The Cities Speak. Are You Listening?

Me and David Quick on a road trip to Lawrence (photo by David Quick)

Every city has a unique sound. All communities have a distinct dialogue. Each area has its own voice. But how often do we listen to the words and absorb their meaning? There is perhaps no great influence on a person than their geography. Where we live dictates who we become. We can and we do defy odds, but we can never deny how the contours of our surroundings influence our every action along the way.

If you are a homo on the range—a queer person shaped by the boundaries of a state like Kansas, perhaps—your life is very different than someone who is LGBT in NYC. That affects more than your ability to see shows on Broadway, too! It directly impacts the terms by which you can negotiate your life. New Yorkers are protected from being fired from their job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They can marry the person they choose. They can also more easily find people who are like them. None of that is true in the Midwest. But the true meaning of “homo on the range” has little to do with what we don’t have; it has everything to do with what brims beneath the surface of our flat land. Our lives are just as compelling here as they are anywhere else. In fact, it takes a certain amount of backbone to navigate this terrain successfully.

If you don’t believe that can be done, I have visual proof! Or rather, my friend does.  And this testimony comes with some very enticing doughnuts to go along with a side of allegory. This Friday evening, Wichita artist David Quick will debut a collection of photographs documenting contemporary life in Wichita at The Donut Whole. Paired with him will be his niece, Vanessa Quick, whose photos detail everyday life in New York. It’s a subtle juxtaposition of how people and place collide to formulate indelible imprints.

This is not a gay art show; the images document a myriad of lives, events, and circumstances. However, a simple examination of the photographs does more to illustrate my point than any words I could ever write. These images document subtle ways of how two very different hordes of people are adapting to differences. In her artist statement for the show, Vanessa says, “I think most interesting moments go unnoticed.   They are so commonplace that we forget that they’re even interesting.” Having known her uncle for several years, I can safely say she has adroitly adapted his approach to snapping a camera. To watch David quick take a photo is to witness the freeze-framing of social evolution.

Late last summer, I received news that a very important friend had committed suicide. He was openly gay and lived near and often visited New York City. I habitually feel alone and isolated being gay in the Midwest; I envied his proximity to a city with a thriving LGBT community. Mere association can’t keep everyone on life support, though. Only a life in motion can survive. The morning after I learned of his death, I took a road trip to Lawrence with David Quick. Along the way, I was reminded why I fight to stay alive. We took a pit stop along Highway-70 at one of those gas station/McDonalds hybrids. I’ve always had a flair for funky fashion, and my sunglasses are no exception. David and I were both sporting wild shades that looked as though they were sold at the corner of Haight & Ashbury during the Summer of Love in 1967. We looked queerly rowdy.

Subtle changes, seismic shifts. (photo by David Quick)

An averagely-dressed white-haired grandmother and her young grandson spotted us as odd spectacles. The kid was intrigued by our outrageousness. I asked if he wanted to try on my glasses. The grandmother looked a tad bit afraid of us. I could tell she wanted to run away from people so different from her. But when David shoved his glasses onto her head and I handed the kid mine, she didn’t have much of a choice other than to go along with an impromptu photo-op. She ended up being amused and even complimented our audaciousness. “You sure do it differently,” she said, though with more awe than judgment. We all shared a laugh together. It was a random moment of joy. Tacitly, she accepted us. The range of their lives got a little bit queer. Sometimes, it’s Kansas that keeps you alive.

This is one example of many I’ve seen over the years where subtle interactions have seismic repercussions. They may not be changing laws yet, but they are shifting minds, even if slightly. In the Midwest, we can’t always be as direct as our friends in New York might be, but the most interesting moments in any city often go unnoticed. I’ve seen a good bit of these images, and trust me—Kansas stacks up well with NY. I heart them both, but for very different reasons. We all need to learn to appreciate our surroundings—no matter who we are or where they lie. Transformations are taking place everywhere, even if the people changing are intermingling on different topographies.

In this complex world with constantly evolving mores, it’s comforting to be able to see our progress captured on film. When we see we believe. When we believe we speak. Our cities are speaking. Where are you in the dialogue?

You can meet David Quick and Vanessa Quick this Friday at The Donut Whole (1720 E. Douglas) near downtown Wichita. Their “The Cities Speak” exhibit opens April 27th at a Final Friday reception, 6pm-10pm. Works will be on display through the month of may. Get a doughnut, analyze some art, and go “on the range”!

The Gay Agenda

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Talking over the gay agenda with Randy Roberts Potts.
Photo by Robin Dorner

The Gay Agenda

That’s a buzz phrase designed to elicit alarm and entice anxieties. It implies that gay people have different intentions and an alternative itinerary than those who are straight. The religious right has used those words as a rallying call for decades. Their alarming rhetoric has historically worked pretty well to divide us in places like Wichita; however, a new reality has emerged that is disarming fear and replacing it with something much less titillating—the bore of reality!

Thanks to Randy Roberts Potts, grandson of the famous Pentecostal televangelist Oral Roberts, you can see exactly what the gay agenda looks like. Taking a page from his late grandfather’s penchant for affecting the masses, Potts is embarking on a performance arts odyssey that is showing Middle America just what it means to be gay. There’s no better illustration for “homo on the range” than what he is doing! It’s not as raucous, edgy, or even avant-garde as it might sound, though. That is, unless you consider watching television, making dinner, and playing video games to be acts of prime subversion.

“The Gay Agenda” is centered on the notion of showing audiences in mid-size conservative towns across America what domesticity looks like for same-sex couples. A “home” is set up inside a vacant storefront and a male or female couple essentially lives a fishbowl existence for a period of time over a couple of days. Passersby can see two women holding hands on the sofa while watching the evening news or witness a guy play X-Box while his boyfriend prepares dinner. Occasionally the floor will be vacuumed. Sometimes coffee will be made. Regularly, friends stop by for a visit.  This is the stuff that has the likes of Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann foaming at the mouth with disgust!

The “Gay Agenda”, as conceived, is actually pretty dull. The reality this performance mirrors, though, is anything but boring. This is a live action, real time demonstration of what has been happening in the culture for the last decade—and yes, even happening here in Wichita. As gay people have come out of the closet, straight people have been forced to witness their lives on full display. They’ve discovered there isn’t a whole of difference in terms of the daily schemas of our lives. It isn’t often that one gets to consciously witness cultural transformation as it happens, but with this mission, that’s exactly what is going on. Passersby in locales that might not have open dialogues about the issues surrounding sexual orientation are immediately transported into this conversation when they see the make-shift storefronts. Potts himself is often outside with volunteers, engaging them in discussions about what is taking place and challenging them to examine their own, internal hesitancies.

The fact that Potts’ linage is so closely aligned with American religious fundamentalism really speaks to the core struggles that take place in a town like Wichita. Religion is an important force in the lives of many. Gay rights activists cannot hope that people will disregard their deeply held faiths in favor of secular acceptance. Gone are the days when we must divorce our spirituality to accept our sexuality. Oral Roberts isn’t the only fundamentalist Christian to foster gay ancestors. I’m sure you know several folks here in town who are people of faith and also people with a beloved gay relative. The key challenge for the gay rights movement in this country will be winning over the hearts and minds in the middle of America. To do that, we have to meet people where they are—and in Wichita, a lot of them are at church. This subtle piece of performance art is a reminder that there is no “us” and “them”; we all have the same agenda…however boring it might be!

Randy Roberts Potts’  “The Gay Agenda” will be rolling through Middle America starting this spring. There are plans underway for stops in Kansas, including Wichita. I had a chance to visit with Potts in Oklahoma City when he and his partner inaugurated this instillation, and he was quite interested to see what’s stirring on the range. Stay tuned for more information!

If you’d like to help bring “The Gay Agenda” to Wichita, e-mail thehappygayagenda@gmail.com! You can also follow along and watch live streaming of the performances by visiting the Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/thegaygayagenda