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True confessions time, gang: I didn’t care for Pride Month as a young gay man.
Rainbow iconography left me cold. I didn’t much enjoy parades. Drag queens could put on a good show, but I would rather read a book. Making change, I told myself and others, would come from political organizing and activism instead of frivolous celebrations. In the grand scheme of gay life, I leaned more toward Barney Frank than Harvey Fierstein.
But things changed. As I lived in more places and met more people, I realized the jubilation of Pride Month can be a welcome antidote to grim oppression. While society has become more inclusive to some members of the LGBTQ community over the past few decades, the simple act of accepting and proclaiming one’s personhood changes minds and hearts. In the 2015 Obergefell same-sex marriage case, the Supreme Court joined in the party.
Love won. Diversity triumphed.
Or so I thought.
In the past couple of years, voices of hate have reemerged, louder than ever. In the Kansas Legislature, these voices supported legislation targeting the transgender community. And as Pride Month approached, they have attempted to silence the voices of joy and hope from LGBTQ Kansans. They must not be allowed to win, or to set the terms of debate.
Actor and puppeteer Brett Crandall hosted Playchella, an “all-ages pride arts festival,” in Garden City earlier this month.
While earlier versions of the event went off without a hitch, this year presented new challenges. Before the event, pastors from a local church began to target the event’s venue.
“The veteran-owned business was sent dozens of direct messages, making demands to stop the event from ‘grooming’ children,” Crandall told me via email. “Though I reached out multiple times to discuss the importance of affirming stories and accessible events with their church leadership, no calls were returned. One of the three plays presented that day, ‘The Trials of David: A Queer, Biblical, Puppet Play,’ was, regretfully, removed from the day’s events, in an effort to tame the waves of online outrage.”
Crandall said he tries to curate events based on what would have helped him as a kid, not to produce outrage.
“I think many complaining out of religious concern would believe I host all-ages pride events for predatory reasons, or to exploit the vulnerable by doing what is ‘cool.’ That I am endangering these kids or just stirring up trouble,” he said. “But no one felt threatened until people quoting scripture began making threats to boycott and protest.”
Crandall has written for Kansas Reflector about his experiences. Playchella even made the PBS “NewsHour” last year. But popular notice doesn’t necessarily protect those giving a voice to a discriminated-against minority group. He believes that legislative scapegoating helped rally religious voices to oppose the event.
Despite all that, Playchella went off without a hutch on June 3.
“I’m happy to report that the worst thing that happened that day was the rain,” Crandall said. “This ended up as a bonus, though, as the grassy area outside flooded enough for little boys to splash in. To play in puddles for hours dressed in all the rainbows they want. Free to just be.”
Another event, a Pride Fest Day Celebration, will be held June 17 in Garden City’s Stevens Park.
A similar type of story played out in Hutchinson, although this one garnered more coverage from local news media.
There, organizers of the 2023 Salt City Pride Fest saw their venue cancel without consulting them.
I recommend reading Alice Manette’s account in the Hutchinson News from late April. where one of the venue owners attempts to say he simultaneously supports everyone’s rights while suggesting something was awry with the event itself.
“This is not an issue of anti any group or hate of any kind,” said Daniel Friesen, a Reno County commissioner who also runs the venue. “We support the rights of all people. The event was canceled because we thought there was content that would be sensitive to children.”
It also just happens that the pullout happened within a day or two of an incendiary video being posted online by Tommy Galindo of Legends Barber Shop in town. For more on that angle, I recommend reading the Wichita Eagle’s Dion Lefler.
As in Garden City, activists didn’t target gay folks and their supporters directly. Instead, they went after venues. Businesses have to be sensitive to community response, which can lead to alarmed owners pulling the plug on pride celebrations without understanding the harmful ideology at play.
“We didn’t understand” the cancellation, said Julia Johnson, chair and co-founder of Salt City Pride, according to Manette’s story. “We didn’t understand that at all because none of our events are sexualized.”
Another venue was found, and the celebration looks on target for June 16 and 17. Events will be held at the Baker Ballroom. But controversy still roils the community, according to a follow-up piece from Manette. A celebration held peacefully for five years now has an entirely different tone, with a community riven by disagreement.
“We’ve never had any backlash,” Johnson said. “Never.”
All this plays out in a state where legislators escalated their attacks on the LGBTQ community during this year’s session. Multiple bills targeting transgender Kansans became law, with Gov. Laura Kelly’s well-intentioned vetoes being overridden.
Attorney General Kris Kobach looks interested in aiding the cause. According to reporting from the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Andrew Bahl, the hard-right Republican met on Jan. 24 with Richard and Janna Cott, who run Clay Center’s Cott Farms. They also have an associated wedding and events business.
“PURPOSE: Discussion / Advice re: HB8404 – Respect for Marriage Act. They own & run an event center in Clay Center and want to restrict any gay weddings or similar events,” read Kobach’s calendar listing, which was obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request. “They would like your input.”
Kobach’s spokeswoman said he wasn’t offering legal advice to the Cotts. He was simply meeting with constituents.
But it should be noted the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, has compiled quite the rap sheet on Kobach. In years past, he checked nearly every antigay box that could be expected — and then some. According to GLAAD, he:
- “While standing opposed to marriage equality, cited polygamy and drug use as comparable ‘situations’ that society condemns.
- “Claimed same-sex parents are ‘not good for kids’: ‘Now we have a situation where gay couples are adopting on the same terms and must be allowed to adopt on the same legal terms as heterosexual couples and, you know, that’s certainly not good for the kids.’
- “Reportedly accused the Human Rights Campaign of promoting pedophilia.”
I was curious what the Cotts spoke about with Kobach and if the couple had actually been asked to host any same-sex weddings. I reached out to them via email, but they didn’t respond to my request for comment.
Perhaps they were too busy celebrating Pride Month. Ha! I kid.
In this journey across Kansas, we finish with my hometown of Lawrence. I call it that because I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in the state (12 years in total) and because it’s a place where my family and I can live openly and, yes, proudly.
Sometimes, acceptance doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes, a parade falls short.
The Lawrence Times reported last week that locals asked the city commission to take specific action against Senate Bill 180, the “women’s bill of rights” passed this past session that instead targets trans folks. They want city leaders to make a stand against the law by passing a city ordinance.
“Transphobia is trauma; cis sexism is trauma; not being protected, seen, valued in your community is trauma,” the story quoted therapist Cassy Ainsworth as saying. “We are neurobiologically hardwired for a sense of belonging. There’s no way that somebody could experience a sense of belonging under the umbrella of what’s being experienced here.”
Social worker, therapist and queer woman Jenny Robinson spoke about the effects of hateful legislation. For anyone who believes that such laws offer easy political wins, simply listening to those affected should offer a bracing reality check.
“Our community members deserve to feel safe here, deserve to live and thrive and find joy here,” Robinson said, according to the piece. “This is not just a ‘bathroom bill.’ This is a bill that says, ‘You are dangerous, and we will protect our fragile understanding of the world by means of violence.’ … It was not based in any kind of supportive evidence, only in fear, unconscionable ignorance and hatred.”
Since that meeting, Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen and District Attorney Suzanne Valdez have pledged to support trans residents. We’ll see how that works in practice.
Proud to be
One of my favorite records as a child was “Free to Be… You and Me,” a creation of Marlo Thomas and assorted feminists that emphasized how boys and girls could accomplish whatever they wanted. The album was accompanied by a book and TV special, all of which told ’70s kids that gender norms were for the birds.
The record made a big difference in my life. I was a sensitive little kid, and its songs and skits told me that was OK. It told me, in a way, that I should be proud of who I was, even if I had a doll or needed to cry now and then.
All those who would ruin Pride Month for their fellow Kansans need to go back and take a listen. As the title song puts it:
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live in a land
Where the river runs free, in a land through the green country,
In a land to a shining sea. And you and me are free to be
You and me.
None of this is new, I now realize. It wasn’t new when I was young and turning up my nose at pride events, and it’s not new now that I’m older and appreciate them. LGBTQ people have been around since the beginning of time. So have people who love and value and celebrate them.
Those who would silence us have been there all along as well. They come in waves, every decade or two. They have no more claim to truth in 2023 than they did in 2015 or 1974 or 1969, when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn.
We are free, despite them. We celebrate it in June, and every other month besides. Happy pride, everyone.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: email@example.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.
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