An equal-rights victory that has historically involved months of bruising battle in other Kansas towns just happened quietly in the state’s third-largest city.
On Thursday, one item among many on the agenda for Wyandotte County commissioners was whether to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of groups covered by the county’s non-discrimination ordinance.
“A lot of folks don’t understand that LGBTQ people can be fired for being gay. You can be kicked out of your apartment for being gay,” Brett Hoedl, chair of the Metro Kansas City chapter of Equality Kansas. You can also be denied service at public places.
“These ordinances allow people to be able to live their authentic lives without fear of being discriminated against,” Hoedl says.
Even more than marriage equality, the effort to pass such ordinances in cities, counties and states around the country has, over the last several decades, been the main tactic for securing our equal rights. It’s often involved long nights spent in agonizing town hall meetings and debates at city halls, petition drives that forced otherwise reserved LGBTs to stand on street corners waving signs and give their names to reporters for newspaper stories, and bruising defeats at ballot boxes when the petition drives forced citywide votes.
But at the county commission meeting last week, nobody was there to testify against it – no ministers, no attorneys from conservative national organizations, no one from the Westboro clan. Commissioners saw no need to discuss it. It passed unanimously.
“We were kind of jaw-dropped,” Hoedl told me shortly afterwards. “Not that we didn’t think it would pass, but just because in some cities it’s been more controversial. It seems like at this point we’ve moved beyond that. We were stunned but thrilled, absolutely thrilled, that it passed.”
For folks who aren’t from here: Wyandotte County makes up the northwest quarter of the Kansas City metropolitan area. About 165,000 people live there. It includes a city called Kansas City, Kansas (when most people think of Kansas City, it’s the one in Missouri), and the smaller towns of Bonner Springs and Edwardsville. The city and county governments merged a while back, so the body that approved the ordinance is officially called the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.
And of course, it wasn’t as easy as it might have looked when commissioners voted last Thursday night.
“This has been in the making for a long time,” says Tom Alonzo, the lifelong Wyandotte County resident who spent the last 18 months working on it.
Alonzo had spent a few years watching the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index – the national organization’s list of factors that gauge a city’s quality of life for LGBT people. A good score is 100.
“Our index score was, like, 20 or something awful,” he says. But that score didn’t reflect the community Alonzo knew.
Alonzo is 61. He’s lived in Kansas City, Kansas, all his life except for the nine years he spent in the military, stationed in places like California, Hawaii, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Korea and Japan. He knew Wyandotte County was one of the most diverse places in the entire United States.
“White people aren’t the majority, nobody’s the majority,” he notes. “It’s an easy place to live no matter where you are, and it’s easy for LGBT people. There are a lot of us here. We’re just not very loud.”
Alonzo knew Kansas City, Missouri, had an ordinance protecting LGBT people from discrimination. He didn’t know tiny Roeland Park, just to the south of Kansas City, Kansas, in Johnson County, had passed such an ordinance. He knew there was one in Lawrence, and that folks in Manhattan had worked on one. Those efforts, and all the drama that went along with them, make up the middle chapters of No Place Like Home.
One night he was in a gay bar when he ran into Sandra Meade, who was then the chair of the Metro Kansas City chapter of Equality Kansas, and helped get the Roeland Park ordinance passed.
Meade, along with Tom Witt of Equality Kansas, had already been talking with some folks in the Unified Government, but neither of them actually lived in Wyandotte County. Alonzo had deep roots there.
“I always told my mom, ‘If I get killed overseas, make sure some part of me comes back to go in the ground where I’m from.’ That’s how connected I feel,” he says.
Alonzo’s father grew up in the Armourdale neighborhood, in the Kaw River bottoms around the stockyards, where migrants came to work for the meatpacking houses and the railroads, and where 28 people were killed in a massive flood in 1951 that brought national attention.
“I’m half Mexican,” Alonzo says. “I grew up with stories of the ‘51 flood. Every year on Memorial Day, I marched with my dad down Minnesota Avenue when he was in the VFW. We had tamales on Christmas Eve that grandma spent three days making.”
He likens his family’s immigrant history to that of Croatians, who worked in the same industries but settled up on Strawberry Hill, where Alonzo now lives with his partner of nearly 10 years.
He graduated from Schlagle High School in 1975, went to college for a couple of years and then joined the Air Force.
Alonzo was good with languages. He wanted to be a Russian translator, and, after scoring exceptionally well on the aptitude test, headed to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. But eight months later, during a background investigation, the Air Force discovered that he’d once seen a psychiatrist back home.
“I was trying to be un-gay in 1975,” Alonzo says. “They pulled me out faster than you could shake a stick and brought investigative services up from Los Angeles to figure out if I was a real queer.”
He’d never quite admitted as much to the psychiatrist back home, and the Air Force investigator was compassionate. Unable to prove anything, the Air Force offered him an honorable discharge. But 1977 was not a good time for Alonzo to go back home, and he’d scored well enough on the entrance exams to enlist with a guaranteed job, so he refused the offer and toughed it out, moving around to different bases and learning accounting, for eight more years.
“My nerves were frayed from hiding, watching the Air Force conduct witch hunts, rounding people up in raids.”
That was three decades ago, but Alonzo’s voice still catches at the memory.
“It makes me emotional thinking about it,” he says. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can live like this.’”
By then it was the mid-‘80s. He’d already come out to his mother and grandmother back in Kansas City. He came home, and his uncles helped him get a job with the IRS, where he’s been a tax analyst for 32 years. He also did some ancillary work for the agency’s equal opportunity and diversity initiatives.
That career made Alonzo well-suited to carry on the conversations Meade and Witt had started with staffers in the office of Mayor Mark Holland, a strong ally.
“They said, ‘The mayor and some of the commissioners want to do this, but we need to wait until after the elections,’” he says. “This was 2016. At first I got kind of pissy, but then I thought, ‘I’ve got to be mature about this.’ Because, especially around here, you have to move carefully.”
Then Holland lost the election, throwing everything into uncertainty. But when a member of the mayor’s staff suggested Alonzo volunteer for the Advisory Commission on Human Relations & Disability Issues, he filled out the paperwork and 2ndDistrict Commissioner Brian McKiernan appointed him to the board.
After a few months, Alonzo told them why he was there: to amend the discrimination ordinance to include gender identity and sexual orientation.
“I looked around the room and thought, ‘I don’t have any support.’ I was dead wrong. The more I pushed, the more people came out of their shells and people started agreeing – ‘Why don’t we have this?’”
They looked at the language of ordinances passed in other towns. And the Unified Government had codified those protections for its own employees in 2015.
“It was already law for employees,” Alonzo notes. “So why couldn’t we have it for the whole county? I don’t think I have ever had the experience of so many people going, ‘Yeah!’ It was almost like they were waiting for somebody to say it.”
Three months later, when County Attorney Ryan Haga brought the final language to the board, Alonzo figured that’s when the six months of hearings and debate would start. But one of the members said they should vote on it that same day, and it passed unanimously.
Next stop was the county commission’s sub-committee on Administration and Human Services. Alonzo had gone to the Human Rights Campaign’s website for facts and statistics and created a PowerPoint and written a white paper and made notes for the testimony he was sure he’d have to give.
“There’s 5-6 commissioners, and they’re really upbeat and positive. They got to this is proposal from the human relations commission, and they thanked us for our service and said, ‘Good work, we think we’re ready to vote on this.’ I’m like, ‘Holy moly, I don’t even get to present,’ but I’m telling myself shut up. They voted 6-nothing to send it to the full commission. We weren’t even in there for three minutes.”
Now it was up to the entire Wyandotte County commission.
“They can either vote on it or pull out individual things they don’t like,” Alonzo says. “This is where we think we’re going to get trouble – the archdiocese might show up, the Fred Phelps types. We go in, sit down, we’re waiting. They bring our proposal up at about 7:15 in the evening. The chair says, ‘Is there anything that needs to be pulled?’ Nobody said anything. I thought, OK, that’s one hurdle. ‘Is there public comment?’ I’m on pins and needles. They say, ‘OK, we’re ready to vote.’ It was nine to nothing. No opposition.”
Alonzo describes the feeling as “anti-climactic, but in a good way.”
“Now we have a model that the rest of Northeast Kansas can look to in trying to protect the LGBTQ community,” adds Brett Hoedl.
If Wyandotte County can pass such an ordinance, he reasons, the state’s second-largest city, Overland Park, and the other smaller towns in Johnson County, ought to be able to as well.
But we’ll see how that goes.
Because Wyandotte County is unique for reasons other than its diversity, which has taught people how to get along with each other. Despite an economic boom fueled by a NASCAR track in the western part of the county, it’s working-class and scrappy, which is one reason people like Alonzo love it so deeply. But the metro’s major media outlets quit paying regular attention to it years ago. So nobody reported on the fact that this idea, which had drawn so much attention in other towns, was moving through the bureaucratic process.
Or the monumental step forward for LGBTQ Kansans.
“I told a friend, ‘You know what? We don’t need any fanfare. We got what we needed,’” Alonzo says.
He gets emotional again, talking about his home.
“There’s times that I just want to cry because I can’t believe it. But on the other hand, I know this community. I’m so friggin’ proud of them I can hardly stand it.”
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.