Opinion

Audio Astra: Kansans must continue their advocacy for LGBTQ folks

October 15, 2021 3:33 am

Joseph Fons, holding a pride flag, stands in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building after the court ruled that LGBTQ people can not be disciplined or fired based on their sexual orientation, on June 15, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

“51 Years Out!”

KPR Presents, Oct. 10, 2021

Pundits often remark that the shift in public opinion about gay rights in America has been stunningly fast. Within a generation, gay equality zoomed from a fringe political issue with little public support to a Supreme Court-endorsed right to gay marriage. Polls reveal how quickly the tide turned.

That pace of change has been both remarkable and reassuring. As a parent, I’m relieved that my daughter can report from her Kansas high school that students are much more likely to be ostracized for being intolerant of LGBTQ students than they are to be excluded for being gay themselves. This comes from someone born in 2005, the year that Kansans voted to ban gay marriage. By the time she will become an adult, her generation will have long ago earned the right to marry whomever they love.

But is “earned” the right word for our family, one that has yet to attend a gay pride event or donate to a charity that explicitly supports LGBTQ rights?

Even more fundamentally, is it right to call this a rapid change?

Two interviews this week from “KPR Presents” suggest nuanced answers to those questions about the shifting attitudes toward equality: change has been incremental and collaborative while also seeming rapid and adversarial.

During one interview, CJ Janovy, the author of “No Place Like Home,” provides a retrospective of the decade between Kansas barring gay marriage and the federal government allowing it. (Full disclosure: Janovy was my first editor here at the Kansas Reflector when I started this column before she moved on to KCUR.) In another interview, Brittany Keegan, the curator for the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, describes the methodical march toward gay rights at KU’s campus and in Lawrence. Both interviews mark “LGBTQ History Month, 51 Years Out” including the “Not a Straight Path: the Fight for Queer Rights in Lawrence” at the Watkins Museum.

(Hearing this excellent duo of interviews, plus a third interview with Dr. Kathy Rose-Mockry, the coordinator of Lawrence’s “51 Years Out” events, makes me wish “KPR Presents” was streaming on podcast apps.)

In listening to the interviews, it’s clear that, in reality, the sweeping cultural change was the product of many incremental changes, and allies aided those small steps toward equality. In recounting the community work that led to legal and public opinion changes, Janovy credits allies who wrote checks and “baked lemon bars.” Those small acts mattered, she says.

I certainly don’t want to portray myself as a righteous warrior when I wasn’t. However, my professional past contains some of this incremental ally work. One of my proudest moments as a high school journalism teacher involved recognizing the voices of those calling for marriage equality.

When I started teaching at St. Teresa’s Academy, my newspaper students asked the administration to print an opinion piece by a student who believed her uncle should have the right to marry his male partner. The administration refused, based on the school’s identity as a Catholic institution. The message was: “This is not the moment for this opinion.” Years later, another student sensed more openness by the administration and believed a tolerant voice belonged in the newspaper. Her column – still to my astonishment – ran in the newspaper, a landmark for her personally, for me as her teacher and for students at the school.

These incremental bits of advocacy have come often as I advise and support young people in student journalism. The Kansas Scholastic Press Association, the nonprofit where I work, has defended The Charger, the Wabaunsee High School student newspaper whose work is being reviewed by a principal reacting to a perfectly reasonable set of profiles of LGBTQ students at the high school. 

During my eight years assisting student journalists, administrators have created other obstacles to covering LGBTQ issues.

“Acknowledging a student’s sexual identity would illegally invade their privacy, even when they and their parents consent,” principals falsely claim. Or they say, “Allowing students to change their name in the yearbook after they transition creates a dangerous precedent.” Each local effort requires its own plan from student journalists, their advisers and our organization.

These efforts are mere skirmishes when compared with the war stories that Keegan describes from her museum’s exhibit. She describes how early KU LGBTQ student groups fought to be recognized in the face of administrators who claimed that “illegal” behavior couldn’t be condoned by the university, during an error when sodomy prohibitions were still on the books. Once that university barrier fell, activists fought the claim that funding could not be allocated to their student organization. To oppose the state’s largest university decades ago, at a time when gay rights didn’t have popular support, demanded more courage and produced greater gains than almost anything that we can do in 2021.

The 51 years being celebrated this month should not be seen as a finish line for any Kansan, whether LGBTQ or straight. Decades of incremental and collaborative change formed this moment in 2021 – a moment that is better for the LGBTQ community than the decades before. 

However, we – as organizers and allies, as journalists and activists – still have work to do.

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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