I didn’t know Kristi Parker well. But like thousands of Kansans I did know her – through her invaluable work.
Parker edited and published the monthly Liberty Press for more than 25 years, delivering stacks to businesses around Wichita and stuffing copies into manila envelopes to mail around the state (sometimes with a personal note on the subscription form when it was time to renew). After suffering an untreatable stroke, Parker stayed around long enough to donate several organs before she died at age 49 a week ago today.
I didn’t write much about Parker in No Place Like Home, but the Liberty Press feels ever present in the book’s pages, stepping forward from the background periodically to save someone’s life.
When LuAnn Kahl, working by herself on a farm outside of tiny Haven, decides it’s time to get serious about changing “from the guy on the outside to what’s in my heart and mind and soul,” she drives to Wichita to search adult bookstores for any literature that might connect her to “a gay and lesbian group or a support group or something to help me start finding resources.” What she finds is the Liberty Press, where there’s an ad for a doctor who helps Kahl begin her transition.
Later, when it’s time for Kahl to move way out west to run an even more isolated farm outside the hamlet of Kalvesta, it’s in the Liberty Press where she learns of an upcoming meeting of LGBTQ people in Dodge City. She ends up at the inaugural meeting of the Southwest Chapter of Equality Kansas.
It’s by writing her monthly “Trans-Formative” column in the Liberty Press that Stephanie Mott begins her “publicly transgender” life in 2008. Every couple of weeks, Mott told me, she would get a phone call or an email from someone who was trans and looking for information or support – folks who had never spoken to another trans person.
And it’s reading “Trans-Formative” in the Liberty Press where Tom Witt notices Mott’s potential as an activist and recruits her to leadership positions in Equality Kansas.
In the years before I wrote No Place Like Home, I only saw the Liberty Press every once in a while. It was Wichita-centric, so many of the stories felt irrelevant to me in Kansas City. But I bought a subscription after I started working on the book, and the magazine became indispensable. It was in the Liberty Press where I saw ads for PFLAG and Pride festivities in Manhattan, Salina, and Hutchinson, where I saw a listing of gay-straight alliances around the state, where I would read Parker’s front-of-the-book columns with a distant compatriot’s empathy for the challenges of putting out a magazine.
Parker and I had different approaches to publishing, but I viewed her as enough of a peer that, out of some misplaced sense of competitiveness, I didn’t interview her when I was writing the book’s Wichita chapter. Though she could have told me a lot about her town, I have an old habit of trying to avoid other journalists’ influence while I’m working on a project and our beats might overlap.
But when I was wrapping up the manuscript, I wrote to her, introduced myself, and asked if I could buy her a meal next time I was in town.
It was a Saturday morning around this time last year. She suggested we meet at the Beacon. One of Wichita’s oldest diners, it’s a journo hangout long associated with its next-door neighbor, the Wichita Eagle, whose building would soon be torn down to make room for a new Cargill headquarters. Parker and I bonded immediately – reading all of the remembrances on her Facebook page, this is apparently how she was with everyone. We ordered enormous breakfasts and had the sort of raucous conversation only two middle-aged Midwestern lesbians can have.
Parker was admittedly disappointed that I hadn’t contacted her sooner in the book-writing process, and I didn’t have a good explanation for why I hadn’t. It’s only in retrospect that I understand it was those unwarranted competitive instincts that made me keep my distance.
But she was warm and gracious. And a few weeks ago, she sent me a note:
Hi CJ – I just wanted to write and tell you how much I’m enjoying your book. I’m only to the middle of the Wichita chapter but it has been a wild trip down memory lane. I’ve been really impressed with the amount of general information about Kansas and its history…
She said a few other things, much of it similar to what she later wrote in a review of No Place Like Home in the March 2018 issue – the last edition of the Liberty Press she published. But she also said this:
I understand now why I didn’t belong in this particular history as your focus seems so far to be political. I purposefully avoided the politics.
She said that like someone who’d been involved in enough political activism over the years to feel burned by it. But the thing was, Parker hadn’t avoided the politics. By putting out her magazine for all of those years, she laid bricks in the foundation of our movement in Kansas, she made a place for other people to shape our future, and she helped people in countless ways, big and small, known and unknown, every month.
In one of our recent email exchanges, I told her: “What you’ve done for our community for decades now is an extraordinary accomplishment.”
I’m repeating it here. For the record.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.