A 74-Year-Old Lesbian Activist To Janelle Monáe: The Kansas Through Line

In my happy daydreams, when Janelle Monáe plays her long-awaited homecoming concert in Kansas City in October, Lea Hopkins is her opening act.

Hopkins isn’t an entertainer, but she’s a celebrity in her own right, one every Kansas Citian should know. And the two share a connection.

Hopkins, who still reads the daily paper old-school, on newsprint, and regularly writes letters to the editor, did so back in May after the paper recapped Monáe’s revelations about her sexual orientation in a Rolling Stone interview.

“Janelle Monáe reveals she’s pansexual and was worried what her KCK family would think,” was The Kansas City Star’s April 28 headline for an article aggregating the highlights of the Rolling Stone story. (A few weeks before that, after the release of Monáe’s video for “PYNK,” the paper’d had to explain the meaning of “vagina pants.”)

Monáe’s revelation, the Star noted, came the day before the release of “Dirty Computer.”

“I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you,” Monáe told Rolling Stone. “This album is for you. Be proud.”

Referring to her “massively, devoutly Baptist family in Kansas City, Kansas,” Monáe said much of “Dirty Computer” is “a reaction to the sting of what it means to hear people in my family say, ‘All gay people are going to hell.’”

Reading the Star story, Lea Hopkins saw something familiar.

“Kudos to The Star for its impressive recent coverage about Janelle Monáe,” Hopkins wrote in her letter to the editor.

“It takes a lot of courage to out your true self. I did the same 44 years ago. As an African-American woman who is now 74, I have been waiting for years for another African-American woman to stand up and stand out for today’s gay youth.

I am so very proud of her. And we are both Kansas City, Kan., natives.

Lea Hopkins, Leawood”

Besides her regular letters to the editor in the daily paper, Hopkins makes an appearance in Austin Williams’ recently released documentary “The Ordinance Project,” about the glory days of Kansas City LGBTQ activism in the early 1990s. That was about the same time as I arrived here, and Hopkins – gorgeous (she’d sometimes worked as a model) and fierce – was one of the stars: speaking for us at City Hall, on television, in the paper, always at the front of whatever needed to be done.

“I was a lipstick lesbian before they ever came up with the word,” Hopkins told me recently. I’d picked her up at the home she shares with the inventor Pat Billings (who I remembered as a steady presence at all of those same public events but never in the spotlight) and taken Hopkins to lunch at Red Snapper, her favorite restaurant on Ward Parkway.

“I’ve always dressed a certain way, and that’s my ace in the hole to get in the door,” Hopkins continued. “I was like: ‘You won’t even know I’m coming, because all you’ll see is an attractive black woman dressed the way she’s supposed to be. And then I’m going to hit you across the head with a sledge hammer.’”

Hopkins was such a force of nature that Essence magazine devoted nearly eight pages to her for a special series of profiles on women in 1980.

“One of the reasons I let everyone know that I am a lesbian is to prevent them from dumping their fear and ignorance on my child,” she told the magazine (she was a single mother by choice, having conceived her son Jason with an Italian friend while living in New York City; Jason died of cancer at age 22). “I try to let people know that what I want for my child is not very different from what they want for theirs. I also try to show them that what I want for my life – a home, a family, a lasting relationship – is also not so different. They can call me a ‘queer’ behind my back, but when it is put to them, they’re hard pressed to say what’s ‘queer’ about my life, my goals, other than that I live with and love a member of my own sex.”

Lea Hopkins in Essence

The article, headlined “Lea Hopkins, Just Different,” is now among the voluminous photographs, clippings and other materials Hopkins has donated to the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where I hope she becomes the subject of numerous dissertations, or, hell, entire classes. Hopkins donated her collection so recently that it’s not yet available online or else I’d link to the Essence article here.

But back to Janelle Monáe. She grew up in the Quindaro neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas; Hopkins around 4th and 5th streets. Monáe went to Schlagle High School; Hopkins to Sumner.

Around the same time as Hopkins saw the Star article, Monáe also appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, which is one of Hopkins’ weekly rituals.

“I got my coffee and I’m ready,” Hopkins remembered of that morning. “I heard ‘Janelle Monáe’ and I went, excuse me?”

It wasn’t Monáe’s music that grabbed Hopkins. After all, she said, “I’m 74 years old. If it’s not Marvin Gaye or Teddy and the guys, it’s not working for me. I’m a whole other generation when it comes to music.”

It was just Monáe’s presence that moved her. And Hopkins recognized her strategy.

“She’s very, very brilliant: ‘I’m going to wait after ‘Hidden Figures’ scores and does whatever it does, a major movie. Then I’m going to knock your socks off, because it doesn’t matter – because I already got my money.’ At that point, part of the story was she wasn’t sure how her family would accept the fact. But when you got your own thing going, you get to the point that you don’t care. Then all of a sudden the national media comes to Kansas City, Kansas, to talk to (your family). And everybody was fine, everybody was smiling, it was like, ‘OK, sure, right. No problem.’ It’s now on national TV, they said it, they can’t take it back. It’s like, ‘You go!’ Not everybody can do that. I thought, ‘Yeah, good for you. Good for you.’”

Lea Hopkins seated
Lea Hopkins outside her home in Leawood, Kansas, in June 2018.

And so, that letter to the editor. It had been a long time since I’d heard the sound of Hopkins’ voice, but it reverbed up from the newsprint:

“As an African-American woman who is now 74, I have been waiting for years for another African-American woman to stand up and stand out for today’s gay youth.”

At lunch, she had advice for today’s gay youth.

First, for the ones who feel isolated: “Read your newspapers, look at your televisions, because we’re there for you. Because over time, the story will change: you are not alone. We are out here. There are organizations. Only problem is you feel so marginalized in your own room, your own little space, with mom and dad and sister, whatever. You can get through that, too.”

She reminisced about her days on the speaker circuit, talking to gay students and at gay prides: “My lectures always start with: I am a woman. I am a black woman. I am a lesbian. I am an unwed mother. Everything I am, in this country I live in, I am not supposed to survive. I am here to tell you, you can survive. All you have to do is want to survive, and you will find a way to get it done.”

But what about the ones who feel empowered, I asked her. The ones who inherited the world she helped create?

“Thank your forebearers, who made it possible for you to have what you have. You did not get that on your own. It was a gift. A lot of people paid the price to give you that gift and you need to remember that,” she said.

“When you see something, say something,” she continued. “Your little circle’s fine, so why is this other kid still being bullied, whether he’s gay or not, because his nose is too big or whatever. Why is that happening and you’re OK? You owe a debt. Get to paying it.”

All of which is advice that Janelle Monáe must somehow have heard, bouncing around the concrete cosmos of Kansas City, Kansas.

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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