LGBTQ Kansas to America: Prepare for so much ‘losing forward’

This loss seemed as inevitable as a Kansas tornado in May.

In reality, it wasn’t inevitable. LGBTQ activists and their allies skirmished so hard that it took until 2 a.m. on the last day of the legislative session for the religious right to convince enough politicians to discriminate against us.

The so-called Adoption Protection Act lets faith-based adoption and foster care agencies with state contracts — i.e., our tax dollars — refuse to place kids in homes with same-sex parents if it violates the agencies’ “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

How sincere those beliefs really are is a question, thankfully, this country might finally be serious about facing, now that we’re enduring the bizarre spectacle of Christian support for a president who violates commandments with his every waking breath.

While the rest of the country has that debate, LGBTQ Kansans must now once again regroup. They’d been fighting this bill since March, when it seemed to die in a committee only to be resurrected later in an amendment to other legislation. And that midnight vote in the House was close: 63 yes votes (the minimum required to pass) versus 58 against (it was 24-15 in the Senate).

“One vote. One vote,” an exhausted and furious Tom Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, told me yesterday. “It was brutal and ugly and we lost.”

Under crushing pressure from the Kansas Catholic Conference and the religious Kansas Family Policy Council, he said, “a bunch of people flipped their votes from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ between April and May.” One legislator, a Democrat, told Witt they were afraid they’d have to change parishes over recriminations for their “no” vote.

LGBTQ Kansans even got national reinforcements, when Chad Griffin, the head of the Human Rights Campaign, flew in from Washington for a press conference.

Chad Griffin tweet

Queer Kansans haven’t seen a lot of support from the national organizations over the years, so it felt a bit strange to suddenly feel like the center of the LGBTQ political universe.

And out here, with our DIY, neighbor-to-neighbor style of activism, I feared that having the big guns suddenly show up from DC might work against us.

“They were helpful in some respects,” Witt says.

Griffin’s press conference did draw media attention, which motivated some folks to call and write their representatives. HRC also invested in phone calls that patched local supporters directly through to their representatives’ offices, and the organization brought a corporate lobbying team to work with the businesses community – a traditional area of strength for HRC, which has proactively pressured board rooms through its annual Corporate Equality Index.

But even the national assist wasn’t enough.

“We’re incredibly disappointed. We worked really hard with Equality Kansas and so many people,” Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s state legislative director and senior counsel, told me yesterday. She’d been among those who accompanied Griffin to Kansas.

“It’s always so hard to lose,” she said, “but sometimes we talk about ‘losing forward’: not getting the outcome we ultimately want, but in the process, having really important engagement and building relationships.”

Which might as well be called the Kansas School of Activism. (In other words, the narrative arc of No Place Like Home.)

But one HRC tactic hurt more than it helped. Last Tuesday, the organization placed a full-page ad in the Topeka Capital-Journal with a litany of national corporations opposing the bill.

The ad listed corporate members of TechNet, which describes itself as “a bipartisan network of over 80 technology companies that promotes the growth of the innovation economy” whose members represent “more than two and a half million employees in the fields of information technology, e-commerce, the sharing and gig economies, advanced energy, biotechnology, venture capital, and finance.”

The organization’s executive director, Caroline Joiner, had written to House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle in April, opposing the legislation.

“Discriminatory legislation,” she wrote, “would hamper the state’s ability to attract, recruit and retain business and top talent … and make Kansas less competitive for the relocation or expansion of both large and small businesses.”

That argument has been persuasive in Kansas in recent years, though, as No Place Like Home recounts, it wasn’t always.

But this time, HRC placed the newspaper ad listing names of TechNet companies without getting their permission, prompting a stern rebuke from TechNet president Linda Moore in an email to TechNet members on Tuesday.

“Without prior consultation or approval, HRC listed all TechNet members in the ad,” she wrote. “TechNet prides itself on our absolute transparency and openness with our members. We therefore felt it important to flag this issue for you. We have made it clear to HRC that the placement of this ad was a major breach of our trust and confidence.” (The bold-face was Moore’s.)

Opposition to the Kansas bill was consistent with TechNet’s policy principles, Moore wrote. “However, TechNet weighing in on an issue directly with legislators certainly does not give license to other advocacy organizations to list our full membership in materials or advertisements.”

That led to media coverage of a whole different sort.

“That TechNet letter hurt bad,” Witt says.

“I had legislators coming off the House floor giving me the letter from TechNet accusing HRC of violating their policies, demanding an explanation. The big argument we were trying to set up on the floor was that businesses are opposed to this, but it got knocked out.”

Witt could have used some help with damage control from HRC, but he told me that hadn’t happened.

As always, queer folks in Kansas will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get back to work.

But anyone who’s interested in the long fight for equality needs to understand: America’s now in a backlash reality, which will require activists and allies here – and, ahem, nationally – to work harder and smarter.

“Here’s the really big picture,” Witt said. “In 2003, we won in Lawrence v. Texas.” (The Supreme Court decision striking down laws against same-sex people having consensual sex in the privacy of their own homes.) “In 2012, we won the right to serve openly in the military. In 2015, we won the right to marry.”

Witt likens those huge victories to Roe v. Wade.

“Abortion opponents haven’t been able to get Roe v. Wade overturned, so they’ve spent the past 30 years chipping away at the edges of reproductive rights,” Witt said. Bills placing ever-tighter restrictions on clinics, for example, or banning abortions under ever-widening circumstances. “They’re going to kill abortion access by deaths by a thousand cuts,” he said.

It’s a strategy that’s worked well in Kansas. And as those of us out here know, what happens in Kansas eventually happens in the rest of the country.

Opponents of LGBTQ equality, Witt said, “are hard at it. They’re looking for every possible way to attack us, every possible weak spot, and they are going to pound on it. They’re not going to go away, they’re not going to quit.”

After this week in Kansas, or our neighbor to the south, nobody anywhere can say they didn’t see this storm coming.

C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

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