‘They call us gay for a reason’: Kansas LGBTQ activists talk about embracing a policy of love

Activists from Loud Light and Mainstream Coalition speak out about struggles with current political climate

By: - February 27, 2023 8:49 am

Jae Moyer and Melissa Stiehler, LGBTQ activists, discuss the state’s political climate during a Feb. 21, 2023 podcast. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Melissa Stiehler remembers her experience as the first girl to come out at her high school, back in 2006, at the height of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

She remembers seeing anti-gay marriage signs scattered across her neighborhood, and hearing homophobic rhetoric in the bathrooms and locker rooms.

“It was incredibly lonely,” Stiehler said. “I started LGBT activism at that point in time, basically, to make other gay friends, so I knew I wasn’t alone.”

Today, as an advocacy director with Loud Light, Stiehler is one of several activists embracing a policy of love amid a slew of anti-LGBTQ legislation. She and Jae Moyer, engagement coordinator with Mainstream Coalition, spoke about the current political climate during a Feb. 21 recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast.

Moyer’s journey followed a similar trajectory as Stiehler’s. Moyer was the first person in their high school to come out, as well — in the eighth grade, during former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration. 

By the time Moyer was a senior at their Overland Park high school, they were the president of their high school’s equality club and campaigning against anti-transgender bills. Years later, they are still making trips to the Statehouse to fight similar legislation.

Last week, the House passed a transgender student athlete ban and the Senate passed a bill banning doctors from providing gender-affirming care to minors. Some lawmakers described gender-affirming care as a form of mutilation.

One week in February was referred to as “hate week,” because of the amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation debated. During the week, Republican lawmakers argued for the removal of local anti-discrimination protections, as well as a bill that would ban transgender and intersex women from female-designated public spaces.

“It really does feel alienating,” Moyer said. “Especially when I remember what it was like to be an LGBTQ student, and to see now that our lawmakers are attacking our students in Kansas like this, it fills me with rage.” 

The two said it can be emotionally draining to continually fight against harmful rhetoric, but are encouraged by their faith in Kansas communities. Stiehler said her activism was about love and acceptance in working to strengthen communities across Kansas.

“They call us gay for a reason,” Stiehler said. “We have so much joy and love in our heart and for each other, and taking the time to celebrate that and to affirm each other and really build that kind of authentic community.”

Stiehler referenced Pride celebrations in Dodge City and Garden City, along with the growing prevalence of gay-straight alliances in school as evidence of a shift in ideology.

“We’re seeing just joyful movement work happening in some of the places that never in my little baby gay hopes and dreams I could have imagined,” Stiehler said.

Moyer agreed with her about the importance of community. While they are worried about the Legislature’s plans to pass laws regulating transgender Kansans’ lives, Moyer said they are comforted by the thought of their community ties.

“At the end of the day, we don’t know if it’s all going to go away and all of our rights are going to be stripped away, and that is the scariest thought on Earth,” Moyer said. “But we at least know that there are other people in this space that understand what we’re going through, and it helps a lot to know that those people are there for us.

“They can’t legislate away our joy. They can’t legislate away our love. They can’t legislate away the kind of chosen families that we build with each other.”

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.