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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Gay Kansas & the Greensburg tornado

Here's a myth about rural America: Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people simply don't exist out on the ranches and farms of the Heartland. If we do exist, we are hidden and tortured souls. If we're out, we're shunned or stoned or worse. At the very least -- this myth claims -- there isn't a straight ally in sight.

Here's the reality: We're here, we're queer and people are truly getting used to us.

I'm not going to downplay the difficulties of being GLBT and living in the vast stretches of flyover country, whether you do that as an out gay person or in the closet. But what has amazed me, particularly in the last five years, is how an increasing number of queer folks are out and integrated into rural communities. Meanwhile, our straight allies are growing in number every day.

In my work with the Kansas Equality Coalition, for example, I've met transgendered ranch hands (male to female) and, no, I'm not kidding and, yes, they are currently (as in today) hard at work as real-live cowboys. I've met lesbian and gay ranchers. The Equality Coalition's most rural chapter in Southwest Kansas (centered around Dodge City) is one of our fastest growing chapters and one of the most active.

Unfortunately, though, it often takes tragedy for the rest of the world to discover we're here. Such is the case of Fred Burgess and his late life partner, Jim Mathes. In early May when a tornado decimated nearby Greensburg, the couple's rural home, Prairie Oaks Farm, in neighboring Edwards County (2006 estimated population 3,138) was blown apart by another storm.

It has been a horrible year for Burgess. In March, Mathes died at age 73 of pancreatic cancer. At the same time, Burgess was diagnosed with lung cancer. Burgess has said he won't rebuild.

The story of the couple and the loss of Prairie Oaks Farm was first reported by The Hutchinson News and then taken up by Associated Press and flashed around the state. The story has been reprinted many times.

In that report, Mathes and Burgess are treated with deep respect. The story portrays their loss of each other and Burgess' loss of his home the way any tragedy should be treated. It is a soulful, sad, loving story. The story's tales of former Christmas parties and cooking classes at Prairie Oaks Farm also tell of lives well lived and valued by their communities.

The very ordinariness of all of this is what makes it revolutionary, but then again, LGBT people are no different than anyone else. We simply want to live our lives.

Meanwhile, straight allies who are members of the Equality Coalition lived in Greensburg and lost their home. The chair of the Southwest Kansas Chapter is working to pick up the pieces of her therapy practice, which once was housed in Greensburg. The chapter, along with the state board, continues to work to help the town.

The Liberty Press reports in its June issue about a son of Greensburg, freelance photographer and theatrical director Troy Dilport, who now lives in Wichita. The Press printed some of his photos of his devastated hometown. Both his mother's and sister's houses were destroyed by the tornado. Unfortunately, The Liberty Press doesn't post much of its issue online, so I can't link to any of the material about Greensburg.

My deepest sympathies to all who lost loved ones, homes, jobs, cars, their town. May you all get the help you need to recover. May we learn that underneath whatever differences we may have, we all love, live and are vulnerable to loss the same.
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PHOTO: This is taken from a photo of our not-so-beloved president flying over Greensburg. I cropped out the helicopter and left in the view of the town. Somehow, George W. didn't seem as important.

1 comment:

Buddhagem said...

Fred Burgess was my uncle. Sadly he passed away today. Thank you for writing this post about him and Jim. They were amazing people and will be missed greatly.

david buccola