“51 Years OUT!”: Events later this month will celebrate the history of gay liberation at KU and in Lawrence

photo by: Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Gay Liberation marches in support of International Women’s Day, March 2, 1971.

When Reginald Brown was walking to school in the third grade and first called a sissy and slurs for gay people, Brown didn’t even know the meaning of the words.

“About five or six older boys from my neighborhood, from the sixth grade, surrounded me and started calling me [expletive], punk and sissy,” Brown said. “I had no idea what these words meant, but I could tell from their tone of voice, the look in their eyes, it probably had something to do with the fact that I was attracted to males.”

Brown, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., said the bullying that began that day persisted through elementary school, junior high, and all the way until high school, where it became easier to steer clear of the bullies. Before that, Brown, who uses the pronoun they, had to be more clever, even once surreptitiously rubbing the school nurse’s thermometer against their pant leg to warm it just slightly so they could be sent home early to avoid an ominous threat to meet after school. When Brown moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas and joined a newly created student group called the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front, that’s when things began to change.

photo by: contributed

Activist Reginald Brown is pictured during their time at the University of Kansas in this contributed photo.

Brown is one of about a dozen panelists who will speak during “51 Years OUT! Celebrating Gay Liberation History of KU & Lawrence,” which includes six days of events to commemorate the founding of the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front in 1970. The program, which was delayed one year by the coronavirus pandemic, will take place Oct. 18-23 at various locations around campus and the city of Lawrence.

In addition to those involved in the early LGBTQ activism of the 1970s, the event will include discussions featuring state Rep. Stephanie Byers, Kansas’ first transgender legislator; journalist and author C.J. Janovy, who wrote “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas”; and a talk by Dr. Katie Batza about health care and the LGBTQ community. Other events include assistance with legal name changes, a lesbian potluck, and a dance in the Kansas Ballroom reminiscent of the inclusive dances held by the Gay Liberation Front at KU in the 1970s. The Watkins Museum of History will have a display on gay and lesbian life at KU and in Lawrence in the 1970s, and a KU journalism class will be documenting the week for a class project.

David Stout, who founded the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front in 1970, didn’t actually intend on doing so. Stout came to KU from a farm in Rolla, a small southwest Kansas town of only about 480 people at the time, where he was one of 12 people in his graduating class. Stout described it as a very traditional community and said that growing up, he saw his sexuality as a problem. He said he tried to change himself through various means, including through psychotherapy when he was 14 and becoming a born-again Christian at 18.

“I wanted to be purged, I wanted to be cleansed of that,” Stout said.

Stout said when he got to KU, moving into Ellsworth Hall and surrounded by 600 young men his age, he was “overwhelmed” and knew his efforts had not done anything to change him. He continued to struggle for years, and at one point was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit in Wichita. He said it wasn’t until he was 23 that he realized his many efforts had all been futile, and that’s when his outlook finally changed.

“I was on my father’s farm for the last time when I was 23, during the summer of 1968,” Stout said. “And so I’m riding around and around the fields and I’m thinking about this. I know that I’m going back to KU, and I didn’t know the terminology at that time, but I knew when I was going back to KU I was going ‘to come out.'”

photo by: contributed photo

David Stout is pictured in August 1968 as he prepares to return from his father’s farm to KU. After spending hours thinking about it over the summer as he rode a tractor around the farm, he had decided to come out when he returned to Lawrence.

After that, he wanted desperately to connect with other gay people, but for a year he wasn’t getting anywhere. He’d heard rumors that there was a group that met in the cafeteria in the student union, and so he went there day after day, sitting in different places each time and keeping his ear open to nearby conversations. Finally he caught a bit of talk he could relate to and chimed in, and they invited him to join them. He said it was the first time he’d ever connected with the gay community.

“That’s how secretive and difficult it was to connect with anyone at that time,” Stout said.

Stout said that some time after that, he decided to do a term paper for his social work program on the gay community, because that’s the area where he’d decided he wanted to work. As part of it, he set out to find and interview as many LGBTQ people as he could in Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City. It was not an easy task at the time, with so many people not out; one interview might lead to another name or two. But by the time he was done, Stout said he had a list of about 100 people. He wrote his paper, which he admits wasn’t exactly groundbreaking — he said one of the questions he remembers asking was “What’s your favorite color?” — but the interviews had been educational for him. He said he turned the paper in and thought he was done with it.

But then Stout said he ran into one of the people he’d interviewed, a young Black student whose name he can’t recall but who was a senior at Lawrence High School. Gay activism was starting to occur in other places in the country, and Stout said the LHS student chastised him for making all those contacts and doing nothing with it.

“He said, ‘This is such a waste,'” Stout said. “He was really pissed off; he said, ‘You’ve met everyone in Lawrence and Kansas City and Topeka, you need to get us all organized.'”

When Stout told him that wasn’t the purpose of the paper, the LHS student didn’t leave it at that. Instead, without asking Stout for permission, the student made posters and flyers with the directive to “Get out of the johns and into the streets and join gay liberation,” with a message to call David at the bottom. Stout said the student put the flyers all over campus, and his phone started ringing.

“I got a lot of calls and there were seven people, including myself, that showed up for that first meeting in June of 1970,” Stout said.

Kathy Rose-Mockry, who recently retired following 20 years as the director of KU’s Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity, is organizing the “51 Years OUT!” events. Rose-Mockry said there are many, many compelling stories from students and others who were involved with early LGBTQ activism in Lawrence, and many of them aren’t well known or even written down.

“That is one of the things that really motivated me to bring this forward,” Rose-Mockry said. “Because I had never heard the stories before and most people on campus, if they weren’t on campus or in the community during this time, have no idea what was involved and the effort that was taken and the risks that the activists faced to do the work that they did.”

The events of “51 Years OUT!” commemorate the founding of the group, but also the many years of activism that have followed. That includes a panel featuring journalist and author Janovy, whose book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas,” focuses on the years 2005 to 2015, which span the state’s gay marriage ban to the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide.

Janovy said during that decade, activists throughout the state organized and went to city halls in places like Salina, Hutchinson and Manhattan and asked for protection from discrimination at the local level. She said in some cases they lost, but in all cases they really educated their neighbors, friends and family in the process and helped change public opinion.

“I like to say they rolled up their sleeves, went looking for fights, and ended up making friends in unlikely places,” Janovy said.

Janovy said her book only tells a small part of the story, and just begins to talk about the transgender leaders who have emerged more recently. That includes transgender activist Stephanie Mott, who died in 2019. Janovy said as someone who has witnessed change and the politics around it, it’s important to know that the challenges and efforts continue to the present day.

“I think a lot of people might think that the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling meant that suddenly LGBTQ people were now equal and the fight was over,” Janovy said. “But as we saw with attacks on trans people, especially trans children, in the most recent session of the Legislature, there are always politicians who want to demonize vulnerable people.”

photo by: Associated Press

In this file photo from May 2016, Stephanie Mott, left, a transgender Topeka woman and activist, speaks to reporters following a state health department hearing in Topeka. Mott’s attorney, Pedro Irigonegaray, is at right. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Rose-Mockry also said it’s important to tie the history of LGBTQ activism to where we are now, and that’s one of the goals of the “51 Years OUT!” programming. She said she hopes the amazing group of activists and their experiences will be a springboard to propel people to look at what is not yet done.

“It’s important that we look back and say, look at the efforts that were taken and the fact that people were willing to make themselves visible and heard at a time when it was for some scary to do,” Rose-Mockry said. “And what that did to help create and grow a gay community and raise everyone’s awareness. Because this isn’t just about people who identify as LGBTQ, it’s about all of us understanding.”

photo by: Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Two protesters march in a 1988 Gay Pride March while holding signs that read: “20 years of gay and lesbian pride” and “Save the gay whales.”

The journey of the Gay Liberation Front — which exists to this day and is now known as Spectrum KU — also wasn’t without resistance. The chancellor at the time denied the group’s application for official recognition, ultimately leading the group to file suit with the help of nationally known attorney William Kunstler, according to the KU Libraries website.

But Stout said that isn’t the full story, as while the university was denying the group’s application and fighting the lawsuit, there was also someone in the chancellor’s office who was connecting him on the sly to the ACLU and others to help the group fight the decision. Though it took years, the group was eventually officially recognized and received funding.

The Gay Liberation Front supported other causes on campus — civil rights, women’s liberation — and became well known for hosting inclusive dances on campus, but Stout said at its core it was an educational group. He said one of the main things the group did at first were Speakers Bureaus, where the group went around and talked to classes at KU, later expanding to other colleges and even church groups. He said at a time when most people would say they didn’t know any gay people, that visibility was important for everyone.

“We felt like we needed to educate the community at large, the university and gay people, because we saw that gay people were reluctant to come out,” Stout said.

Brown joined the group at the beginning, and said that walking into a room of queer people was the first time in their life they felt they didn’t have to justify or explain their existence. And at a Speakers Bureau at the teachers college at Emporia State, Brown came face to face again with three of their childhood bullies. This time though, Brown said the group had given them a voice.

“I walked up to them, looked them in the eye and said, ‘Yes, this is who I am. I’m here to teach you,'” Brown said. “That felt so [expletive] good. For the first time in my life I stood up to them and I was not afraid.”

In addition to the Gay Liberation Front, Brown said about that time they had come out to their mom, and her response and the unconditional love she’d expressed had also helped Brown be themself and approach the boys with confidence.

“She smiled and said, ‘Well, Reginald, I kind of thought so, but I never taught you who to love, I just taught you to love,'” Brown said.

photo by: contributed

Activist Reginald Brown is pictured during their time at the University of Kansas in this contributed photo.

Brown, who lives in New York City, later became a teacher and continues to be an activist. Brown will be on a panel with Stout and several others to discuss the beginning of the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front as part of the “51 Years OUT!” programming. Stout, who now lives in Taiwan, will also read from his memoirs as part of another event in the program, “Kansas Farm Boy Comes Out at KU.”

“51 Years OUT!” events are free and open to the public, and a full schedule is available on the Watkins website, watkinsmuseum.org/51-out. Attendees are asked to register for the events on the Watkins website ahead of time if possible for planning purposes. In homage to the dances the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front used to host, the week’s events will end with a dance, “STILL Too Hot to Trot!,” its name adapted from one of the dances held in the 1970s.

photo by: Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Poster advertising a dance sponsored by Gay Liberation, Jan. 26, 1972.


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