This week we will publish C.J. Janovy’s first book, No Place Like Home; Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Her beautiful, powerful book tells the epic story of how a few disorganized and politically naïve Kansans, realizing they were unfairly under attack, rolled up their sleeves, went looking for fights, and ended up making friends in one of the country’s most hostile states. Janovy, along with guest, will celebrate her book at 7pm on Kansas Day (01/29/2018) at the Lawrence Public Library.
We spoke to C.J. about her journey with No Place Like Home…
1.When did you first have the idea to write No Place Like Home?
I explain this a bit in the intro. It was June 26, 2013, the day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s ban on gay marriage, respectively. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote that the crowd’s jubilation outside the courthouse that morning was so loud it floated through marble: “A muffled cheer pierced the quiet in the Supreme Court chamber.” News from out in San Francisco was that people danced all night on Castro Street.
I went to a rally in downtown Kansas City with a couple hundred people, but it felt so weird to be celebrating historic rulings that didn’t change anything in states other than California that had banned same-sex marriage. A decade earlier, I’d covered the marriage-amendment politics in Kansas, and as I stood there at the rally that day, I wondered what had become of the Kansans who had fought it back then.
2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the publication?
From that rally in June 2013 until I turned in the final, edited and revised manuscript was almost four years. I have a great full-time job, so I’d get up at 5 in the morning to write for a couple of hours before work, and usually put in at least one full day of writing on the weekends. I made several reporting trips around Kansas, and those beautiful drives around the state were the best parts, meeting and interviewing people and going to Pride celebrations and other events. I did a lot of phone interviews, looked at a lot of legislation, watched city hall testimonies archived on public-access TV channels, and read a lot of newspaper archives, including on microfilm at libraries.
3. What is one thing you were most surprised to learn while working on the book?
I was most surprised to learn that Charlie Snook, a transgender man from Newton, and LuAnn Kahl, a transgender woman who worked on farms in Haven and Kalvesta, appeared on an episode of a short-lived reality-TV series called “Sex Change Hospital” back in 2007. It was set in Trinidad, Colorado, where there was a surgeon famous for performing thousands of gender-confirmation surgeries (this I already knew). Alas, the episode is no longer on YouTube.
4. How did you identify the activists featured in the book?
The first person I contacted was Tom Witt of Equality Kansas, a statewide organization that works to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, who connected me with several other people. Like Tom, many of the activists I profiled were public figures – I’d seen them leading rallies or giving speeches or I’d read newspaper stories quoting them. When I interviewed them, they told me stories about other people who’d been involved, so I contacted those folks too. I sent emails and Facebook messages introducing myself to strangers, and many of them wrote back. Others clearly didn’t want to talk, a choice I respect.
5. You’ve lived on both coasts and have made a home in Kansas City. Can you describe the cultural differences or challenges LGBT citizens face in the middle of the country?
That’d be a whole other book(s) — and I hope dissertations are being written on the subject as we speak. But for starters, I’d say the biggest challenges are the smaller dating pool, and limited access to a large and diverse community of peers and allies – and the resources and services such communities can provide.
6. What do you view as the biggest issue facing the LGBT community in Kansas in 2018?
I think it’s the same biggest issue facing all of America in 2018: Saving our endangered democracy.
During the legislative session last year, Equality Kansas held one of its annual rallies on the steps of the Capitol. I was surprised, as were others, by how young the crowd was – mostly college and even high school kids. During his speech, Tom Witt gave them instructions (he’s good at that): “When you go home,” he yelled, “start looking outside your LGBT community and your Gay Straight Alliance and your usual church groups. Our country is in a horrible mess, but we have to resist. As a queer community, we already know how to resist and resist and resist. Take what you know about fighting bad ideas and say, ‘I’m in this fight with you.’ Unite with other progressive organizations around Kansas.” He’s right. We need to take our experiences and the hard lessons we’ve learned fighting for our own causes and put them to use in service of our country.
7. Your book is dedicated to Matthew Shepard. Has his death served as motivation for you to advocate for LGBT rights in conservative regions?
I wouldn’t identify myself as an advocate, though I’ve obviously written advocacy journalism; as a journalist, I consider myself a witness. But I know that witnessing is a political act, and that being present and recording these stories makes me a participant. I also know that being part of the community I’m writing about gives me access and understanding that outsiders might not have, and I feel a profound responsibility to my sources and their stories.
Matthew Shepard’s murder wasn’t what inspired me to start this project, but by the end of it I’d spent a lot of time on lonely roads. LGBT people – especially trans people – are still in danger. But in general, these days the world – yes, even Kansas – is a much better place for 21-year-old LGBT people. I want us to remember those who helped create it but didn’t live to see it.
8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?
I’m going to resist the urge to name one politician or the other who I hope reads the book so they’ll know their rhetoric doesn’t speak for all of Kansas. Instead, I’ll say I hope these stories reach individuals out there who might feel isolated, who want to make the world a better place but don’t know how, who need to know they’re not alone.
9. What are you reading now?
Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, the University of Texas Press’s collection of personal essays by women music writers, edited by Holly Gleason.
C. J. Janovy is an arts reporter and editor for KCUR (Public Radio Kansas City, MO) and former editor of The Pitch.