Pride. Prejudice. Possibility.

Pride is a very misunderstood concept.  Many of our straight friends don’t understand why we in the LGBT community insist on being treated like everybody else, only to then march in a parade where we single ourselves out solely because of our sexuality. Many of us who are queer forget to take in the magnitude of pride’s significance; it’s much larger than six-pack-sporting twinks and dykes on bikes. It’s bigger than the largest rainbow flag. It’s more potent than any shot of premium-shelf vodka.

Pride isn’t about a party. Pride is about combating prejudice. Pride is about the enormous possibility that exists when each person has the freedom to be their own, unique self. If you are a homo on the range, you have the distinct opportunity to harness the spirit of pride to change the contours of the land in which you live.  There has never been a more pressing time.

As blue states on the coasts move toward marriage equality, states in the Midwest are actively trying to take existing civil rights away. In Kansas, current state law does not protect people from being fired from their job or evicted from their apartment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The cities of Lawrence and Topeka as well as a number of school districts, universities, and individual employers, though, have extended non-discrimination policies to ensure that LGBT employees are protected. There’s a bill being considered by the Kansas Legislature, though, that would invalidate all of these existing protections. Dubbed the “Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act”, the legislation would allow any boss to fire an employee for being gay, empower any landlord to evict a tenant because of their sexuality, and even sanction healthcare providers to deny services to clients whose lifestyle they find morally offensive.  It passed the KS House by a wide margin, and awaits Senate action when the legislature reconvenes in late April. Of course, the proposal has the enthusiastic support of Republican Governor Sam Brownback.

The bill’s primary backer, though, is Democrat Rep. Jan Pauls of Hutchinson. Yes, Democrat! She’s also the same legislator who last year went out of her way to ensure gay sex remained a statutory crime in Kansas, punishable by jail. Get fired. Be homeless. Go to prison. That’s the message 82 out of 125 legislators sent to queer Kansans (that includes all but 7 Republicans and literally 1/3 of the House Democratic caucus, btw)! Even if the bill fails to become law, the conversation has made many aware that they can use their religion to justify discriminatory acts. Certainly we must respect deeply held personal convictions. However, there’s a line to be drawn when someone’s faith is used as a weapon to harm another person. This isn’t about religious freedom; this is a blatant attempt to codify prejudicial sentiment into law.

This is exactly why pride is so important. When each of our cities holds festivals, parades, and events where large numbers of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people conjugate, we demonstrate that we aren’t ashamed to be ourselves. We show politicians that we exist. We prove that we aren’t afraid to be present and counted. A big part of why Kansas legislators are trying to figure out how they can fire us from our jobs instead of figuring out a way for us to be treated equally revolves around visibility. Being out is a social responsibility. Think about what might be possible if everyone in the Midwest who was queer was open about who they are.  I don’t discount the massive amount of personal strife coming out can cause; in the end, though, most family members, friends, and co-workers will work out their own issues and embrace the people they love. When they do, people like Jan Pauls won’t just have to contend with the homos, but also an army of our supporters!

The next time a straight person asks you why we insist on having our own parades, tell them it’s because we don’t want them paying for our unemployment after we’ve been fired for being gay. More important, though, is the fact that equality matters to everyone because it outlines the boundaries by which we all get to mold our own, unique selves. We homos on the range deserve a party—and a few drinks—for having to put up with the kind of blatant hostility I spell out above. What everyone deserves, though, is the chance to live in an authentic world where each person has the freedom to be who they truly are. Combat prejudice by taking pride in possibility!

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Golden Grains of Contradiction

There’s a vastness to Kansas that foreshadows boundless possibility. Open fields on flat land that eyes can see for miles ahead impress upon us the promise that we can fill that space with anything. There can also be a restraining aspect to that scale. Entrenched ideologies can limit who settles and how land is developed. When it comes to being a homo on the range, we walk through a field of dichotomy.

There are grains of subtle progress, though. By now, you’ve probably heard the new Lady Gaga track, “Born This Way”.  Whether you think it’s a cheap rip off of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” or the hottest tune to drop in a decade, there’s undeniable substance in this song. The loud lyrics are ironically birthing a quiet revolution. It’s impossible to divorce the explicit message it sends: if you are gay, it’s by God’s divine, beautiful intent and you should celebrate that! As teenagers struggle to accept themselves, the power of hearing their existence positively affirmed via a buoyant ballad on the radio cannot be understated.

Nor can the effect this song is having on the hetero-masses be ignored. Recently, I was working out at the YMCA and happened to catch a glimpse of a Zumba class in session. Soccer moms were dancing up a storm to this track, and as the lyrics “no matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life I’m on the right track, baby I was born to survive” roared, no one recoiled; in fact, they seemed to step it up!  These are the same mothers who drive mini-vans full of kids. Some of those kids will one day realize that they’re gay. Popular culture has more of an effect on the average person’s worldview than most of us care to admit. In this instance, though, that may turn out to be a very good thing for LGBT acceptance.

Expansive fields are filled with hope!

There are also thorns in the pasture, though. On the same day these Zumba moms were sweating with Gaga, the Kansas Legislature was cleaning up outdated state statutes. Part of Governor Sam Brownback’s campaign promises included establishing an “Office of the Repealer” that would work with state lawmakers and citizens to get outdated laws off of the books that drain economic development. Statutorily, being gay is a crime in Kansas, punishable by fines and prison terms. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the same-sex sodomy law unconstitutional in 2003; however the language in state law was never removed. When a motion was made in the KS State House to include this law in the repeal effort, it was block—by a prominent Kansas Democrat. State Rep. Jan Pauls of Hutchinson, along with The GOP’s Rep. Lance Kinzer of Olathe, took the lead to ensure that being gay remained a crime in The Sunflower State. For all the talk of attracting new businesses to Kansas and keeping our young people from moving away, stuff like this doesn’t exactly help! The message from our political leaders is clear: if you are gay, we would rather you be somewhere else. Some of us will probably oblige, and other states will enjoy our talents and our tax dollars. Brownback should consider renaming this new wing “Office of the Repelor”!

Vast territories are stymied, their full potential never allowed to blossom.

The queer experience in Kansas is anything but a straightforward path.  Meaningful progress is being made every day on an individual level as more people feel comfortable coming out, opening the eyes of their straight peers. Damaging actions not just to LGBT rights, but also to the long-term economic viability of our state, are simultaneously holding back our full, collective potential. We need to rectify this dissonance so that we can all walk with pride across the land The Midwestern gay movement.