A year of gratitude from No Place Like Home-land

A year ago today – Kansas Day – my wife and I, along with our dear friend Emily Levine, drove from Kansas City to the Lawrence Public Library for the official release of my book, No Place Like Home.

The book is about brave LGBTQ Kansans who spent a decade fighting for equality, so I invited a couple of the people I wrote about, Stephanie Mott and Sandra Stenzel, to speak with me. Throughout my reporting, I’d been struck by people’s willingness to share their experiences and I knew that everyone who showed up that night would be equally moved to hear Stephanie and Sandra in person.

All writers dream of such nights, but I work hard to never have expectations about anything. Seeing the room fill up with LGBTQ people, their family members and our allies was beyond a dream come true. Knowing we’d have book launches later in other towns that I wrote about, I hadn’t imagined folks would drive over from Salina and Manhattan, so I was floored when Gary Martens, Larry Bunker, Kevin Stilley, Darci Pottroff and Joleen Spain walked in. Tom Witt came up from Wichita. A former Kansan, LuAnn Kahl, even made the trip down from Iowa. 

Katie Stover, aka @MarianLiberryan, tweeted this photo on January 29 saying: “Inspiring informative panel @lawrencelibrary #SandraStenzel @cjjanovy @TransInTopeka #KansasDay #LGBT #NoPlaceLikeHome @Kansas_Press”

The evening was more than a book launch. It had the feeling of a family reunion, but also something that created a new family. 

“One of the best things about the book is all the people I’ve met – people I should have known all along but never did,” Stenzel told me later in the year. “We’re all connected now.”

Another dream came true at the Kansas City Public Library in August, where Cyd Slayton, Michael Poppa and I got to stand at a podium where I’ve seen so many other writers give talks. At Hutchinson’s first-ever Salt City Pride, organizers Jon Powell and Julia Johnson had a whole slate of authors – I’ve never seen such a thing at any Pride festival. I also made a trip to Independence, Kansas, where I’d never been, but where librarian Brandon West won the American Library Association’s award for LGBTQ political activism thanks to his work organizing Project Q&A, an organization for queers and allies – how had I not discovered the thriving LGBTQ community in Montgomery County? And I had fun conversations at the Kansas City Center for Inclusion and Kansas City Oasis and Hallmark, on college campuses and at art galleries and a yoga studio and even with my mom’s book club up in Lincoln.

Mott would accompany me at several other readings when they were within an hour’s drive from her home town of Topeka; other folks I wrote about helped arrange events and shared their stories in person with their families, friends and neighbors in their own towns – or drove great distances to speak to a tiny group, as former Manhattanite Allie Stoughton did at the Provincetown Library in Massachusetts in July. 

Me with two pillars of the Manhattan LGBTQ community: Darci Pottroff (left) and Joleen Spain (right) at Little Apple Pride in April 2018.

All of this would have been overwhelming if it hadn’t so affirming — not just of my own work in having written a book, but of the hard work of pushing a whole movement forward in difficult times, which is what the people in No Place Like Home have done.   

Their stories reached far and wide. I heard from two friends I haven’t seen in decades, one now living in Thailand who had seen an ad placed by the University Press of Kansas in the New York Review of Books, the other now working at a high school in Florida, where she mentors GSA students and was searching Amazon for books about activism and social justice for them when she stumbled across my name.

I also got notes of appreciate from people I didn’t know. One of the most entertaining was from a reader who recognized herself in a crowd scene. At the beginning of Chapter 9, I wrote about an event at The Roost on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, where people were raising money for a lawsuit in which Julie and Roberta Woodrick and Michael Nelson and Charles Dedmon would challenge Kansas’ same-sex marriage ban. I went on at some length describing the crowd, which included “a strong contingent of gray-haired lesbians (one couple wore matching Carhartt hooded jackets).”

“My wife & I may be the couple at the fundraiser at the Roost in Lawrence in matching Carhartt hooded jackets,” wrote my correspondent. “But they’re actually L.L. Bean brand.” Duly noted!

I heard from several parents, who told me that their kids had recently come out. The book had been helpful, they said, and I could only marvel at their efforts to learn and be supportive. 

And I heard from young people. One of them waited while I signed a couple of books for other folks at the Hutch Pride authors’ table and then handed me a folded-up note, the kind high school kids pass to each other in hallways. Brecken Shimel has given me permission to share it, which I’m doing in hopes that it passes on the light she mentions:

What I learned from Brecken, and from everyone along the way this year, is what I already knew but what we all need to remember every day. We’re not alone.

C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas (you can get a signed copy, and a T-shirt, via her website). Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

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