Meet the small-town Kansas All-American football hero who is now a different kind of star

It’s been a long time since Burt Humburg was homecoming king at Andover High School, just east of Wichita. It’s been a bit less long since he was an All American football player at Southwestern College, the United Methodist-affiliated private school in Winfield.

Humburg’s a doctor now, practicing near St. Louis, his tightly buzzed hair graying. But he still has the build of a football star and the blazing smile that endeared him to his classmates, teachers and coaches, and makes the women at his medical practice wish he wasn’t gay. 

And about that fact, one of his coaches remembers thinking about his performance on the field: “If somebody had gay phobia or whatever it may be, you can shelf it, because Burt’ll whup your tail.”

Humburg’s story feels both timeless and of-the-moment, like an awesome after-school special, which is what sports-reporter-turned-filmmaker Adam Knapp has done in the half-hour documentary about Humburg, “Out Here In Kansas,” which is up on Amazon.

“I hate to say this as a 40-something-year-old, but I think it’s probably going to be the most important work I’ve ever done,” Knapp says of the film. “I can’t imagine doing anything as personally as meaningful as this.”

Burt Humburg in front of his childhood home in Andover, Kansas, in a photo taken by Adam Knapp that accompanied Knapp’s 2011 newspaper profile of Humburg.

Besides introducing us to the immediately lovable Burt Humburg, which would be reason enough for any movie, Knapp uses his half hour to paint a gorgeous picture of Kansas, refute a stereotype about its red-state residents and engage with one existential question about this place: how its ministers deal with its LGBTQ people. 

In this case that minister is Joe Wright, one of the most anti-gay (after Fred Phelps) ministers in the state. It’s been a while since Wright and his fellow traveler Terry Fox walked the halls of the State Capitol like they owned the place, but Wright was a key pusher of the same-sex marriage ban in 2005 and his views have clearly not evolved.

Humburg is much more gracious to Wright than I could be. He grew up in Wright’s church, and the centerpiece of Knapp’s movie is a conversation between the minister and the now-grown gay man. It goes about as well as could be expected, which is to say not well if you’re watching from an LGBTQ perspective – except for the dignity and power with which Humburg comports himself in the face of Wright’s ostensibly compassionate but deeply offensive comments.

The film ends with a twist that I won’t reveal, but in Knapp’s narration it comes with a revelation: “I’m certain gay people don’t want to hear, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin.’ It demeans who they are. I’m certain gay people don’t want to hear, ‘I love you, but.’ Just say, ‘I love you.’ And I’m certain that if you have a gay child, you should love gay people. After all, with a little help from God, you made one.”

Knapp, who had never made a film before, says he’s been gratified by the response since the film first screened in 2016.

“We had a premiere in Wichita at Roxy’s Downtown, which holds around 150, and they were turning people away at the door – on a Tuesday night. It was unbelievable. The mayor of Wichita came,” Knapp says, before adding that he’d unwittingly scheduled the film’s premiere on October 11, otherwise known to the LGBTQ community as National Coming Out Day

Since then, the film has shown on the East Coast and the West Coast in film festivals, where it won the best documentary short category at the Austin Revolution Film Festival in Texas; the Outlaw Film Festival in Missouri; and the Twister Alley Film Festival and the Glitter Film Festival, both in Oklahoma; and Best LGBT subject at the Jim Thorpe Film Festival in Pennsylvania. It’s also shown at churches, movie theaters, wherever Knapp could screen it, most often on college campuses, at KU, K-State, Wichita State, community colleges and Humburg’s alma mater, Southwestern College. This year, Knapp anticipates screenings at Pittsburg State and Fort Hays State. 

That’s a lot of people seeing a story about Kansas that’s different from the stereotype. A story about the Kansas that LGBTQ people call home and the rest of the country is starting to see glimpses of as well.

People in Humburg’s hometown have known his story for a long time. They knew he was gay even before Knapp originally told the story in a newspaper profile back in 2011.

Filmmaker Adam Knapp, left, with Burt Humburg as he appears in ‘Out Here In Kansas.’

Since the film’s been out, Humburg tells me, “There are some guys on the football team who were raised in religion who did the straight-bro kind of thing: They reached out to me and said, ‘I’m really proud of you. I never told you this, but I thought that took a lot of courage coming out in a small town.’”

He had a sense that he was trailblazing a little bit, says Humburg, who told his friends, teammates and coaches he was gay after his final season of football at Southwestern, where he graduated in 1998. 

“There are these coming-out stories of high school or college athletes where everyone’s supportive,” says Humburg. Some people have told him, “You were there – you did that, so it’s easier for them.” 

But in Humburg’s case it might not have been an act of courage, necessarily.

“One insight into my character, and I guess this kind of came out in the documentary, is: I really didn’t do fear all that much,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong – I don’t walk across hot coals without thinking good, long and hard about it. But if there’s a reason to do something and nobody’s doing it – I see this in medicine. If I see someone and there’s a lot of evidence they have pulmonary edema, you treat it. If you have evidence backing up what you’re doing, you just can’t be paralyzed by fear.” (Evidence is also what Humburg brings to the table for his debate with Pastor Wright, the full version of which is here.)

Like most of the people I wrote about in No Place Like Home, who became activists just because they saw a reason to do something and nobody was doing it, Humburg is one of those guys who have demonstrably made the world better for today’s gay kids. When I ask what he’d tell LGBTQ kids who still struggle, he spends a moment thinking about that word, specifically.

“There are lots of different ways to struggle. If you’re beating yourself up, I don’t think there’s ever a role for that. If your parents disown you, it’s just a matter of: Get through it, it gets better. Another kind of struggling is if you’re getting picked on. Find your support group and get out from under it – again, it gets better,” he says, before adding something about his hometown.

“I will say also: I loved Andover, athletics and everything. But the search for knowledge – life just really didn’t get interesting until college. I never had the perspective, the sense of purpose that I had, until I got to college.”

The way he says that, it sounds like doctor’s orders. More important is that it sounds like Burt Humburg’s orders.

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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