The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How I fell in love with Kansas — and spent the next five years trying to change it

I learned that the people are kinder than the politicians and that every bit of progress is hard-won.

Protesters outside the Kansas Statehouse in 2015. (Dan Brennan)

It’s 2013, and I’m a 22-year-old queer who’s moving to Kansas to paint a house rainbow colors directly across from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church hate group. I don’t know much about Kansas except that it’s in the middle of America and famous bigots live there. It doesn’t matter, though, because I won’t be there long.

I never left. Over the next five years, I learned that the politicians are more dangerous than the hate groups, and that the people of Kansas are nothing like the politics that dominate.

I arrived to a state in crisis and ordinary people doing whatever they could to try to fix it: A mom walked more than 60 miles hoping someone would pay attention to schools, a student chased legislators through the statehouse trying to keep guns off college campuses, a rabbi was arrested holding a sit-in against voter suppression. I fell in love not with a physical place but with a community that was starting to shape the future. A community I could be a part of.

After arriving in Kansas, I didn’t find the inhospitable attitudes I expected. Neighbors brought us food they’d grown, and strangers invited us to spend holidays with them. I couldn’t find much of anyone who agreed with what was going on in the state: a radical economic experiment had cut income taxes dramatically and eliminated taxes on hundreds of thousands of businesses. Rather than boost the economy, this devastated it. From the gas station clerk to folks chattering in restaurants, everyone was concerned about where Kansas was headed.

Not to say that everyone was pleasant, but this wasn’t the backward place I anticipated. Kansas quickly grew on me. Wanting to meet more activists, I went to a protest at the statehouse; only a half-dozen people were there. I started to realize that many of the organizers who did the work in the past had burned out or fled the state after the 2010 election.

Why I love political canvassing

I didn’t know where to start, so I began connecting with any and all individuals and organizations I could. I showed up to their events, advocated for their causes and held candles at their vigils. My own purpose in Kansas grew as I developed friendships with those affected by various state policies. Their causes became my causes.

In 2014, the most one-sided government in Kansas history was elected. Coincidentally, this was the first election under a “voter fraud prevention” law Secretary of State Kris Kobach pushed through, which required Kansans to provide official copies of their birth certificate to county clerks to vote. The law only applied to new, mostly young, registrants. Kansas dropped into the bottom five states nationally for youth turnout, with 14 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds casting ballots.

In 2015, Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded LGBTQ protections by executive order, making it legal to fire and harass LGBTQ state workers. Gay state workers messaged me about how they were scared for their safety and future. In response, we organized. Two years prior, I had protested alongside fewer than six people. This time, 600 showed up. Most weren’t LGBTQ; they were people affected in different ways who stood together as moral witnesses, declaring that this decision was wrong.

The Kansas government increasingly used prejudice and scapegoats to distract from the headlines of their failing economic experiment, of struggling schools, of critical services being cut. As the state struggled to pay its bills, legislators made claims that welfare recipients were going on luxury cruises, that undocumented immigrants should be shot like swine. They even tried to strip a black representative of her elected status because she said a racist bill was racist. All of this nonsense was distracting from the reality that the far right, which branded itself as conservative, was driving the state into debt, roads were crumbling and job growth was declining. Kansas was a very dark place in this moment. After one rally, a state senator walked by me and softly mentioned how wrong the attacks on the LGBTQ community were, how wrong all of this was. I wouldn’t forget this moment because I so badly needed to be reminded that what was happening wasn’t okay.

I decided to leave LGBTQ activism to create a nonprofit, Loud Light, and devote myself to voter registration and turnout. Convinced that if more young Kansans voted, things would be different, I ran around college campuses trying to register students, but it was difficult, given the burdens of Kobach’s laws. Then a judge issued a preliminary injunction against Kansas, saying the state couldn’t require birth certificates for those who registered using the federal registration form. I began registering hundreds of students with it.

In 2016, as the nation was taking a plunge to the right, Kansas was going the opposite direction: A third of the Kansas legislature was newly elected, mostly Democrats and centrist Republicans. We knew politicians were reactive, so we gave them something to react to. We traveled the state gathering input from hundreds of folks to create a platform of sorts called the Kansas People’s Agenda. The first week of the session, legislators arrived to a statehouse filled with Kansans screaming, “Whose House? Our House.” Hundreds of people individually delivered the agenda to their own legislators. The new legislature began turning things around. Finally, the economic experiment was repealed.

I met all kinds of people who wanted things to change. One was Brian “BAM” McClendon, who created what became Google Earth. We talked about voter registration obstacles. Immediately, he created, a digital federal form that bypasses the obstacles and makes registration easy. Another was a woman who messaged me to talk about the state’s future; a coffee turned into an hours-long discussion about human dignity.

Tens of thousands of Kansans were re-added to the voter rolls this summer as a federal judge ruled that Kobach’s law violated the U.S. Constitution. Kansas could no longer require birth certificates to vote. Loud Light registered thousands of young Kansans to vote, and more young Kansans voted early than had voted in the entire last midterm.

This November, the woman I met for coffee, Sharice Davids, was elected the first LGBTQ congressperson from Kansas and one of the first Native American women elected to Congress. She gave a victory speech surrounded by LGBTQ youths. I was there, overwhelmed, thinking how most of my life I thought accepting my sexuality meant forfeiting my future. The same night, Brandon Woodard and Susan Ruiz were elected the first LGBTQ Kansas state representatives. They will go to work in a chamber that has spent close to a decade blaming people like them for every ailment under the sun.

Kobach lost his bid for governor. The state senator who whispered words of solidarity to me back in 2015, Laura Kelly, beat him. She’s promised a new tone in Kansas and declared her first executive order will be restoring LGBTQ protections to state workers.

In Kansas, I learned that nothing happens by accident. Every drop of decency is fought for. We pushed a boulder slightly up the hill, yet the moment we stop pushing, we will again be flattened. In fact, the Kansas legislature is worse now — Republicans retain supermajorities in both chambers, and more moderate Republicans were ousted by those adhering to the far-right. The challenges can seem insurmountable, but there are hundreds of individuals doing whatever they can, devoting their energy and talents to make change, and becoming a community as they show up for each other. Now I know the power of that.