Out and About in the Midwest

Jim Burroway

December 30th, 2006

The New York Times ran a great article last Thursday about the gay-rights awakening taking place in Kansas, where the bitter contest over their same-sex marriage amendment in 2004 prompted many Kansan gays, lesbians, and transgenders to come out to their neighbors and families. Box Turtle Bulletin commenter Cyd Slaton was featured in that article:

Cyd Slayton, a resident of the affluent Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills, said she too was energized by the heated political debate. “I think the venom and the zealous campaigns to portray us as sinners has been a blessing, a catalyst for many more of us to share our stories,” she said.

She had spent her adulthood, if not fully closeted, then with the door only slightly ajar. Although she has been with a partner for a number of years, Ms. Slayton, who is 54, did not discuss her sexual orientation with her mother, her sisters or her colleagues at various companies where she worked making promotional films.

Even when she began campaigning against the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, she said, she was reluctant to identify herself as gay. Last year when a local TV news reporter asked her about her own sexual identity, she responded: why should it matter?

“I panicked and then I took a very long pause and looked deep into the lens of the camera and said that I was gay,” she said. “It was the first time I’d ever said it publicly, and it was quite a moment.”

I saw a similar trend in Ohio, which saw a particularly notorious marriage-amendment battle in 2004. My partner and I were touring a historic home at a state park outside of Chillicothe, Ohio. The man who lead our group ended the tour in a room overlooking the gardens. He described a program that the park ran in which Chillicothe-area schoolchildren raised plants and crops in the gardens during the summertime. He made a particular point of mentioning that he and his partner sponsored several children in that program.

And there’s the story of Ray Vahey and Richard Taylor of Wisconsin, who for nearly forty-nine years were devoted partners who did not speak openly about their lives, neither to their family nor to their friends at work. But when Wisconsin extremists proposed an amendment to the constitution banning gay marriage, Ray and Richard decided it was time to end the silence. A year ago in December, they testified at a state hearing on the proposed amendment.

There are many more stories like these all over the country. The New York Times article mentions a study by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, a think tank at the University of California, which noted that according to US census data, the number Kansas households headed by same-sex partners increased 60% between 2000 and 2005. Gary J. Gates, the study’s author, suggests that this figure does not mean gay Americans are flocking to the state, but that those who live there have been prompted to come out to their neighbors and families.

That same study (PDF: 2.1MB/25 pages) found similar dramatic increases in the heartland: Wisconsin (81%), Nebraska (71%), Ohio (62%), Colorado (58%), Missouri (56%) — six of the top ten states in percentage increases in same-sex couples are states with marriage bans in their constitutions. The more gay-rights opponents press their case, the more gays and lesbians are galvanized to stand their ground and come out.

Many gay activists on the coasts have looked down upon the so-called “square states” as politically hostile and culturally backwards. But one square state, Arizona, rejected a gay marriage ban for the first time in history, and South Dakota passed theirs with the tightest margin of all the others. One has to wonder how differently it might have gone if the national coastal-based organizations hadn’t written South Dakota off as hopeless. California never managed anything that positive when marriage was put to a popular vote there.

But it is in the heartland, the “flyover” states, where the battleground is found. Heroes are made in battle not in conferences. Move over, HRC. The heroes in Kansas, Chillicothe, South Dakota and Arizona are the new faces of gay activism.

Hat Tip: Cyd Slayton. Congratulations on the NYT mention.

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