The Kansas Capitol is an astoundingly beautiful building.
From the outside, its standard stateliness does little justice to the grandeur of its polished-marble and gold-leaf-sparkling rotunda, its mesmerizing murals of harsh prairie life by John Steuart Curry and Lumen Martin Winter – you can hear the roar of winter wind, feel the cut of sharp prairie grass, smell the sweat of cattle, taste the pre-storm humidity – and the cool catacomb-like ground floor, where exhibits confront historic realities that earned the state a nickname that involves “bleeding.”
To appreciate all that beauty in the same place where elected representatives routinely argue that people like me don’t deserve an equal role in the life of the state – that’s a bizarre feeling.
I felt it a lot last Tuesday. It was Equality Kansas’ lobby day, when queer Kansans went to the Statehouse to meet with legislators, hold a rally, and generally try to make their presence known.
Along with writers of books about LGBTQ activism (a contingent of one, that day), organizations could reserve a place in the rotunda to hand out information. A nice woman from PFLAG and I shared a table underneath the statue of William Allen White. We weren’t allowed to sell things, so I handed out fliers about No Place Like Home.
But traffic was slow. Not many organizations had shown up, and except for a bus load of high schoolers in maroon or teal T-shirts with slogans about how they were changing the world, there weren’t a lot of LGBTQ folks in the Rotunda. Volunteers from the Kansas Historical Society periodically came through with tour groups that successfully ignored us while admiring the building’s beauty; around one corner, a couple dozen kidney-health advocates waited to have their picture taken with the governor; and in another wing, a circle of folks in skull caps and simple cotton clothing sang (and sang, and sang) a harmonious “Home on the Range.”
Upstairs, House and Senate committees were hearing testimony on a bill known as the “Adoption Protection Act,” meant to protect the “religious freedom” of private adoption agencies – a license for religiously affiliated adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex parents.
I went up and listened for a while, as people who claimed to be acting out of love argued that some religiously affiliated adoption agencies might have to close rather than place kids with same-sex parents. (Opponents of the legislation wouldn’t testify until the next day.)
This was depressing. Also depressing was the small number of adults who’d shown up for LGBTQ lobby day. Granted it was a Tuesday, so some people couldn’t get away from their jobs (I’d taken a personal day). But lots of other organizations claim to work on this sort of thing, and it seemed their tables were missing. Were they taking progress for granted?
Not taking progress for granted were the high schoolers, who assembled on the Capitol steps at noon.
It was a small rally, though in Kansas that’s always relative – the difference between a couple hundred people on a weekday and 600 on a Saturday. And it was freezing – the type of day on the prairie when 40 degrees feels like 20. As usual, Tom Witt of Equality Kansas emceed and the crowd showed its toughness, enduring the cold without complaint as the politicians spoke.
Then a woman named Liz Hamor came to the podium. She wasn’t a great speaker, she said, so she’d written a speech.
“Today, we brought a charter busload of students and chaperones from the Wichita area to advocate for some of the most vulnerable of Kansas students,” she said.
This explained the high school kids in their T-shirts. Hamor co-chairs the Wichita chapter of GLSEN (“a national network of students, educators, parents and community leaders working to create LGBTQ-inclusive schools”). Hamor told the crowd that GLSEN’s Greater Wichita chapter was expanding throughout the state.
“We’re doing this so that the trans students in northwest rural Kansas, in a town with a population of 1,000, can feel safe, valued and respected in school.” (Applause!)
“We brought LGBTQ students to meet their legislators and advocate so that gay kids in southeast rural Kansas, can feel safe, valued and respected in school.” (Applause!)
“We teach educators how to create safe and inclusive classrooms so that the pansexual nonbinary student in Wichita, Kansas, can feel safe, valued and respected in school.” (Cheers and applause!)
Despite what the state’s Republican Party says about gender identity, the kids Hamor was talking about really do exist in Kansas.
“And while we understand that LGBTQ students are a vulnerable population, I think it’s important to note: These students are the most courageous students I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Hamor said. Her voice seemed to crack a little, but it was hard to tell because the wind and the applause was so loud.
“While many people get the choice of whether or not to be courageous, many of our students don’t have that luxury.” The kids, she said, are “changing hearts and minds by having the courage to live authentically, by having the courage to show up and be seen.”
One of those kids spoke next.
“There needs to be change in this world,” said Aaron Mounts, a 17-year-old from Cheney, a town of a thousand people 30 miles west of Wichita.
“My school is rather accepting of most students, however I’ve had a lot of issues with bullying, and harmful comments through social media or just to my face or behind my back,” he said.
“My school, up until last year when I was actually able to talk to them and address the school board, was in violation of Kansas law because they did not have the right bullying policies. That is how it is for most of the schools in Kansas, the fact that a lot of them do not have a comprehensive bullying policy.”
A couple of years earlier, he said, he’d started leading an effort to get a GSA (what used to be known as Gay-Straight Alliances are now Gender and Sexuality Alliances, I learned) established at Cheney High School. They sent out a survey to each of Cheney’s 220 students and got 60 responses.
“Those responses, and what people said about what had happened to them at my high school disgusted me,” he told the crowd.
“Over 50 percent had heard negative comments about LGBT people in our school, and they had seen some kind of discrimination in the last school year. More than half who responded identified as LGBT. There were seven people who felt unsafe at my school every single day because of their gender expression and sexual orientation,” he said.
“I am just one student, and I was still able to change a little something at my school. Let’s just keep the discussion going and bring light to the subject,” he said. “Students have always led the change in our government.”
It was students, he said, who were leading the effort to change gun laws.
“So I just want to thank all of you for coming out, braving the cold, and braving the anxiety, facing your representatives and people who might not be as accepting as all of us,” he said.
With Witt’s help, the kids unfurled an enormous rainbow flag and carried it from the south side of the Capitol around the east wing to the north side.
They posed for pictures before folding it up and going back inside to try to meet with a few more legislators before lobby day was over.
Later, on the phone, Mounts told me he was the first in his school to come out – he was outed in 8th grade, he said – and that his family’s always been supportive. His effort to get the GSA going involved an unreceptive principal, an unsuccessful presentation at the school board and a futile conversation with the superintendent. He’d spent four years in forensics and was a state qualifier in debate, and plans to go to Wichita State University and major in political science. Ultimately, he said, he wanted to lobby for LGBTQ rights – “Tom Witt’s job,” he said – or run for office in Kansas.
“I knew I wanted to go into politics because of debate,” he said. “Last year, going and doing advocacy day at the Capitol, it really felt like home for me.”
This year’s lobby day was a success, he said.
“I felt like it went really, really well. And for the other students, even talking to the hard Republicans about LGBT rights, they were able to hold their ground and didn’t get angry. We did have a lot of support, at least with bills we wanted passed – a lot of people did support the bullying bill. It really helped kids have a little more faith in the legislature in Kansas because I know a lot of people don’t.”
And the crowd at the rally “was awesome,” he said, “even though it was super-super cold outside. It felt great because we actually did make some stuff happen.”
I’ll take his word for it. Like the kids who led millions of Americans in marches all around the country four days later, Mounts and the kids who marched around the Kansas Capitol last week had a strong reminder for adults: No one has the luxury of cynicism right now.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.