Topeka, the state capital of Kansas, was once best-known as the home of disbarred attorney Fred Phelps and his hateful, homophobic Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps passed away in 2014, as has much of the anti-LGBTQ+ hatred his group promoted through their tasteless protests.
Now, Topeka is making plans for its first-ever state-wide Pride celebration to be held next year on the steps of the capitol building. Combined with its drag shows, rainbow crosswalks, and one legendary response to Phelps and his hatred in Westboro’s own front yard, visitors to the new Topeka might just wonder if they’re, well, not in Kansas anymore.
“Topeka is not the lost Midwest community people think it is,” Michelle De La Isla, the town’s first Latina mayor, tells Out Traveler via email. She notes that the city is “proud of celebrating the LGBTQ community” and has worked hard to establish local policies to ensure protections in housing and employment.
Topeka has its own rainbow crosswalk
“Fred Phelps’s anti-gay agenda has far too long painted a negative and wrong sentiment about Kansan's attitude toward diversity, and we want that to change,” echoes Shawn Zarazua of the Topeka Performing Arts Center. “Attitudes toward what a ‘traditional’ family is are slowly evolving in Kansas.”
When asked to describe what Pride looks like now in Topeka, Zarazua, a Topeka-native, replies it is unapologetically Midwestern and “very homegrown,” explaining, “What I mean by that is, you'll find a group of gay friends going to church together or organizing a day at the park with cornhole and Pride flags flying. Before the pandemic, there was a group called ‘Topeka Pride.’ They hosted trivia nights and the occasional drag show. These events were highly attended by straight and gay people.”
Studio 62 the city's queer bar is owned by a lesbian couple
Another popular meeting place for the local community and their allies is Studio 62 in Topeka’s NOTO or North Topeka Arts District. Studio 62, owned and operated by the wife-wife team of Chelsea and Jacques Smith, is the city’s only recognized LGBTQ+ bar.
“Sometimes it’s hard to sum it all up,” says Chelsea Smith of Studio 62. “It's a place for all forms of art and expression. A place where you can be you and feel safe. A place to express yourself and get creative. A place to have fun and let loose. Grab a drink and relax. We encourage and help facilitate people to express themselves through art, not just painting and drawing but also performance art, drag, singing, dancing, etc. Anyone can walk in and create art during our open hours and we have artists here to help you express yourself on the canvas step by step or on your own.”
Studio 62 has a full calendar of events
So how do paint and alcohol mix?
“It actually goes pretty well,” Smith assures. “A drink or two really helps loosen you up and can get your creativity going, or at least stop your brain from being uptight and let you have fun with the painting. It’s never been too messy and always a blast! Getting paint everywhere is half the fun. Also, a good part about it is you don’t have to clean up.”
Saturday night drag shows are always popular at Studio 62
Studio 62 has a full calendar of events. There’s open mic Tuesday, wine tasting on Wednesdays, and Friday night glow paint parties, but the most popular night of the week is Saturday and the Studio’s weekly drag shows.
“The drag shows are awesome!” says Smith, adding, “We are the drag scene in Topeka, for real. It's great and I love it. Everyone performing really puts their all into it and loves to put on a good show!”
The famed Equality House sits across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church grounds.
Perhaps the most definitive example of the city’s LGBTQ+ presence is the Equality House, Topeka’s rainbow-colored residential response to Phelps and his band of Westboro hatemongers. Located across the street from the “Fred Phelps Complex,” the Equality House regularly serves as a rallying point for Pride festivities. Visitors to Equality House can leave their own messages of love on the side of the house.
Love conquers hate at the Equality House
It’s that community spirit that is making Topeka a possible destination for LGBTQ+ travelers. However, sometimes the best parties can be found at home with friends.
“My personal favorite way to experience the LGBTQ+ community is a classic drive-way hangout,” reveals Zarazua. “This is the best way to get to know what the true values of Topeka are. You might be handed a Busch Light instead of a Stella Artois, but hey, Kansas keeps it classy.”