Flyover Frustration

Image“It’s so frustrating living in Wichita!”

That’s the message a friend tweeted me on a Friday night. I knew exactly what she meant without even having to ask.  A forty-something successful attorney, she was fed up with being culturally sidelined. It’s a perplexing phenomenon gay professionals often feel in smaller cities like The ICT.

“Nothing happens here. Nothing ever happens here. I can watch the same ten girls get drunk at the same gay bar or go to a dance club that plays bad music and pretend to be overjoyed that my hetero friends are getting married,” she bemoaned. “Meanwhile, I’m just stuck. I’m not happy. Just stuck”

I empathized enormously. Her words have resonance. There’s a problem in this city that doesn’t quite have a name. It’s the gut-level unsatisfaction many LGBT people feel. It has nothing to do with our sexual identity or self-acceptance. It has everything to do with where we fit into the fabric of the community. That restlessness is intrinsic with being a queer Kansan. It’s the central challenge to being a homo on the range.

It’s “flyover frustration” and it’s an issue as vast as the land size of Kansas itself. Our state’s regressive political climate does much to drive away talent. However, the real challenge to being gay in a place like Kansas isn’t political. It’s very personal, and it’s downright detaching.

Most would probably assume that it isn’t easy being gay in the Midwest. The reasons for why, though, are perhaps not so obvious. To comprehend the difficulty of being gay in a city like Wichita, you have to dissect the factors behind the colloquial culture as well as understand the dynamics of the LGBT community. That’s a tall, perplexing task!  Yet, it’s central to my friend’s vexation.

Folks unfamiliar with flyover land living are left to learn about life in the heartland from outside sources. They see images in newspapers of hatemongering preachers picketing funerals of anyone who has ever seen or heard of a gay person. They watch coverage on cable news of abortion providers being shot in the head at church. They read blogs about lawmakers (from the Democratic Party, no less!) insisting that sodomy laws be kept on the books. The image that gets painted of Kansas is one that is colored by hatred, violence, and blatant discrimination.

Those aren’t the true colors of our rainbow, though. The hues are more somber grey than they are angry red. Being a homo on the range doesn’t just mean that you are a target for the right wing.  It means you have to get very good at living alone if you want to survive.

Most people like a life full of connections, though. For that reason, it’s common for gay kids who grow up in Wichita to have an escape plan. They flee for the bigger cities because of the promise those bastions hold for enhanced encounters with people who are like them.  LGBTs lean more toward being inventive, creative, and dynamic. We’re a resourceful people. We tend to enter into industries that engage our more imaginative instincts. We survive as a community by thriving as individuals. Art and culture are our lifeblood. Activity is our anthem. Entertainment is out ethos. Progress and innovation propel us forward. When we find ourselves in the midst of manufacturing economies with limited growth potential and living in towns where cultural and economic progress are stalled, we tend to want out.

And often, we do get out.

Sometimes, though, we stay. We stay for our families. We stay because we have a job. We stay because it’s an affordable place to live. We stay because we don’t want to be forced to leave. When we stay, we often find ourselves standing alone. On a Friday night, while our metro friends are taking in edgy plays and dining at fusion restaurants, we’re sidelined, left only to tweet away our frustrations.

Isolation is a feeling familiar to most LGBT people. At some point, all of us have felt deviant, different, and disconnected from those who surround us. That’s not exclusive to the gay experience; most have felt sequestered at some point in life. What is divergent, though, is how this unfolds. It’s not as though being gay in Kansas means you won’t have any friends or never have a lover. Wichita is not the stereotype most assume. Yes, the politics here suck! Yes, the political climate contributes to larger choices. Yet, while political battles are important, private circumstances are paramount for most folks.

One can be denied the lawful right to marry, but have the happiest of same-sex partnerships. My friends Dusty and John have been together for nearly 30 years and have a happy home with a beautiful back porch garden in southeast Wichita. They have no legal rights, but lots of love shared between the two of them. It can be perfectly legal to be fired from a job because of your sexual orientation, but absolutely possible to find a place of employment with progressive-minded colleagues and supervisors who value fairness. My friend Jayson manages a Target store on the east side of town. The fact that he has a boyfriend has never inhibited his ability to quickly move up within the company. Bigots can live among us, but hate crimes tend to be the exception rather than the norm. When my friend Dan Manning had a death threat mailed to him during his run for a state legislative seat in northwest Wichita, the shock and outrage from the community was unparalleled. Kansans aren’t accustomed to political intimidation via bullets–even when the candidate is openly gay!

All of these friends were able to carve out happy, successful lives in Wichita. Yet, most of them would admit that there’s still something missing. Migration is a large part of the problem. Just enough gay people leave the city to drastically alter the quality of selection of potential romantic partners (and even friends); yet, just enough of us choose to stay to continue the presence of a small, seemingly burgeoning gay community.

Sadly, burgeoning has never quite blossomed. Go to any gay club or pride event and you’ll see the same people year after year. Most of us are delightful individuals, but there’s never a cycling in of fresh faces to enhance our charm. There are never quite enough people for us to find a lasting group of friends we belong to, let alone a lover we truly connect with.

New influences keep us from falling into old patterns. A part of you blooms that was never alive before each time you make a new friend. Flyover frustration unfolds each time vibrant individuals get stymied by the lack of growth a community offers them.

It happens far too often in Wichita. It dampens the spirit not only of my frustrated tweeting friend, but the spirits of all of us who choose to stay and try to make a city with so much potential our home.

I’d like to say that the solution is to stay and be the change that we need. If more of us stayed in-mass, this issue would resolve itself naturally. I’ve realized, though, that one person’s decision to stay won’t effect change fast enough for that individual to live the life they deserve. We homos who live on the range have a complicated relationship with our land. We love it for its enormous prospects; we resent it when it robs us of our vast potential.

No dynamic individual should ever be left with a twittering blue bird as their sole friend on a Friday night! Getting to the root of “flyover frustration” is a step toward all of us being able to find our own eventual happiness—on or off the range.


The Gay Gap: A Taboo Tangoed


Lt. Dan Choi and Dan Manning march in Wichita Pride Parade. Both were discharged under DADT. (photo by David Quick)

The first time I heard the word “gay” was in 1993. Bill Clinton was our new President, and gays in the military was among the first major issues his administration was tackling. I was 10 years old. One Sunday morning, after reading about Clinton’s proposal to allow open service, my dad commented to my mom that gay people were going to destroy the military. Clinton, he said, would be to blame when our country was no longer able to defend itself against foreign invaders after our troops fled their posts to avoid the gays.

Whoever these “gays” were, they sounded pretty bad!

When I asked my parents to explain, I was told that being gay was a taboo. Homosexuality was against God’s intentions. Our nation would fall like the Roman Empire if we embraced it. Visions of fighting, fire, and warfare clouded my mind as I pondered the significance of this new mention in my lexicon. Little did I know that a few short years later, a word introduced to me shrouded in distasteful forbiddance would become a central part of my own burgeoning identity. When it did, those connotations stuck, and an awkward resentment lingered as I came to understand the utter wrong in my parent’s assessment.

Taboos are cultural creations. Society sets the parameters for what is acceptable. Often, those boundaries change. Words once masked in darkness become illuminated over time.

Fast-forward 18 years, and that’s exactly what has happened. In 1993, around 40% of the country favored allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Today, that number swells close to 80%. The September 20, 2011 “Repeal Day” of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was more than a mere lifting of a ban. It was the culmination of an evolving country. We are a nation of people becoming more enlightened each day on the issue of sexual orientation.

It’s not just straight people who’ve needed to evolve, though. Those of us who are gay need to remember the people inside the “gay gap”. As acceptance has grown, the folks in between that 40% mark then and the 80% mark now are why laws are changing. They are our friends who disassociated with us when we came out. They are our colleagues who ridiculed us behind our backs. They are our mothers who cried when we revealed our truth. They are our fathers who cringed when they learned their child is gay. They are our uncles who made offensive jokes at Thanksgiving dinner. They are our grandparents who never knew a single homosexual person. They are all the people who clung to the taboo, only to have their notions stretched by the true colors of our realities. They might have caused us grief in the past, but they are paving part of our road forward in the present. We must forgive them and let go of that resentment.

The Sunday night before the ban was lifted, I was on the phone with my dad. When he asked me what my plans were for the upcoming week, I mentioned my intention to attend a Repeal Day party. He very comfortably commented that he had read an article in his local newspaper focusing on an elderly man discharged under the policy who would soon have his benefits reinstated. “That’s a good thing for the country,” he said. His understated tone of acceptance underscores the gap.

Those simple words did wonder to wash away my own resentment. They made me realize that whatever hostility headlines from the past may have elicited, it’s the lives we are living now that truly matter. We can’t begrudge people for past prejudices. We can only be thankful that they embrace the truth of a taboo lifted.

Gays are now serving openly in the military. Our nation stands strong. Our families can be stronger.