There was a Pride Prom in Topeka in June. A month earlier, it held the seventh annual Million “Fag” March. Last September there was a Transgender Day of Remembrance. Next fall will be the first Topeka Pride Parade and festival.
There is a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Topeka, and it’s been hip-deep in all of these happenings. The 129-member UU Fellowship of Topeka can’t take credit for all these changes, but stop and think for a moment about how much it’s been worth over the years to have a congregation steadily encouraging public officials—and the public itself—to do the right thing.
Being visible at city council
Last fall, the city council passed an ordinance expanding the scope of the Topeka Human Relations Commission to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Then in May the Topeka Civil Rights Ordinance (actually two ordinances) passed 5-3, establishing a domestic partnership registry and adding gender identity as a protected class for city employment. These are measures that LGBT activists, including UUFT friends and members, have been pushing for several years.
“Some members of this congregation have been showing up at city council and legislative hearings for a long time,” said the Rev. Jim Parrish, interim minister. “I’d like to think that over the years the fellowship has helped open up the space for some of these things to happen. Just having a contingent at a public meeting so that LGBT people know they have allies—and doing that again and again—allows people to believe that change can someday happen. And why shouldn’t it be a UU congregation that does that?”
Last winter, fellowship members were part of a massive protest at the Statehouse against a bill that would have allowed people to refuse services to others if their objection was based on religious beliefs. It passed only one house. The fellowship followed that up by sending out a news release in March publicly pledging its support for marriage equality.
A long history of involvement
The congregation’s support for LGBT rights dates at least to the ’70s, when the fellowship brought openly gay Minnesota State Sen. Alan Spears to Topeka as a counterpoint to anti-gay activist Anita Bryant. In the ’80s the congregation was transformed by caring for beloved member Toby Scanlon, one of the first people in Kansas to die from AIDS.
The congregation’s recent involvement in LGBT issues was helped along by several factors. The yellow T-shirts of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign were one. “When Standing on the Side of Love started a few years ago it gave UUs some visibility—a uniform,” said Parrish.
An infusion of new, younger members also helped. One is Shaun Kelly, who moved to Topeka from California, joining the fellowship four years ago. In California there were lots of people supporting LGBT issues, Kelly noted. In Topeka, not so many. “In California I had the luxury of riding on the coattails of great people,” she said. “Here, I realized I was going to have to be actively involved if I wanted change to happen.”
Early on, she remembers going to the Statehouse and handing out valentines that read “Love is Love” in response to an anti-LGBT bill that was moving through the legislature. “I just needed LGBT people to see there were allies here and that the conversation was not all about Westboro Baptist.”
After that, Kelly started an Interweave chapter and began talking up support for LGBT issues in the congregation. “I believe if you’re a Welcoming Congregation you need to do more than just wear that label. It’s a commitment.” It wasn’t that the congregation wasn’t doing anything before. As Parrish noted, “When some people like Shaun came in, it added energy to what we were already doing.”
On June 7 around 80 people, including some congregants, turned out for a Pride Prom organized by Interweave and hosted by the fellowship. A Congregational church donated the dance floor. A United Church of Christ congregation also helped. “I think the prom made a huge impression on everyone,” said Kelly. “People told stories about not being able to go to their high school proms. This was about creating a safe place, inspiring people, and, again, just showing up.”
It would be easy to suggest that much of this activity was inspired by the presence of Westboro Baptist Church. Not true, said Parrish. “Westboro is just an irritant. This congregation would be doing these things no matter what.” He noted that UUFT has been on the “regular rotation” of WBC picketers. “Once, Fred Phelps came to talk with our junior high Coming of Age class about theology. Fred came in and tried to be the authority figure. It took a while, but the kids got him back on track and asked their questions.”
Longtime member Vicki Chronister George said the congregation made a conscious decision several years ago to focus on LGBT issues. “We decided we were all over the map in our social justice work, so we surveyed the congregation and two years in a row the top issue was LGBT rights.”
That helped the congregation focus its energies, she said. Finding allies also helped—other liberal congregations and the organization Planting Peace, which moved to town and set up shop in a rainbow-colored house across from the Westboro church. “They gave us good energy.” George is working on setting up another group, Grannies for Equality.
George also noted that while UUFT has progressive partners in Topeka, it has been the only liberal religious group with an organized presence at City Council meetings. “We’ve had a whole row of yellow shirts.”
Reflecting on all the recent change, she observed, “Would all of this have happened without the fellowship? In my opinion the change we’ve seen was inevitable, but I’d like to think our presence certainly helped tip the scales.”
PHOTO (ABOVE): Jamie Crispin, Kimberly Daughtery, and Sara O'Keeffe celebrate after the Million "Fag" March held in May in Topeka/Shaun Kelly.