“It’s the best time to be gay in Salina,” Scott Graybeal tells me at the end of No Place Like Home’s Chapter 7: Springtime in Salina.
Graybeal was among the people who didn’t just come out to fight for a non-discrimination ordinance in this town of about 48,000 people in Central Kansas. (For those of you who don’t live around here, Salina is pronounced with a long “i” – sal-eye-na – rather than the long “e” sound of the Salinas out in California where Bobbie McGee slipped away from Kris Kristofferson.) Graybeal also helped organized the town’s first pride festivals, starting in 2013.
But Graybeal has left Salina. In December 2016, he moved three hours north to my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska.
“My plan was, as soon as my daughter graduated high school, I was going to move to a larger city. Then I fell in love with Salina,” Graybeal tells me. “This time I found a partner I fell in love with who lived in Lincoln.”
And Lincoln is a much larger city: population 280,000 (it’s now almost twice as big as it was when I grew up there) .
Graybeal was visiting an aunt there when he met a man named Karl online. After talking for a few weeks, they arranged a first date in York, Nebraska. A town of about 8,000 people landmarked by the enormous water-tower painted to look like a hot-air balloon at its Interstate 80 exit, York was a two-hour drive for Graybeal and an hour drive for Karl.
“We met at Starbucks and then went to a play at the Yorkshire Playhouse, which is a little community theater there,” Graybeal remembers. “I got us tickets. They were putting on ‘The Producers,’ which was hilarious because it’s a very gay show for a little town. We laughed our heads off at the theater.”
Lest anyone think there aren’t any gay people in York: “Interestingly, Karl’s very first boyfriend was volunteering that day at the theater,” Graybeal says. “They’ve remained friends over the years. So I got to meet Todd, and he approved of me right away.”
Graybeal had no trouble finding a job in Lincoln, and he now works at Cornhusker Bank. He’s attended a couple of Star City Pride events but hasn’t thrown himself into activism in his new city, except in one key place.
“We attend First Plymouth Congregational Church, and they have a group called Plymouth Pride,” he says. “I’m on the steering committee that is reorganizing that group and planning monthly activities.”
Lincoln’s a friendly town and he enjoys the variety of activities a college town offers, Graybeal says. But he’s noticed something else.
“What really shocks me is, in a city this big, there’s just not as much LGBT involvement as I would think,” he says. A social and advocacy organization called Outlinc hosts monthly get-togethers, he notes, “but there’s no more people attending these events than we could get at regular Equality Kansas events in Salina. Which is kind of sad to me.”
On the other hand, he says, “Pride here was huge. I think over the weekend they had over 1,500 – that felt huge to me,” he says with a laugh. “It was three times what Salina had, and these were actually gay people, where in Salina it was a few gay people and a bunch of allies.”
Those allies are crucial when you live in a smaller town, all of which reinforces Tip O’Neill’s classic idea that all politics is local (though now there’s debate about that). LGBT activists might not be that strong or organized in my home state, but the whole country would do well to study up on the Nebraskans fighting the Keystone XL pipeline.
The most important thing, Graybeal says, is to not live in fear and to keep speaking up.
“I was given a gift to be able to share my story and live publicly in Salina,” he says. “With this current political situation, some people would think it’s a call to be closeted, but I think it’s more of a call to be genuine and open. We can’t go back.”
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.