Ken Schweda-Stoskopf stood in his kitchen earlier this summer making dinner for his family and his 13-year-old son’s friend, a first-time sleepover guest.
“Boys,” Ken said, “…Evan has a test tomorrow so please keep the noise down tonight.”
“Who’s Evan?” the friend asked.
Evan Schweda-Stoskopf, studying for his master’s of business class in another room, is Ken’s partner of three and a half years and stepdad to 13-year-old Tristan, 14-year-old Maddie and 11-year-old Hayley, Ken’s children from a previous marriage to a woman.
The two men married at the courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa, in May 2011 after meeting in Lawrence and dating for two years. Last fall, the men bought their Olathe home together so the family could put down roots.
The three children split time between the home they share with Ken and Evan and their mom’s home in Baldwin City.
Ken turned and looked at his son. The kids had been reluctant to tell their friends about having two dads and a mom, but over the past year they had become more open. Shows like “Modern Family” and “Glee” helped to break down barriers for them. But would popular culture and a supportive home life be enough?
“Oh that’s my other dad,” Tristan said without skipping a beat.
Ken exhaled, and the two kids went on with their teenage-boy lives, talking about the upcoming football season and playing video games.
And so it is to be a gay family in Johnson County: less hidden than in the past, still a little unsure of the prevailing culture.
Gay couples — whether they are raising children or not — are ever more present and blended into the everyday rhythms of suburbia. In fact, Johnson County has more gay households than anywhere in Kansas, including Lawrence.
And the number of gay families living in Johnson County has skyrocketed in recent years. The American Family Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census every year, documented 679 same-sex couples living in Johnson County in 2008. Just two years later, the number had grown to 1,009, a full quarter of the same-sex households in Kansas.
Much of the increase may be a reflection of rapid cultural changes that have encouraged more and more gay couples — long living in Johnson County — to report their relationships to Census workers. And some of the increase may be because gay couples feel more comfortable moving to the suburbs, again thanks to rapid cultural changes in the past decade.
About 17 percent of the same-sex couples in Kansas complete their family with a child under the age of 18. The average same-sex family has two children.
Johnson County’s family atmosphere beckons couples, gay and straight, to the suburbs. Many gay couples also are finding acceptance in Johnson County.
“I think there is a little more openness, particularly in Johnson County,” said Milton Wendland, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Kansas who focuses his research on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
Wendland sees many couples moving back to their roots or somewhere that seems more like home — like Johnson County — when they are ready to start a family.
For Ken and Evan Schweda-Stoskopf, it was important to find a home in a family-friendly location. Even though the kids go to school in Baldwin City, they wanted to find an area where there are other kids, parks, pools and a sense of community for when their kids are with them. They found everything they wanted and more in Olathe.
They found a nice, large home big enough for their family of five. It was a convenient location for Ken and Evan to go to Baldwin City with the kids or for the family to go to downtown Kansas City for a nice dinner.
“We are very suburban, family-oriented people,” Evan said. “We love living in a house with a yard. Our family is close, the downtown is close, and Lawrence is close. We couldn’t think of a better place to raise a family.”
D’Ambra Howard and Christina Condos weren’t so sure about how their neighbors in south Overland Park would treat them when they bought their home in July 2007.
Condos had lived in Westport before and was used to a more liberal atmosphere. She viewed Johnson County as the land of the housewives.
But Howard’s law office is only a few minutes away from their home and she was sure the community would be good for them.
The women had been together for a year and a half when they moved to Overland Park. Soon after, Howard was mowing the front lawn when a big, burly man who lives across the street approached her. Leaning in, he asked her quietly if anyone in the neighborhood had given them any trouble, because you know, they are two women living together.
Howard laughed and told him everyone and everything had been great. And it was the truth. They have found that as long as they take care of their yard and are courteous neighbors, everyone on their street treats them like any other couple.
The women are settled in Overland Park with their dogs. They love their new friends and neighbors.
“It allows them to get to know a lesbian couple and how we are just like every other couple,” Condos said. “They see that there is nothing wrong with it.”
For the most part, they haven’t faced discrimination. Every once in a while a new lawyer at Howard’s firm will make rude comments or jokes about her personal life, but the veteran lawyers in the firm support her and make the troublemaker back down and back off.
“We count ourselves really lucky,” Howard said.
But many gay couples are still worried about how people will react to them. They don’t know how a stranger will react to them holding hands while shopping at Oak Park Mall or going house hunting together.
Kelley Gordon of Overland Park said she is very cautious about whom she shares her personal information with, especially at work at a local hospital. She even dreads entering into personal conversations sometimes, because she does not know how people will react.
“I’ve had times where I have thought, ‘Do I want to take my ring off before I go there?’ ” Gordon said.
It is a common concern. Chick-fil-A did not help them either.
Daun, an Overland Park mother of three school-age children with her partner of almost 20 years, was catching up on Facebook when she clicked on a friend’s newly posted picture. What she saw took her aback: Her “friend” posed with her children proudly eating a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich on Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day last month.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee encouraged people to eat at Chick-fil-A to support the company and its president’s recent public stand against gay marriage. The fast-food company became a lightning rod for both those who support and those who oppose gay rights.
Crowds lined up at Chick-fil-A restaurants in Johnson County and around the country. For Daun, it was a disheartening display. Her children go to school with the kids posed in the Facebook photo — a reminder of disapproval she sometimes forgets exists.
“That made it very visible to me, that it is out there,” said Daun, who asked that her first and last names be withheld out of fear.
The caution was shared by many couples interviewed for this story. Many gay couples are open and out among friends and co-workers but are hesitant to be public, said Sandra Meade, communications director for the Kansas Equality Coalition chapter in the Kansas City area.
And they worry about their children.
Colt and Brent moved from midtown Kansas City to south Overland Park for their two young daughters.
“It’s not about us anymore,” said Colt, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals to his children.
When looking for a new community nine years ago, Colt and Brent were concerned about how their two adopted children of color whose dads are two gay men would be perceived.
“We wanted our kids to go to amazing schools, but also schools that have a little flavor in the student body,” Colt said.
They found a school that they thought was a perfect fit, but were still hesitant about how the other parents would react to their family. So, the men met with the principal to test the waters.
The principal reassured them that their family would be received just like any other new family. And they have been, Colt said.
On Nov. 11, 2011 — 11/11/11 — at 11:11 p.m., Kelley Gordon led Becky Justesen, her partner of two years, across the room at Hamburger Mary’s to the booth where they first met. It was at that moment that Justesen noticed groups of their friends were seated in the surrounding booths.
“She pulled out a ring and the tears started flowing,” said Justesen, whose favorite number is, you guessed it, 11.
Ten months later, Gordon and Justesen are still struggling to begin planning a wedding because of the complex issues associated with a same-sex marriage.
Kansas voters in 2005 passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. In some parts of the state, 90 percent of the electorate favored the same-sex marriage ban. In Johnson County, the vote was 60-40 in favor of the ban, less successful than in Wyandotte County (70 percent favored it) and Leavenworth County (with 74 percent approval), but still a landslide. Only in Douglas County did it lose.
With the vote, Kansas became the 18th state to prohibit same-sex marriage in its constitution, but it went further than most states, banning civil unions and domestic partnerships, allowing only those in a legal marriage to get the benefits of marriage.
Now, 38 states prohibit gay marriage; six and the District of Columbia allow it.
Proponents of Kansas’ ban said they were supporting the family unit and upholding the tradition of marriage.
The closest place for Kansans to wed their same-sex partner legally is Iowa. Evan and Ken Schweda-Stoskopf took their five closest friends, all straight, with them to Des Moines for the ceremony and have not looked back.
D’Ambra Howard and Christina Condos held a destination wedding in St. Croix. They chose to have the ceremony at their condo there with close family to celebrate their coming together as a couple.
“You don’t have to call it marriage because of the church, but it is still a commitment,” Condos said.
Gordon and Justesen ask themselves, “Should we have a traditional ceremony? Should we go to Iowa? What will people say about us?”
“I don’t want to drive to Iowa, get married and then drive back to Kansas where I’m not married,” Gordon said.
Despite the questions, the two are happy with their decision to get engaged. In April the women moved in together in an Overland Park duplex. Becky’s 17-year-old daughter Sabrina moved in as well.
Justesen is an English teacher in Raymore, where Sabrina attends school. Gordon is a nurse at a Johnson County hospital. The women enjoy kayaking as well as playing sports around their apartment complex.
These are the best days of their lives. They have found each other and they’ve found a community in Overland Park where they can be themselves and live happily ever after.
Ryan Hale and Ben Gleason are just starting their lives together in northern Johnson County. They have been together for seven years but are not married. Like Gordon and Justesen, they want their marriage to be meaningful.
“We would have a big party with family, but the next day, nothing would have substantively changed,” Hale said.
More than anything else, the two 20-somethings want to start a family.
“Our desire is to the point where we see Toys “R” Us commercials on TV and we are like, ‘We want a kid,’ ” Hale said.
The couple are thinking about adopting their first child and are exploring their options.
“Unlike with pregnancy, your health insurance does not necessarily cover adoption or surrogacy,” Hale said. “It is an extra challenge, but we both want to have kids.”
Gleason and Hale moved from Lawrence to Johnson County three years ago to be closer to Hale’s family and for work. The two men chose Merriam, down the street from Antioch Park, a wonderful place to raise a family. They love the mix of family-friendly and urban areas.
Like many other couples, they had some concerns about how the community would react to their relationship. They began dating in Lawrence, where there is an ordinance that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. Living in a city that does not have the same policy concerns them.
But in Johnson County, the benefits of good schools, nice homes and work opportunities outweigh the negatives. They want to be an example of a regular same-sex couple living in the suburbs, shopping at their local grocery store as a couple, being a good neighbor in their apartment complex, seeing movies together. It’s why they keep wearing their engagement rings.
“Because if you know someone you can’t hate them,” Gleason said.