From protests and a Pride parade to working against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and more, the transgender community in Lawrence celebrated joy and resilience in many ways throughout 2023.
When Sylvie Althoff walked down Massachusetts Street in a wedding dress alongside her wife, Jenn Thomas, for the 2023 Lawrence PRIDE celebration, she felt supported by her community.
“Walking down the street and seeing people cheering and clapping and showing general approval was a really special feeling,” Althoff said. “It was really, really heartwarming.”
With a multitude of supportive events and ways to get involved in the community, people have been able to embrace their true identities and live more authentic lives.
In February, Lawrence PRIDE also hosted Lawrence’s first Queer Prom, where drag performer Kansas Campbell was able to wear her original prom dress from high school and create the prom she always desired.
“When I was in high school, I had spent $600 on a dress and I didn’t have any fun,” Campbell said. “I was not perceived as a woman wearing a dress at the time, but when I was able to wear my original prom dress to the Queer Prom, it was really fun for me.”
The event provided community members a chance to experience their first prom or recreate a previous prom experience as their authentic selves with loved ones.
“Many people don’t get to experience prom as who they are or with the partners they love,” said Courtney Farr, community engagement chair of Lawrence PRIDE.
“This is a chance to have that formal prom experience, showing up as who you are and with the people you want to be with.”
Solidarity in 2023
While the Lawrence community fostered celebration and community bonds, 2023 saw an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at the state level. In spite of the political climate, many Lawrencians took action to try to ensure that the city was a safe space for all, regardless of gender.
In March, hundreds of students from Lawrence and Free State high schools held a walkout in support of transgender rights amid legislative attacks from the Statehouse. About 100 West Middle School students attempted to walk out in solidarity but were corralled back to school by administrators.
In April, Lawrence school board members reaffirmed that the school district would continue to uphold their equity policies that prohibit gender-based discrimination and develop procedures for supporting transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students and staff.
In May, the Lawrence Public Library held a clinic on how to change gender markers on legal documents before the state’s anti-trans laws went into effect July 1.
In June, an estimated 5,000 people, according to Farr, took to Massachusetts Street for the city’s largest Pride parade yet. The parade was followed by a block party with vendors, music, and a drag show.
Farr, one of the event’s organizers, said one of their favorite moments of the day was seeing a gay couple get engaged and bringing them on stage.
“Seeing that crowd going nuts and yelling for them,” Farr added, “along with the fact that I got the privilege to be able to introduce this newly engaged gay couple to this crowd — I feel like I’m the lucky one.”
The event was a cause for celebration but also gave voice to the transgender community with a call to action against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that had been introduced across the United States in 2023.
While speaking onstage, Iridescent Riffel encouraged community members to stand with the LGBTQ+ community and fight against hostile legislation.
“We need you to be loud. We need you to be incessant, annoying, and be honest about your anger, because goddammit your anger is valid,” Riffel said.
Following June’s pride celebrations, community members and representatives from local organizations gathered together for the Pride Never Ends rally July 1. The event allowed attendees to show support for trans people and protest against laws that intend to erase them.
In October, Lawrence activists showed solidarity with transgender cyclists during the Belgian Waffle Ride after the race changed its policies to no longer allow trans athletes to compete in the category that aligns with their gender identity.
Legislative attacks on trans rights
More than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation were introduced in the U.S. last year, and 84 were passed. In Kansas, 14 bills targeting trans rights were introduced at the state level. The bills put limitations on gender-affirming health care and student and educator rights, limit free speech and expression, weaken nondiscrimination laws, and affect gender markers on legal documents.
Three of the bills, HB 2238, SB 180 and SB 228, passed into Kansas state law last year when legislators overrode Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes. Together, the three bills aim to prevent transgender people from having access to appropriate restrooms and student athletic teams, ban the correction of gender markers on legal documents, and determine how incarcerated people are separated in jails and prisons.
SB 180, which proponents called the “women’s bill of rights,” is an especially controversial law that created a legal definition of biological sex to be used to determine the ability of people to access restrooms, locker rooms, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters and appropriate prison placement. It does not enumerate any rights for women.
The bill also bans changing a gender marker on identification documents and designates intersex people as disabled. It is currently being challenged in Shawnee County District Court.
Lawrence’s Safe Haven ordinance
Under the threat of harmful legislation, a group of local activists came together to form No SB 180. The organization was founded in May 2023 with the goal of preventing the enforcement of SB 180 in Lawrence through community mobilization.
The group, which is now called the Trans Lawrence Coalition, was successful in that mission.
The Lawrence City Commission unanimously approved Ordinance 9999, known as the Safe Haven ordinance, during their July 18, 2023 meeting. The ordinance aims to protect the health, safety and welfare of those within the city of Lawrence that are affected by SB 180 by prohibiting public workers from enforcing SB 180.
The ordinance declares the city to be “a safe haven for all persons seeking shelter from the adversity of discrimination, in all its forms,” including those affected by SB 180, and reaffirms the “commitment to embrace all persons and their numerous contributions to the cultural fabric … and diversity of the community.”
The ordinance also states that in 2022, Lawrence made history by being the first city in Kansas to receive a score of 100 – the highest possible score – by the Human Rights Campaign for its persistence in enacting laws that protect the LGBTQ+ community.
Activist Monty Protest became a member of TLC in June.
“When it passed, it was incredible,” Protest said of the ordinance. “I was so overjoyed to be a part of something so amazing. I feel like the happiest I’ve been was doing No SB 180 in Lawrence.”
Farr said he was thankful to see community members stand together to work against injustices.
“When a bunch of people flooded the city commission with testimony, it worked,” he said. “We don’t know if the Safe Haven ordinance will ever have teeth, but we get another tool in the toolbox.”
Positive effects of community support
Looking back over 2023, Farr said something that brought him joy was the amount of queer and trans visibility within Lawrence.
“We exist in this little bubble in downtown Lawrence and Lawrence in general, but especially in our downtown community where we can actually forget how hostile the world is sometimes,” he said. “That has also encouraged people to be themselves, to transition, to come out, to show up in the world the way that they want to be.”
With a large amount of community support and representation, Ruby Mae Johnson was able to come out as a transgender woman in the beginning of 2023.
“This is me saving my life. This is how I stay alive,” Johnson said. “It’s also the reason why I am extraordinarily happy. I’m really happier and healthier than I’ve ever been.
“Other people being visible and willing and able to engage with me was so critical in me finding my way forward and out of the closet,” Johnson said.
When Raine Flores-Peña moved to Lawrence in 2018, he began to find community and be his authentic self.
“I feel very safe and happy and proud to be here,” Flores-Peña said. “I’m proud to be a trans person in Lawrence.”
For Flores-Peña, being able to find community and see representation in Lawrence has been beneficial.
“I love how diverse our community is. It’s cool to have intersectionalities of being Native and Mexican and trans. It’s cool to explore all of them in my own way,” Flores-Peña said.
“I’m grateful that Lawrence is a very unique city and has a unique community, plus a strong Indigenous and LGBTQ+ community here. I feel like I won the lottery and I feel at home here.”
For Arlowe Clementine, seeing allies stand with the queer community throughout 2023 provided them with a sense of hope when working against injustices.
“It’s been helpful for me to see allies coming out and standing up as well,” Clementine said. “We need everyone to put a stop to injustice, not just for trans stuff but with folks who are immigrants, folks with disabilities and folks who are living unhoused.”
Clementine is an organizer at Camp Wood Fire, which is an organization of local artists that focuses on creating safe and affirming spaces for LGBTQ+ artists. From clay projects, book readings, storytelling nights and more, the organization provides a variety of ways for artists to get involved.
Farr said that with more groups, events and activities, it’s been easier for people to find others they fit in with.
“There’s a thirst to be able to go out there and do things and have community,” Farr said.
Farr encourages others to get involved. With organizations such as Trans Lawrence Coalition, Lawrence PRIDE, the Lawrence PFLAG chapter, Equality Kansas and more, the city is home to a variety of ways to get involved in activism or attend events in 2024.
“Start showing up, meet people, hang out and engage,” Farr said. “When the time comes, if there’s a need to volunteer or a need to be active, it makes it so much easier when you already know the people who you’re going to be showing up with.”
Hopes for the 2024 legislative session
With the legislative session, which began Jan. 8, Trans Lawrence Coalition member Flores-Peña said he feels safer having Ordinance No. 9999 in place.
“Seeing the community come together and support trans people makes me feel a lot more safe,” Flores-Peña said. “I’m very wary going into this next legislative session, but having things such as Ordinance No. 9999 in place makes me feel safer as a trans person.”
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Althoff said dealing with everything from the Kansas Legislature last year was really hard, and “I’m not looking forward to seeing what gets dreamt up this year to make life harder for us.”
Johnson said there is more work that needs to be done.
“The reality is, even if we have everything we need, on a civil and systemic level, there’s still going to be individuals who face hatred and oppression and violence,” Johnson said. “As long as that’s true, there’s always work to be done.”
With a variety of issues being addressed, such as gender-affirming care and gender marker changes, Althoff said she is worried for her safety in Kansas. Some former Lawrence community members have already moved out of the state.
“Depending on what happens in the legislative session, my family might have to leave,” Althoff said. “If some things happen here that have happened already in other states, making health care inaccessible or criminalizing using the public restroom, my family won’t be able to stay here.”
Farr said he anticipates the 2024 legislative session to be as challenging as 2023, if not more difficult.
“I think everybody anticipates it being as bad or worse than last year. Trans people are easy targets to try to demonize and whip up hate around,” Farr said. “It’s not even if (the anti-trans laws) end up enforced or if anything actually happens with them, it’s making people’s lives harder and scarier.”
Campbell said she would like to see local governing bodies as well as state and federal legislatures provide more spaces for the BIPOC-trans community.
“I’d like to see them give us the space that we need,” Campbell said. “I have a place as a Black, trans woman in this community to do what I can, but I have expectations and I do expect work.”
Although last year’s legislative session came with a multitude of challenges, Farr said they are hopeful that the community will continue to band together.
“It gives people a lot of hope that you can make something happen when we all come together and work towards it,” Farr said. “If we see another legislation like SB 180 again, we will see this community come together again and fight it and push back against it.”
Despite being worried for the future, Althoff said she is proud to see the community stand together, whether allies or LGBTQ+ people, and hopeful for what the future will bring.
“It’s good to remember that things in many ways are better and more accepting now than they ever have been and that’s something worth taking joy in,” Althoff said. “That’s something worth fighting for and protecting.”
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Lane Rozin (he/they), a contributor to the Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas Schools of Journalism and Film. He is a graduate of Pittsburg High School, where he was the multimedia editor for the Booster Redux/Pitt Media in 2019-21. He is currently the arts & culture editor at the University Daily Kansan and a radio show host at KJHK. See more of his work for the Times here.
Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.
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