I remember my first trip to the University of Kansas, in 1980, as if it were yesterday. In high school, we decided to take a field trip to KU to visit the art department. The free and open attitudes of KU made me forget I was gay and different. I felt comfortable being myself, for once.
A decade later, after being denied the right to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Wichita with my partner, Dennis, we moved to Kansas City, Kan. Our major worry about our move was being placed in the same situation we faced in Wichita. We were relieved when we were able to rent a one-bedroom apartment, and soon we felt comfortable living our lives.
Dennis and I would often escape Kansas City and head to relaxed and liberal Lawrence, a short drive away. We could sunbathe nude in Riverfront Park, walk downtown holding hands, and kiss each other in public without retribution.
Then came our horrible decision to move to Indianapolis, because Dennis was offered a better job there. Originally we thought we would be moving to a more sophisticated city, since it was relatively close to places like Chicago and Pittsburgh -- but we were wrong. We endured prejudice and bigotry throughout our time there. For Spirit Day one year, I wore purple to commemorate the lives of young people who committed suicide because of antigay bullying. I was promptly called the f word by three men. Dennis was being passed over for promotions solely because he was gay. I was treated terribly for being out and told by my boss to go back into the closet. A life in Kansas would be better than living with the bigots of Indiana, we decided.
We cashed in our retirement fund and moved to Lawrence. Dennis decided to return to school, get his master's degree in social work, and leave retail. We were excited for our new lives and to leave the intolerance we experienced behind.
But with the marriage equality movement picking up steam, there was a backlash against gays in Kansas. People's attitudes about us changed -- where before we felt accepted as "token" gays, we were suddenly third-class citizens. We married in a nearby state, but Kansas's anti-marriage equality law meant our marriage was not recognized in our home state. My husband tried to change his name on his driver's license, only to be turned down because of Kansas's antigay laws.
Suddenly, Lawrence's hippies and liberals seemed to disappear. Fundamentalist Christian students left Kansas State University and invaded KU. The town lost its charm, becoming a dining and shopping destination for the conservatives of Topeka and Kansas City. Even the public library, which once had the best collections of black-and-white and independent movies, turned "family-oriented," concentrating on children's books and films. The local farmers' market, once cool and quaint, turned trendy and aggressive. What used to be a fun place to live became an ultraconservative circus.
Lawrence lost its gay bar. The nude sunbathing area was replaced with a dog park. We heard about young Christian men posing as gay and bi on Craigslist, hoping to force their religious beliefs on others or simply humiliate them.
Living on the west side of Lawrence, once home to famous artists and writers like William S. Burroughs and Langston Hughes, we now felt outnumbered by judgmental, hostile neighbors. Our home and cars were vandalized. The police told us it was homeless people committing the crimes. No officer came out to inspect the damage, until one day a pair of the adolescents harassed the entire neighborhood. It was the first time a police officer showed up at our door, only because our straight neighbors called the police. The other gays in our neighborhood ignored their vandalism, fearing retribution. After having enough, we moved to a more secure place, away from the more affluent, "family-oriented" neighborhood.
Lawrence still has decent people living here, though. I was talking to a self-described "townie" about our plight. She laughed and said the marvelous thing about Lawrence is that it's always changing: "It goes through its cycles." We're hoping Lawrence will return to its old self. Something marvelous is indeed happening -- the liberal younger people are no longer fazed by people like Dennis and me, and they do not see the need to spew hatred. Dennis had the opportunity to be in class with some younger students who expressed confusion as to why Kansas was denying our rights. Even with all its new attitudes and decreased freedoms, we still love our city.
BEN MOYERS is an artist with a BS in psychology, with a concentrated area in art therapy. He is married to Dennis Lee Moyers, a social work case manager and therapist for the Wyandotte Center for Behavioral Health in Kansas City, Kan. They have been together for 28 years and have been legally married for two years.