimination affects everyone differently. Most teenagers aren’t as politically conscious as I was. Most gay people don’t let the limits of the law limit their ability to love. Somehow, though, I internalized the climate around me. When we left the courthouse that day, I decided I would give up on the idea of ever getting married, or ever being loved for that matter. What good is a relationship when it isn’t even real, I though to myself. There’s no use in wanting what you can’t have.  I’d go into politics and fight for the rights of others to have what I couldn’t. Somehow that would make up for what I was being denied.

That’s an extreme reaction, I know. It’s likely difficult for most people, even many who are LGBT, to understand why someone so young could get jaded so fast. Inferiority builds up over time. Discriminatory laws foster intolerant societies that ultimately bully the spirit of the people they are oppressing. Do we ever fully comprehend the aftershock of a gross wrong? Everyone who is gay has been affected in some way by the laws that limit our love.

That’s exactly why last month’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and allowing a return of same-sex nuptials to California is so epic.  The next generation of gay kids will grow up in a world where their rights are rapidly expanded and their love is openly celebrated. They’ll never have to give up on love because they’ll see it all around them. For people like me—who came of age thinking that marriage and family would be out of reach—there’s a whole new world of possibilities.

When the court handed down their ruling, I was seated at my desk live streaming the text feed of the decision on SCOTUSBlog.com.  As soon as I understood the jest of the opinion, something happened that I was not expecting. The dream I let die a decade and a half earlier at that courthouse was revivified. Optimism had returned, and at the age of 30, I knew that I was destined to be loved. I savor the hope that I will have my own husband and my own family. I look forward to one day marching up the stairs of a courthouse and getting my own true, valid marriage license.

That day hasn’t yet arrived in Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas, but it’s coming! In the meantime, we must stop letting limits on justice mock us. We—and we alone—are love; freedom will only grow when we boldly and openly embrace who we are and whom we were meant to love.

Homo on the Range: Coloring Your Own Culture

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Carrie & I at Art Aid, during the Naked City era.

What does it mean to be homo on the range? I’ve been writing this column in various publications for over four years. This literary experiment has been an attempt to unearth the unique state of the modern-day queer experience in the Midwest.  It turns out that Kansas, and really every state it touches, have some surreptitious truths that the whole country could benefit from understanding.

“Homo on the Range” is a state of mind. It’s the audacity to be you, anywhere. It’s the boldness to standout. It’s the courage to keep going. It’s wide-open spaces, full of unlimited possibilities. One does not have to be a “homo” nor live “on the range” to be part of it. More straight people actually read this column than folks who are LGBT, and my blog by the same name gets hits from places as far away as Pakistan.

Being homo on the range is also living in a state of vulnerability. When you are gay in the Midwest, you stand out! There are no LGBT enclaves in states like Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas. Sure, there are friendly towns and businesses, but there is no West Hollywood, Boys Town, or Castro to be found in between the hayfields. You can’t easily blend into an existing culture here. If you are going to be out, you are going to have to create that culture yourself. It’s up to you to color your own community.

The paintbrush was handed to me on a crisp, autumn night in 2008 at an after party during the Tallgrass Film Festival, Wichita’s premier annual independent cinema event. I was sipping martinis with my four best friends, perusing a new cell phone app called Twitter. In the middle of sending my very first tweet, a sharply dressed, wavy-blonde haired woman approached our table. Her name was Carrie, and she was looking for a gay voice to add to her emerging magazine. I’d been trying to make a difference on the equality-front in politics for years, but our conversation that night opened my eyes to the possibility that I could have an impact with my words, too.

A few months later, I penned the very first “Homo on the Range” for Naked City Magazine. Mostly read by straight people, not all of who were natural allies, that column raised a lot of eyebrows. A few advertisers pulled out. Some readers wrote the editor to complain. Mostly though, everyone was all right. It turns out that having an honest dialogue in a tasteful manner about a difficult issue is a Kansas value. My work for the magazine later opened up connections for freelance work. Today, I’ve had close to 300 articles published as a result.  That’s one of many ways I’ve colored my own culture and created my own community here on the range.

Anyone whose unique sparkle drives them to use their distinct abilities to nurture connections and enhance communities is already a “homo on the range”. There are straight people who are far better at this than I am! While I may have conceived this moniker, there are far superior motions being set forward by countless individuals in the gay community that will get us farther than any of my words ever will. I look forward to the day when those collective efforts make the range a home everyone can be proud of!

Pride Colors

ImageI did something last week I never thought I would do: I bought an American flag tank top. It was more than a surprise purchase; procuring that patriotic-chic garb signified both a personal mind shift and a collective new reality. Compulsory acts of consumerism may not seem like parallel signs of social progress, but in this case they are. This June will mark the first time that red, white, and blue—not the rainbow—will be my colors of choice!

The rainbow flag has long been synonymous with gay pride celebrations. It’s understandable that we would want to have our own symbol of freedom. Liberty has often been an illusive concept for those of us who are LGBT. History, though, is being written more rapidly than most of us can write. The NBA has welcomed an openly gay player. The Boy Scouts are toying with entering the later half of the 20th century by allowing gay scout members. Three new states have passed marriage equality laws in a matter of weeks.

As progress abounds, it’s important to realize that only one scheme of colors has truly made this possible: those hues that are star spangled! Gay rights have galvanized support from much of the hetero-USA because of a long-evolving American tradition of us becoming a more perfect union by broadening the scope of who is “united” in the states of America.

I haven’t always felt so connected to my American heritage. I came of age in the era of George W. Bush, when the flag stood more for intimidation than it did liberation. After 9-11, it seemed as though everyone rushed to plaster their cars with American flag decals and decorate their bathrooms in patriotic motifs. A few ambitions folks even painted their houses with stars and stripes. Meanwhile, the government passed laws allowing our phones to be tapped, tortured people, and lied about why we were going to war. Those with flags on their cars were on the side of freedom; those without might just be terrorists…or so it felt!

I have always considered myself to be patriotic, but I usually prefer to act on my patriotism, not wear it. As I was involving myself deeper in politics, I become more offended by the brass assertion the administration in power was making that freedom really shouldn’t be afforded to everyone. It was nine years ago that Bush campaigned for re-election on the platform of amending the U.S. constitution to permanently ban gays and lesbians from marrying.  Many of us in the LGBT community felt our country was turning against us. It’s an assault to one’s loyalty when the very framework that is supposed to protect rights is used as fodder for taking them away. Bush succeeded in using the issue to win re-election, but as eleven states voted to ban gay marriage in 2004, and more did so in years to follow, a funny thing happened. America got American on gay rights!

There have been thirty-six statewide campaigns centering on gay marriage. We’ve only won three of those referendums so far. The stinging defeats in the earliest years of this century have given way to a promise for later. Each time the issue has been put up for a vote, everyone in the state has been forced to have a conversation about not just gay marriage, but gay individuals. Many people have come out and many, many gay Americans have had difficult conversations with their friends, families, and colleagues as a result of these political fights. Discussion and deliberation are hallmarks of American democracy. So, too, is the freedom to change your mind–or evolve as it’s fashionably called now.

We still have a long way to go in becoming that more perfect union we strive to be. Even when we get there, the rainbow and its symbolic multi-hues of diversity will remain relevant. But we now have a first lady who tweets “we got your back” when a sports hero says that he’s gay instead of a president who wants to roll back the constitutional rights of LGBT Americans. And that’s exactly why I’ll be rocking my American flag tank top this month for pride!

Truth, Bader Ginsburg

36731070I didn’t know that milk could be a metaphor for life; then I listened to the oral arguments in the DOMA case that were before the U.S. Supreme Court last month. Now I understand the parallel between dairy and destiny. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg purported that because of laws that limit marriage to heterosexual couples, unions between gay people are not quite whole. They’re skim milk, not full cream.

It isn’t just gay relationships that aren’t on par. When laws and social etiquette treat same-sex couples differently, they’re denigrating the gay individuals that make up those pairs. The moment that you admit to yourself that you are gay is a triumphant instant of self-realization. It’s soon followed by the jarring reality that you are not equal to your heterosexual peers. Equality is about more than just laws; equality really is about about dignity. When you know you aren’t afforded the same rights as everyone else, it takes a toll on your self-worth. This effects how you live your life.

Unconscious decisions that seem extremely personal are often engineered by a larger social order. Gay people don’t have higher rates of drug use, alcoholism, and STDs because we are inherently sinful. Often, we make destructive personal choices because on some level we don’t think we deserve anything better. How many times have you hooked up with someone you barely knew and didn’t wear a condom? Have you ever texted a risqué photo of yourself to a stranger on Grindr? How many times have you gotten blackout drunk at a club? How many pills have you popped in one night just to feel a temporary high?  There’s a lot of behavior that is normalized or excused in a large part of the gay world that would never fly in most straight circles. What does it matter, though? It’s not like we can get married or anything!

There’s that skim milk again, squirting us in the face, reminding us of our inherent inferiority.

Gay Americans are not the first class of people to be undervalued. Study the history that lead up to Brown v Board of Education decision and you’ll find that subordination was key to why the Supreme Court stepped in to desegregate public schools. In the early 1940’s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark did research that measured internalized racism and self-hatred. Their “dolls experiment” involved African American children being presented with two dolls, both identical save for their skin and hair color. One doll was white with yellow hair; the other was brown with black hair. The children were asked to play with one. There was an overwhelming preference for the white dolls…from black kids! When probed, the kids revealed that the white dolls were prettier, more attractive, and had better hair than the black dolls. Those children learned to hate themselves at a very young age.

The Supreme Court in 1954 saw the wisdom in doing away with “separate but equal” on matter of race in part to rectify this inferiority complex. They would be wise to do so again on matters regarding who can get married to ameliorate a different, though equally potent, inadequacy today.

I’m assuming that the 80-year old Justice Ginsburg has, at best, a limited grasp of modern gay social mores. Her comment about skim milk fortuitously highlights the central issue in this debate, though. It’s why people stood in line four full days before the doors even opened to allow them inside the chamber to view the hour-long proceedings. It’s why more and more Americans are coming around to the idea of marriage equality. The more people get to know us, the less they want to see us skimp on our own happiness, and the more they want our lives to be whole.

Whatever the outcome of this court case, that sentiment alone should do wonders to improve our individual self-worth. We don’t need a court’s permission to live a “whole milk life”. We just need to value ourselves!

Range in a Homo Change of Mind

protest 02142008 cdb 19737Homo on the Range is more than a jarringly ironic name for a column about gay life in the Midwest. It’s larger than any one individual LGBT person living in Middle America. At its core, homo on the range is a frame of mind. It’s the notion that a person can be their true, authentic self anywhere.  It’s also the realization that progress can only happen with honest conversation.

Progress is, in fact, happening on the range! In 2005, Kansas’s voters were asked if they wanted to amend the state’s constitution to limit marriage and all of its legal benefits to only heterosexual couples. 70% said yes. According to a new Public Policy Polling survey, the number of Kansans who remain opposed to allowing gay marriage is down to 51%, with only 34% saying there should be no legal recognition of same-sex relationships. A majority support either marriage or civil unions. Given the conservative political dynamics of Kansas and nearby states, marriage equality isn’t coming to the heartland anytime soon. This poll underscores something more important, though: the power of dialogue.

The first time I truly felt “out” wasn’t when I was a pimply 15 year old, awkwardly confessing to my best friend that I’m attracted to boys. It was about 3 years later when I recalled that incident to a classroom full of strangers while speaking on a “gay panel”. In the early 2000’s, myself, along with several friends I met through PFLAG (Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays), would speak to groups of people about being gay. We’d talk to college sociology and human sexuality classes, social workers in training, would-be teachers in diversity programs, medical professionals, employers, and even sometimes members of the clergy. We’d share with them our personal stories—how we discovered that we are gay, how having a different sexual orientation has impacted our lives, and how political debates over our rights have very personal impacts.

I lost my gay-panel virginity at Butler Community College. I felt raw, naked, and exposed. I was sharing intimate, painful stories about peer rejection, suicidal thoughts, and emotional strife to a roomful of about 30 complete strangers. It wasn’t easy. But half way through speaking, I realized it was so worth it. Glares of disgust were turning into gazes of empathy. Heads turning horizontally started to vertically nod. There was a palpable energy shift in the room; people who walked in prejudiced to a certain way of thinking about gay people were reexamining their assumptions. I realized then that these panels were the single most effective way to create change. They humanized the issue and invited in conversation with our Q&As after each talk.

Since then, I’ve spoken on close to 100 other panels. My words aren’t why Kansan’s views are shifting on gay civil rights. But they are part of why. The other part—or rather other thousands of parts—are the many more people who have had similar conversations in even more intimate settings. It’s the collective dialogue that is nearing us to a tipping point. One day, we will live in a state where we not only have the same rights as everyone else, but we will also enjoy the same dignity as our peers.

Don’t let the conservative, Republican political climate scare you into thinking such machinations are impossible, either! Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who almost became Mitt Romney’s running mate, just announced that he now supports gay marriage. The first Senate Republican to change course did so for a simple reason: his son is gay. Kitchen table issues and gay issues are really one in the same when it comes to family. The more dialogue those of us who are gay have with people like Sen. Portman, the better it’s going to get.

So don’t be afraid to come out to your conservative parents or traditionalist peers.  Family values are a big deal here on the range. Over the last decade, more and more families have discovered that they have to value all of their children. Sometimes, that means changing some beliefs. An evolution of values based on bedrocks of love: that is very homo on the range.

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