A Friend of Dorothy
No Place Like Home weaves a literary love story
Review by Alex Dzurick
Several years ago, I took a summer road trip from central Missouri to Boulder, Colorado. I drove across the entire state of Kansas, encountering along the way its major cities and small towns. After several hours and an overnight stay in one of those towns, I was in Colorado, eyeing the mountains with awe. After all, I had grown up in Missouri without much higher than a river bluff to entertain my topological senses, and Kansas itself certainly didn’t offer up any peaks. Nor did either place offer a lot to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — at least not to the untrained eye.
In No Place Like Home, C.J. Janovy uses her keen reporter’s perspective to investigate the power of Kansas’s LGBT landscape, in particular the many tireless activists who call Kansas home. Far from the LGBT power centers on the coasts, Kansas feels forgotten and ignored in the struggle for inclusion. Janovy highlights the stories of those who refuse to leave behind Kansans who lack the means to hop on the next plane to San Francisco.
As a native Nebraskan herself, Janovy seems to have distinctly refused to write this book from the perspective of a “coastal elite,” curiously wondering why anyone would want to stay in Kansas. Instead, with a human touch, Janovy tells the stories of people like Tiffany Muller, a small-town Missouri girl who came to Kansas for college and stayed to fight for equal protection in Topeka. I was warmed by the story of Sandra Stenzel, who bravely came out to fight for her job and community in WaKeeney (the small town I spent the night in on my road trip) despite feeling welcomed and affirmed as a lesbian in Austin, Texas. Janvoy tells the story of LuAnn Kahl, a trans woman born in rural Iowa, in part to remind us that part of the allure of rural life is that everybody pitches in on the farm regardless of gender. And part of the allure of Janovy’s book is how effortlessly she weaves together the stories of people like Muller, Stenzel, and Kahl, who often appear as characters in each other’s chapters, supporting one another in their individual yet interconnected battles for inclusion and acceptance.
As legend goes, LGBT people used the code “friend of Dorothy” to signify their membership in the community. Janovy highlights this connection in her title: The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale, the girl from Kansas who is swept away by a tornado to a magical paradise, only wishes to return home. This, No Place Like Home reminds us, is a powerful pull that we all feel toward the places that we are from, and Kansas is no exception. LGBT people who grew up in Kansas under oppressive political situations may have left the state, but for many of the activists Janovy highlights, the desire to return home was too strong. For others, Kansas became home thanks to the friends they gained along the way in fighting for LGBT-inclusive policy change.
And yes, Janovy’s book does have its villains. The most well known of them is the Westboro Baptist Church, formerly led by Fred Phelps out of his family compound in Topeka. These sign-carrying homophobes were but the most vocal and public face of a network of ministers who continued to pop up across the stories in No Place Like Home. Well-funded and in positions of power, these anti-gay ministers put up as many hurdles as they could to fight the tide of activism.
Sometimes the LGBT folks that Janovy interviewed overcame the obstacles and got their policies enacted into law. And sometimes the LGBT folks lost and licked their wounds to fight another day. But either way, reading Janovy’s book never leaves you with the feeling that Kansas is destined to be the backwoods, conservative, homophobic state seen in some portrayals. Even when their legal strategies fail, Kansas’ LGBT activists are working one day at a time to build more inclusive, safe and affirming communities.
I’m a Missouri boy living in Philadelphia by way of central Illinois. I live in a city with a gayborhood, a longstanding pride parade and an openly gay state legislator. Many would suggest that I would be happier here than at home in the small town of Fulton, Missouri. But thankfully C.J. Janovy exists, because No Place Like Home feels like a much-needed reminder that even on the “no coast,” when passionate people work together, love wins.