Kansas governor Sam Brownback just signed SB 175, an anti-gay “religious liberty” bill that allows college religious groups to discriminate against LGBT people without any punishment. Anti-gay groups like the Kansas Catholic Conference and the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas joined Brownback for the signing ceremony today. But we’re not celebrating. In fact, we’d like to remind you about the time Brownback humiliated himself by selling sex toys for government revenue.
In September of 2014, the Kansas state government seized inventory at sex toy outlets in Topeka, Wichita, Junction City and Kansas City due to unpaid taxes. Larry Minkoff, the owner of United Outlets LLC or “Bang,” owes Kansas $163,986, and the state allowed him to auction off his inventory in order to pay the state back this significant debt. Pretty standard (and dry) except for one minor detail: Bang is a chain of erotic sex shops, and Larry Minkoff’s inventory consists of BDSM themed lingerie, paddles, over 160 cock rings, the Anal Sluts film series, and one item titled “penis suckers.”
Humorless pedants are quick to mention that the auction was not actually conducted by the state of Kansas, but rather by the owner of Bang, with the money raised going to pay back the some $160,000 he owes in taxes. But Democrats in Kansas were not as quick to point out this detail, pronouncing that Governor Sam Brownback had “put the state of Kansas into the porn business.”
The sex toy auction proved a particularly cheery bit of news for progressives in Kansas, since Governor Brownback’s political reputation is both socially conservative and Puritan. While it didn’t matter much for Brownback’s re-election campaign — in spite of myriad predictions to the contrary, Brownback beat his Democratic challenger by four percent — the sex toy auction showed the dire straits that Kansas government was facing, and perhaps predicted the contradictions Brownback must also face to keep the state running for the next four years.
Sam Brownback once said asked Kansas citizens to pray for Lawrence, Kansas, a “spiritually dark” part of the otherwise glorious Christian state. He is a devout Christian, and he isn’t cute about it: that devoutness was a major part of his electoral strategy — even when it’s so over the top it’s comical. He attended meetings of anti-marriage equality groups classified as “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center and once compared abortion to slavery. The idea that this man would sell fuzzy pink handcuffs to alleviate debt (caused by his own misguided economic policy no less) is a wonderful piece of irony, particularly attractive as his economic policies will be in full swing for at least another three and a half years.
Of course, Brownback doesn’t exist in a vacuum: however deserving of skepticism Kansas voter ID laws may be, there are people who not only like the man, but voted for him. Brownback is the logical governor for a state that hosts the Westburo Baptist Church, known for their elaborate protests at the funerals of gay people, veterans, and pretty much anyone who has ever thought the word “gay”. The state’s legislature is Republican controlled, and since 1980, Kansas has voted Republican more consistently than any other state.
Kansas is also home to one of the most conservative cities in America. This conservatism is primarily driven by “family values” politics: gay marriage was banned in Kansas in 2005, with over 70 percent of the population voting for the ban. The Kansas House recently passed a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood, require women getting an abortion to first hear the heartbeat of the fetus, and mandate the doctor giving the abortion identify the fetus as a human being. Kansas schools have abstinence plus education for sex education: sitting in on sex education that contains more information about, y’know, safe sex, requires parental permission. Kansas’ policies, and the people who have the power to create them, are as conservative as their governor.
His religious conservatism is bad, but his actual financial policies are even worse. Sam Brownback has turned Kansas into a conservative’s playground, and surprise, surprise, it hasn’t worked for real life Kansans. His first term in office, he oversaw income tax cuts that totaled more than $258 million, eliminating most of the revenue that allows state services to function: Kansas is expected to face a $238 million budget shortfall by 2016. This has real world implications for the people who live there: child poverty has increased from 15 percent to 19 percent, (in spite of Brownback’s claims that it’s been “flat”), the mental health care system is under perilous strain with overcrowded, understaffed case facilities, and the economy as a whole is struggling.
But it’s more than Brownback’s mismanagement of the tax system, or “just a routine bankruptcy claim,” as the shoulder pads of state government keeps saying, lips pursed. This sex shop story was an exciting and delightful breach in the conservative chokehold on Kansas moral sanctity, and marred the image of the poster boy of Kansas “family values” himself — the same one who has been running the state into the ground.
But who has power might be changing in Kansas, even if it didn’t in this election cycle. The people who are over this elaborate conservative “experiment” are mobilizing the very people whose communities have been harmed by Brownback’s policies. Buoyed by the rising numbers of Latino and black voters, organizers around the state (such as Kansas People’s Action) across have been mobilizing, particularly around voting rights. One organizer recently told In These Times: “We’re now at a place where almost a quarter of Kansas is black and brown: That’s power.” Kansas’ population is shifting, and they are not thrilled with Brownback as their governor. The days of unquestioned, conservative Christian power are numbered, even if the November 2014 election was not the tipping point.
The particular fervor over the sex toy auction is childish at best: as tight-lipped as the state government is about this being a “routine tax thing,” they’re also correct. What is most salacious about the sex toy auction is the “dirtying” of Puritanical Brownback’s hands, “a family values man” until he has to generate revenue, an exciting pratfall to watch as Kansas demographics begin to shift.
This pratfall belies his next steps: now that he’s governor for the next four years, he has to face the realities of his economic policies, and scramble to hold the state together. This is his task even as the social conservative linchpin issues that he has long championed become moot points, out of his hands, like the gay marriage question so important to him and his supporters.
For so long, Kansas, or at least the people in power in Kansas, have seemed more enraged by good deals on bullwhips than by the real, human damage of neoliberal disaster capitalism. That’s starting to shift, and that shift will eventually take down Brownback and company- penis suckers or no penis suckers. While a sex toy sale, so infinitely antithetical to Kansas conservative values, might not be the linchpin, it’s still a beautiful thing to behold: it is part of a moment in time where Kansas, and its conservative underpinnings, are beginning to be challenged.
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(This article was originally published on April 25, 2015)
H Kapp-Klote is a Kansas native based in Chicago. When people make Wizard of Oz jokes at bars they usually say “The Wizard of Oz? Is that an art film?”