Kansas House Gains its First Two Openly LGBTQ Members

Susan Ruiz and Brandon Woodward in the Kansas House Chamber.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Woodard

Editor’s note: In November, voters elected the first two openly LGBTQ members of the Kansas House of Representatives. State Rep. Brandon Woodard serves District 30, which includes parts of Lenexa and Olathe, and State Rep. Susan Ruiz serves District 23, which includes parts of Lenexa, Overland Park and Shawnee. Both are Democrats. Now that these freshman legislators have been sworn in, we knew Camp readers would want to learn more about their views. To get some answers, Billy Griffin, Luke Walker and Terry Newell of our social media team developed this set of questions. Here’s what they had to say.

The state of Kansas is emerging from a conservative period that left it deeply in debt and in political upheaval. Why do you think voters connected with you and your platform this year?

Susan Ruiz: I will quote one of my neighbors: “I guess the people wanted a change.” I honestly believe that people (regardless of party affiliation) across the country are fed up with the current occupant of the White House and his rhetoric of hate. Voters connected with me because I listened to what they had to say about what was important to them. I related to them that I wanted to be their “voice” in the legislature. My sexual orientation never came up when I spoke with people one-on-one. We connected on the things that mattered in all of our lives.

Brandon Woodard: The voters of District 30 were eager to have a representative who was focused on common-sense, moderate positions on issues relating to education, health care and budgeting. The voters of Lenexa and Olathe are tired of the failed ultra-conservative experiments.

The new governor, Laura Kelly, has reinstated protections for LGBT state employees. Is there any other legislation you want to introduce to help LGBT Kansans, as well?

Ruiz: Yes, Rep. Brandon Woodard and I are working with Equality Kansas on a couple of legislative actions. Our first priority is to add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the Kansas Act Against Discrimination. Several cities in Kansas (Roeland Park, Prairie Village, Merriam, Lawrence, and Manhattan) have passed non-discrimination ordinances (NDO), and Wyandotte County became the first county to pass the ordinance. Citizens in those cities asked their city councils to pass an NDO, because the Kansas legislature has failed to pass it on the state level.

Woodard: I was honored to join Gov. Kelly this morning as she signed the executive order protecting LGBT state workers. I’m interested in putting this into law, which would prevent future governors from rescinding these protections. Rep. Susan Ruiz and I will be introducing a bill to add “gender identity and sexual orientation” to the protected classes in Kansas, which would protect all Kansans. I believe we also need to ban conversion therapy on minors. [Conversion therapy, which tries to change its subjects’ sexual orientation or gender identity, has been widely debunked as harmful by health-care professionals.]

According to the Victory Fund, a national organization, 147 state-level LGBT candidates won this year. Does this surprise you?

Ruiz: I was pleasantly surprised that so many won their races. However, early on we started talking about a “Rainbow Wave” joining the “Blue Wave.” I also think that voter registration efforts across the county, especially among younger people, helped to propel these races.

Woodard: LGBTQ people have been the political punching bag for decades, but especially in recent years in Kansas. I’m excited to see the Rainbow Wave that hit Kansas and the country. I am not surprised by the number of candidates that were elected. We’re here, we’re queer, and we are bringing a new perspective to our legislative chambers.

The Movement Advancement Project estimates that Kansas has over 68,000 LGBT residents. What would you like to say to them, especially the ones reading this interview that live in conservative counties?

Ruiz: Get involved! A person’s age isn’t a barrier. Start with making sure you are registered to vote. Get informed about the various races at all levels of government, and find a candidate you can relate to and help their campaign. Even better, run for office. I love this quote I once saw on a political sign: “You can’t change stupid, but you can vote them out.”

Woodard: You are important. You matter. You’re welcome in Kansas, and we’re going to start updating the laws to reflect that. Grab a clipboard and a few friends, start knocking doors, and file to run for office as well. We’ve had many allies in the Kansas House and Senate over the years, but now we have members of OUR community standing up for us.

What made you decide to run for office, knowing that Kansas is a conservative state?

Ruiz: I was devastated after Trump was elected, and I found myself pissed off most of the time. I was always hanging out with other pissed-off people, and at some point, I got tired of just being angry. I decided to run for office and channel my energy into helping to make people’s lives better. I’m a clinical social worker by profession and have worked with some of the most vulnerable populations in the state. I’m comfortable advocating for people to access resources, but now I get to do that on the state level.

Woodard: My state representative refused to meet with constituents and wouldn’t reply to emails or phone calls regarding legislation. I don’t believe that that is how our elected officials should function or treat their constituents. I was also motivated to run because, as a higher education fundraiser, our state has devastated our state universities, community colleges, and vocational and technical education programs. This was my way of doing something about it.

What impact did being a member of the LGBT community have as you campaigned?

Ruiz: It was interesting, but it never came up when I was canvassing. I feel good in my own skin, and it gives me confidence to just be myself. I’m comfortable talking about my personal life, but I also protect myself from people who might be negative.

Woodard: It rarely came up. A few voters thanked me for running, mentioning that they had a gay friend, child, or neighbor. Beating up on LGBT people is no longer an effective strategy, so I am fortunate that the only times it came up were in positive ways.

Newly elected Rainbow Wave legislators Susan Ruiz and Brandon Woodward with Sharice Davids, U.S. Representative for Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Woodard

When others look back at the history of Kansas politics, what do you think they will say about you?

Ruiz: I think comments about me initially will be in the context of this blue wave that hit Kansas in 2018 and about Sharice Davids, Brandon Woodard and Susan Ruiz made history by being elected to Congress and to the Kansas House of Representatives. I hope that people will say that I carried their voice to the Capitol and that I was able to make a difference in their lives for the better. I also hope people will say that I was a positive role model for running for office at an older age. I really, really hope that LGBTQ young people will say that I (we) helped to end discrimination in employment and housing by including sexual orientation and gender identity in the Kansas Act Against Discrimination.

Woodard: I hope that my win motivates other young Kansans to get involved in local and state-level campaigns and issues that they care about. After making history as KU’s first openly-LGBT student body vice president (2012-13) and one of Kansas’ first two openly-LGBT representatives, I’m hopeful that we get to a point that LGBT people run for office and serve their neighbors – that it’s so common that it’s no longer newsworthy.

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