Published June 23rd, 2022 at 9:02 AM
Their stories resonate, though generations apart.
Limited spaces. Exclusive spaces. Unsafe spaces.
But the flip side of that coin is that, in recent decades, new spaces for Kansas City’s LGBTQ community have been intentionally carved out — at people’s homes, at local cafes and favorite city haunts.
“Growing up, there were not a lot of safe spaces for queer folks, especially not (for) Black queer folks,” Imije Ninaz, whose pronouns are X and Xs.
In Kansas City, nearly 4% of folks identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex or asexual (LGBTQIA), according to Gallup. Nationwide, that statistic rose to a new high of 7.1%. All told, nearly 60,000 of LGBTQ+ people have planted roots in the Kansas City area, reveals a University of California, Los Angeles’ Williams Institute study.
A closer look at the data reveals a chasm in support, even though the city has made strides in becoming a more inclusive place to work.
The composition of the community also continues to evolve. Research by Gallup has shown an increase in the number of Latinx or Hispanic folks embracing their identity as LGBTQ, more so than white and Black folks nationwide — although the percentage rose across the board.
However, with rising visibility come more challenges. Discrimination and violence against LGBTQ folk — particularly people of color — historically and today, have also risen. That’s been documented in headline after headline, some making national news.
LGBTQ+ folks in Kansas City live in states with low “policy tallies,” according to the Movement Advancement Project. These “policy tallies” take into account a range of laws on topics such as relationship and parental recognition, nondiscrimination, religious exemptions, LGBTQ youth, health care, criminal justice, and identity documents.
Click here to see how Kansas compares to other states.
Click here to see how Missouri compares to other states.
Ninaz feels the effects of these policies.
Intersectional identities are “usually shunned in a way,” Ninaz said. As a Black and Native, trans, non-binary person with a chronic disability, Ninaz is determined to change that.
Though there’s been some progress, Ninaz saw a need for inclusive spaces for specifically BIPOC queer folks. In the early part of 2021, that need sparked the creation of the Nafasi Center of Kansas City. The center doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar location, but rather focuses on outreach, being embedded in the community and meeting people where they are.
However, lack of funding, a small number of organizations and limited bandwidth dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ folks has cascading effects on housing, mental health and social welfare.
Local advocates and leaders agree.
While spots around the city are cropping up, there’s hardly a neighborhood or district in Kansas City for folks in the LGBTQ+ community to be and feel at home.
Some places simply aren’t visible.
This is why folks like Palace Parties founders Wayne Moots and Gabi Bailey, Our Spot KC founder Starzette Palmer and Nafasi Center’s Ninaz are building those spaces themselves. These all sparked or grew during the pandemic, with an emphasis on aiding folks with what they need the most.
“LGBTQ folks are more vulnerable to not being able to access mainstream services,” Palmer said. “Service providers can screen us out, and nothing happens.”
Barriers to basic resources such as charity, addiction and recovery counseling and housing are often put up by churches, Palmer said, which is why Our Spot KC was created. Breaking down these barriers to support is key.
These organization leaders echoed a similar sentiment — educate the younger generations and empower them to advocate for their rights.
“Historically, our community is and will remain resilient in a way that we will find out things for ourselves, support ourselves, and build community,” Palmer said.
In Kansas City, queer history looks more like waves of movements — some that changed the landscape and some that have since dissipated.
Pivotal moments in Kansas Cit’s queer history include the folks of color who made way for the next generations. Kansas City’s first well-documented drag queens — who were known as “female impersonators” back in the day — Edye Gregory and Ray Rondell left a legacy of advocacy and leadership, according to the Kansas City Defender.
Another queer legend was jazz trumpet player Tiny Davis, who was dubbed the “female Louis Armstrong,” according to Kansas City Mag. A pioneer in her own right, Davis was known for cutting her jazz teeth in Kansas City. She co-owned a lesbian bar in Chicago with her partner in the 1950s.
But she was thrown out of Kansas City’s jazz scene for being a lesbian.
“We got ran out of town,” Davis said in an interview for a 1988 documentary called “Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women.”
In the 1960s, the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom and The Phoenix magazine, “the homophile voice of the Midwest,” predated the Stonewall Movement and started right here in Kansas City by a young gay man Drew Schafer, according to KCUR. It became the “gay rights hub.”
One example of movements that have since disappeared is Womontown, a neighborhood for gay women that was established – and marked by a purple flag with tulips – in the late 1980s.
These are some of the histories that present-day leaders look to as lessons on what’s evolved over time and what still needs to be improved upon. These stories also mirror what other folks in the city have experienced – job loss, eviction and exclusion from certain resources that folks who are not LGBTQ have access to.
“Now that that book is cracked open, you know, it’s sort of my job, my duty to create spaces to further those stories,” Ninaz said, “to also create opportunities for other people to make history here because we’re not done.”
Over the years, the region has been tense among those advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and those who wish to restrict them.
As of May 2021, there are 15 bills in Missouri that would affect LGBTQ+ folks. A list of those found on the ACLU Bill Tracker shows several that negatively affect things such as medical attention and family issues like the ability to adopt.
In Kansas, 14 different bills died in committee this session, according to Free for All Americans’ Legislation Tracker. These bills had to do with trans girls playing in sports teams and medical access for transitions or therapies.
However, outside of state capitols lies another troubling issue.
Hate crimes that specifically target or are motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias in the region have spiked, according to the FBI.
People of color and trans folks bore the brunt of the violence.
Black trans women in Kansas City have been murdered at alarming rates. Nationally, Black trans women comprise more than 60% of hate crime victims nationwide, according to available data by the FBI and Human Rights Campaign (HRC). But the HRC claims these data don’t account for unreported instances.
Just one year ago, these statistics ticked up at an all-time high. In 2021, 57 gender-nonconforming and trans people were murdered, according to the HRC.
PBS Newshour called 2021 the “deadliest year for transgender people on record.”
Without protections, legislators, advocates and leaders for the LGBTQ community say these folks fall prey to hate crimes and become part of the statistics.
Kansas state Rep. Susan Ruiz of Shawnee was on the political frontlines when these bills came to the floor.
“We had to sit there through city councils and listen to the opposition, and (they) say the most horrific things you could ever imagine. And we used to describe it as sitting there, … feeling like death by 1,000 cuts,” she recounted.
“Kids have come to me and said, ‘People think I’m bad.’ Why do we do that to children?”
Ruiz said legislation like this is strategic, a way to chip away at certain rights for LGBTQ folks. Sitting in the Kansas Capitol, she recalls as her colleagues rallied against trans girls playing sports. Minute after minute, she held it together.
But after those long meetings for days on end, Ruiz said one day she broke down.
“I couldn’t take it,” Ruiz said, her voice quivering. What made it worse for her was how her fellow representatives responded to her taking a minute to regroup, not understanding how their words affected her as a gay Latina representative in Kansas.
Standing in the hallway, taking a breather, she was called in for another session. Her colleagues who’d just called being gay “amoral” to her face joked about her being late.
Ruiz said this memory will never escape her.
These are all things that Starzette Palmer works to curb. She raised the point and punctuated the tragedy of the ongoing hate crimes against Black trans women:
“Kansas City is one of the top five cities for murders of Black trans women. No one’s talking about it, because it doesn’t affect them,” Palmer said.
These issues point to wider disparities in services that LGBTQ+ folks are edged out of solely for their identities.
Enter Our Spot KC, a nonprofit that advocates for housing, resources and education for the LGBTQ+ community. Palmer said her group prioritizes community needs first. She begins with personal experience.
Being a young gay person in the Midwest is difficult. She knows. She experienced homelessness at a young age and found “family in the streets.”
“We find safety where we can get it. So there’s not a lot of places that exist where folks understand us,” Palmer said. “Where we feel most safe isn’t supportive a lot of times that’s … within our own communities.”
Folks trying to navigate life while experiencing the cascading effects of legislation say they wish leaders could focus on human needs, rather than passing restrictive laws. It affects folks’ quality of life, public health experts say.
The research on LGBTQ folks underscores how social determinants of health have negative outcomes. Disparities exist in social support systems such as culturally competent health care providers, inclusive housing, workplace protections and more, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPH).
“Social determinants affecting the health of LGBT individuals largely relate to oppression and discrimination,” the ODPH report reads.
“LGBT health requires specific attention from health care and public health professionals to address a number of disparities, including:
Source: Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (Link)
In Kansas City, networks of groups try to elevate support for these same issues. And in the political sphere, representatives like Ruiz are trying to bridge the divides.
“You have to kind of insert yourself into groups that may not accept you,” Ruiz said.
But they can’t do it alone and have seen important Kansas City LGBTQ+ support networks shutter. On May 9, the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project — a nonprofit that once provided “domestic violence, sexual assault, and hate violence advocacy and education” to the community — announced they were closing their doors.
So these younger, new organizers are stepping up to the plate.
“We push so hard for the progression of safe spaces because it constantly has to evolve,” Ninaz said.
“It’s not necessarily about trans life. It’s not about queer lives. It’s about life in general.”
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS. Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.