In conservative Kansas, newly elected gay legislators try to make history
Protesters lined up outside, holding signs of condemnation. One read “God still hates fags.” A businessman warned that Christianity would be abolished in this Kansas City suburb if the city council were to officially protect the gay community from discrimination.
Inside, new state Rep.-elect Susan Ruiz waited expectantly, weeks of debate coming down to this vote. One of three openly gay politicians elected in November’s midterms here, Ruiz was hoping to witness another momentous change in what has long been a solidly red state.
When the Prairie Village City Council unanimously passed the ordinance — which prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender people in housing, employment and public services — Ruiz clapped and cheered, trading hugs with supporters.
“When you’re openly gay, you’ve come to an acceptance of yourself,” she said. “But it’s something different when your employer is okay with you and your neighbor is okay with you. It hits at your heart.”
Kansans made history this November by electing Brandon Woodard as a state representative, Ruiz, and Sharice Davids, a Native American who garnered widespread attention when she upset U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder in Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District.
The mini-rainbow wave of gay legislators long would have been unthinkable in Kansas, a state that hasn’t chosen a Democrat for president since 1964. But the state is emerging from eight years of deeply conservative governance that left $1 billion in debt and political upheaval; amid the backlash, its voters just chose a new Democratic governor, state Sen. Laura Kelly.
Ruiz, Woodard and Davids took advantage of the changing attitudes here, along with broader anti-Trump sentiment, part of a midterm that saw a record number of LGBTQ politicians elected across the country. Openly gay candidates won 147 state-level positions nationwide in November, and the number in Congress rose from seven to 10, according to the Victory Fund, which raised a record $2 million on behalf of LGBTQ candidates this election cycle.
Advocates say that they expect the number to grow and that it could have a significant impact on the 2020 race, particularly in suburban battlegrounds with college-educated voters in states like Kansas.
And those elected are expected to be key to equality efforts in the nation’s statehouses, where some conservative legislatures have enacted legislation viewed as limiting LGBTQ rights since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015. Just in May, for example, the Kansas legislature passed a bill that allows faith-based adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples based on religious beliefs.
“What happened in 2018 is going to be amplified,” said Annise Parker, the openly gay former Houston mayor who now heads the Victory Fund. “Our candidates are running everywhere. People think the rainbow wave was part of the blue wave, and it was, but we also did well in places like Kansas, Ohio and Nebraska. We’re going to contend in those places because that’s where we live and that’s where our candidates want to run.”
‘More to be done’
Ground zero of the equality debate in Kansas is the corner of SW 12th Street and SW Orleans Street in Topeka, not far from the statehouse. On one side of the street sits the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by the late minister Fred Phelps, whose anti-gay protests at military funerals and in other public spaces across the country — upheld as free speech by the Supreme Court in 2011 — have drawn scrutiny, scorn and counterprotests.
On the other side sits Equality House, a home purchased by the human rights group Planting Peace and painted the colors of the rainbow. A community center for the transgender population sits next door.
It’s a long way from 2005, when Kansans overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The vote was a major setback for many in a nascent civil rights movement here, according to C.J. Janovy, a Kansas City journalist and author of the book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas.”
“It was crushing,” Janovy said. “This is literally the heartland, and for people who have connections here to be in this place where people have expressed their hostility to you so resoundingly, it was very personal and heartbreaking.”
The vote galvanized activists, later buoyed by the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage. But at the state level, they struggled after Sam Brownback, a conservative Catholic long opposed to same-sex marriage, was elected governor in 2010. So-called “pro-family” and “pro-religious” freedom policies found support in the governor’s office.
In 2015, Brownback abruptly rescinded an ordinance passed by his Democrat predecessor that protected LGBT state employees from discrimination. Shortly before Trump was elected in 2016, Equality House was covered in ugly graffiti and peppered by gunfire, a hate crime not yet solved.
But the mood among its activists is decidedly upbeat these days, with a newly elected Democrat governor, Kelly, to be sworn in next month. Kelly has vowed to reinstate the order barring discrimination for gay state employees her first week in office. She won handily in November, campaigning against another conservative,Kris Kobach, while promising to continue to dig the state out of the $1 billion debt left by pro-business tax cuts and to repair the state’s fraying education system.
“There’s a lot of happiness and excitement,” said Luc Bensimon, 47, a transgender activist. “There’s still more to be done, but right now there’s a feeling we may be able to get somewhere.”
Brownback is now Trump’s ambassador for religious freedom and declined to comment through a State Department official, who said he was now “focused on his role at the State Department of advancing religious freedom issues around the globe.”
Ruiz, Woodard and local activists view Kelly’s victory as a leap forward for a state with an estimated 68,000 gay and transgender residents, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
But the new governor will face a Republican-controlled legislature, with staunch conservatives who have vowed — in a resolution written by Brownback’s son-in-law Eric Teetsel — to “oppose all efforts to validate a transgender identity” and added language in the party platform that states “God created two genders, male and female.”
“This is the major question of our time, and if we don’t understand the nature of human sexual identity then we’re truly lost as a society,” said Teetsel, the outgoing president of the conservative Family Policy Alliance of Kansas. “Allowing lies about the nature of human sexuality to spread is not loving our neighbor.”
The anti-transgender resolution and platform language was the “last straw,” for state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican who announced Dec. 12 that she was switching parties to join the Democrats, one of three female legislators in Kansas to do so in recent days.
“It’s terrible to be bringing people’s private lives into the party platform. It doesn’t belong there,” Bollier said. “People are changing and the Republican Party is not in touch with the people it is supposedly representing.”
‘Tired of being angry’
Ruiz, 62, a social worker, was a late-in-life entrant to politics, declaring her candidacy for the state legislature only in May.
Born in Houston as the daughter of a Mexican railway worker, she had known she was gay from an early age. She vividly recalls her mother standing in the kitchen frying tortillas and telling Ruiz she needed to learn to make them for her husband one day. She thought, “I’ll never have a husband.”
After a master’s degree in social work, Ruiz moved to Kansas, where she met her partner of 20 years, Ann McCulley, at a support group for Catholic gays and lesbians.
“She pursued me! She was pretty persistent,” Ruiz remembers. “She kept asking me to go out. She had the prettiest blue eyes.”
After same-sex marriage became legal, the two began planning their dream wedding reception — in a hall lined with glass windows —and had even sent out the “Save the Date” notices.
But McCulley began complaining of a pain in her side, and was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. That was February 2016. In March they went ahead with a scaled-down wedding at home, promising to “love and honor” each other in front of about two dozen friends and their dog Abby Rose. By April, McCulley was gone.
Then Donald Trump was elected.
“I was sitting around being angry all the time. I thought, ‘Why am I angry? Is it because I miss Ann so much?’ There was a piece of that, but also it was about Trump and his administration,” Ruiz said. “I just got tired of being angry.”
Ultimately, she decided to channel that energy into politics, starting out canvassing for a local candidate, then working as precinct captain as a candidate.
The Dec. 17 move by the Prairie Village City Council was one of three municipal efforts in the Kansas City suburb of Johnson County to pass ordinances protecting gay people and transgender people — moves that have been opposed by the religious right. which cites fears the rules will be used to attack Christians who believe homosexuality is wrong.
“These are completely unnecessary laws that will only be used to discriminate against people of faith,” Teetsel said. “It’s time for people to wake up and realize the foundation of civil liberties is being eroded before their very eyes.”
Ruiz plans on taking the movement further by proposing a similar anti-discrimination bill for the entire state, as soon as she takes office. It’s failed many times before, she says, “but we have to keep trying.”