Kansas City-based attorney Jolie Justus made the transition from life in the closet to becoming Missouri's first openly gay state senator in less than five years. On May 1, Justus generated more queer ink when she and her partner of two years, Shonda Garrison, boarded the Show Me Equality bus in St. Louis and traveled to Iowa City for a legal tying of the knot. In October the couple will hold a commitment ceremony in front of family and friends on their farm near Missouri's capital, Jefferson City.
The senator's home state is taking a decidedly more circuitous route toward gay acceptance, passing a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage in 2004. But on the municipal level, there are reasons for optimism.
St. Louis passed a law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, credit, public access, and education back in 1992. Across the state, Kansas City's employment nondiscrimination law includes protections for gender identity as well. This is the push and pull of Missouri politics -- which Justus calls "a big roller coaster" -- but it doesn't deter the Democratic activist from encouraging potential LGBT visitors to give the heartland a chance.
Advocate.com: It must have been incredibly bittersweet to have to cross the state line into Iowa to tie the knot.
Jolie Justus: We traveled with 16 other couples on a bus that day, and it was really striking to me because we went north through Hannibal, Mo., to get to Iowa City, and as we crossed the Missouri-Iowa border, nothing looked different. It was the same farmland; everyone looked exactly the same. It just seemed so bizarre to me that we couldn't be married in Missouri but we could be married in Iowa, which is frankly so much like Missouri.
I'm always going to fight for marriage equality in Missouri, but right now we're trying to get a [statewide] nondiscrimination act passed. Every state now that has marriage equality or is on the path to marriage equality actually had a nondiscrimination act on the books first.
How would describe the current state of LGBT rights in Missouri?
In 2001 we passed a hate-crimes law that was trans-inclusive, and I'm really proud of Missouri for having that on the books. I talked to people who were in the legislature then, and frankly, they said there was no discussion at the time; it wasn't a battle the way it would be today. In addition to the nondiscrimination act, we are trying to pass a bill that would provide protections against school bullying that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. We had a hearing in 2007, and it was unbelievable to me the backlash that came. Folks on the extreme right side of the issue were arguing that we don't need enumerated categories and it's impossible to define sexual orientation. I feel huge victories by being an openly gay elected official in Missouri, and then there have been huge disappointments as well. It's a big roller coaster to say the least.
You successfully ran for the Missouri senate in the fall of 2006, only two years after fully coming out. It doesn't sound like coming out or even getting married so publicly has had a negative impact on your political career.
My district, the Kansas City district, I would argue is probably the most progressive in the state. We had the first openly gay elected state rep in the '90s, Tim Van Zandt. The bulk of the voters I knew would be totally fine.
Coming back from Iowa on the bus, my partner and I were on our iPhones and we changed our Facebook status from "in a relationship" to "married," and within an hour I had a call phone from a news reporter at TheKansas City Star, and he wanted to know the whole story. It cracks me up how changing your Facebook status can have such an immediate ripple effect. They ran the story on Monday and it was just a little blurb. When I got back to the capitol, all of my colleagues had seen the newspaper article, and I was really surprised who said congratulations to me. There were people who had battled me openly on LGBT issues on the senate floor, and they came up to me and because of our personal relationships were giving me hugs and high fives.
Missouri is not known as a hotbed of LGBT tourism, but I know a lot of people who have ended up in Kansas City for business and are pleasantly surprised.
I couldn't be more proud of Kansas City and how open it is. We have a nondiscrimination law on the books in Kansas City that includes gender identity. We've got domestic-partner benefits for our city employees and our firefighters and police officers. As far as politicians, they all vie for the LGBT Democratic club endorsements. It's amazing to me how much power the LGBT community wields politically in Kansas City.
What are the must-dos for K.C. if you have gay friends in town?
If you're in town on a First Friday, I am so proud of our Crossroads District. It started out as this collection of artists who started art galleries and bookstores and clothing shops. It's between Crown Center and downtown. That's fabulous anytime, but it's really great on First Friday because all of the art galleries and stores open up their doors and there are thousands of people in the streets.
1924 Main is a fantastic restaurant. For years it was the Dixie Belle; it used to be this dark, seedy at times gay bar, and now it's an upscale restaurant with a fabulous wine selection! If you're at the Plaza shopping or going to museums in the area, you definitely need to go to Café Trio. It's on Main Street overlooking Mill Creek Park, which has the big J.C. Nichols fountain. They've got an enormous back deck and patio, the food is fantastic, and it's gay-owned and -operated.
One of our great local gay bars is actually doing a brunch now: Bistro 303 in Westport. It's definitely a hot spot after 9 or 10 p.m. for very attractive gay men, and it gets really crowded in there. I prefer when it's a little slower, around happy hour. The lesbian scene is kind of a tough one, but the nice thing is there are some groups that have come together that have created parties for women, like Girl 2 Girl, which is one Friday a month.
What would you tell gay travelers about visiting Missouri?
It's not on the radar as a gay destination, but I think they will be very surprised. You forget how nice Midwesterners are. I've never had a situation where I felt uncomfortable being an openly gay couple in Missouri. At the same time, this is not Provincetown. But if you do a little research in advance, you can find some really great off-the-beaten-trail places that are really worth your while. Kansas City doesn't seem like a place that would have a lot of bed-and-breakfasts, but there's one great one called the Southmoreland, right off the Plaza. It's openly marketing to LGBT couples.
What's your secret Missouri getaway?
I bought a house north of Jefferson City just off of the Katy Trail, which is part of the Rails-to-Trails program, where they take old railroad tracks and turn them into biking and hiking trails. You can ride across almost the entire state of Missouri on your bicycle. There are some amazing places along the trail, like the School House Bed + Breakfast in Rocheport, and Hermann, with great wineries and all the different festivals they have. I know a lot of LGBT couples that do getaways to [those towns].