Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights

UMKC Miller Nichols Library: “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights”

The exhibit includes this photo of beloved longtime female impersonator Skip Arnold performing at the Jewel Box, 3219 Troost, in 1959. (Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America at UMKC)

A small exhibition about an outsized legacy proves that small groups of committed people can change the world in profound ways. “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights” at the Miller Nichols Library tells the story of how Kansas City became the unlikely site of the first national organizing efforts for LGBT rights more than 50 years ago. The 12 exhibition panels begin by asking the question, “How does change happen?” The exhibition correctly makes the case that we usually mark history through dramatic events, when in fact change is made through the small actions of many people at the local level. It’s only when those actions coalesce into a coherent movement that those breakthrough events can occur.

Curated by Stuart Hinds, the library’s Assistant Dean of Special Collections and Archives, with Dr. Christopher D. Cantwell, and Kate Carpenter, “Making History” came about through collaborative research done by UMKC students of public history who explored the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) in the LaBudde Special Collections at UMKC. A rich mix of GLAMA’s archival materials including candid snapshots, paper ephemera from bars and “nite clubs,” periodicals and media reports recreate the historical context of increasingly visible gay communities that emerged in urban centers after World War II.

One of the juiciest exhibition panels brings to life Kansas City’s vibrant postwar gay scene that centered on a section of Troost Avenue. Venues like the Jewel Box featured frequent variety shows with an array of “femme-mimics” like the notorious Rae Bourbon, who recorded several albums in her heyday. The nearby Colony Bar advertised itself proudly as “the gayest spot in town,” while The Rail Room conveniently welcomed their clientele right across from Union Station. Surviving photographs of bars and private parties reveal hotbeds of dancing, drinking and performing, but just as important, a hard-won, fun-loving sense of community.

Outside these safe spaces, the national climate of intolerance and fear of “sexual perversion” was codified in laws like President Eisenhower’s Order 10450, which barred gay and lesbian Americans from federal employment well into the 1970s. The exhibition further documents painful persecution regularly experienced in gay communities: police raids, beatings, arrests, and threats of public shaming, loss of jobs or housing. In response to the “Lavender scare” (a government witch hunt targeting gays) of the 1950s, legacy “homophile” organizations like the The Mattachine Society, One, Inc., and The Daughters of Bilitis formed to cautiously advocate for gay rights.

Publications on display include this Newsletter of the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom published in August 1966. (Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America at UMKC)

A growing homophile movement facilitated a shared sense of identity through magazines like “The Ladder” and Kansas City’s own publication, “The Phoenix: Midwest Homophile Voice.” In fact, The Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom, founded in Kansas City by Drew Shafer with the unflagging support of his parents, became a leading firebrand for the movement with the motto: “Rising from the fiery Hell of social injustice, the wings of freedom will never be stilled.” Shafer’s father, who was a commercial printer, helped secure printing equipment for The Phoenix Society, making it the center of a vital publishing network for homophile publications from across the United States.

In February 1966, the groundbreaking National Planning Conference of Homophile Organizations convened a two-day gathering at the State Hotel at 12th and Wyandotte in downtown Kansas City. The groups began to hammer out a common agenda of activism for civil and political rights. Six months later they met in San Francisco to form the annual North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO), which coined the affirmative phrase, “gay is good.” NACHO returned to Kansas City in 1969 as the largest gathering of gay and lesbians to date. Despite these important steps forward at the national level, there was a split brewing among the younger, more radical members impatient for change. The Homophile Movement would soon transform into a Gay Liberation Movement with the explosive Stonewall riots that same summer.

The surprising story of Kansas City’s role in the development of gay rights can also be seen in a recently installed historical marker at Barney Allis Plaza downtown commemorating the unprecedented 1966 National Conference. Meanwhile, the “Making History” exhibition received funding for a touring version that will visit branches of the Mid-Continent Public Library, the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas, the Kansas City LGBT Community Center, and as far as Springfield, Missouri. If you haven’t paid a visit to the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America on the third floor of the Miller Nichols Library on the UMKC campus, do so and feel the pride and progress forged by Kansas City’s LGBT citizens.

“Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights” continues through Dec. 8 at the Miller Nichols Library on the campus of UMKC. For more information, 816.235.5712 or library.umkc.edu

About The Author: Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an interdisciplinary arts writer, curator and consultant active in both film and visual arts. For two decades he has shared his passion and expertise with arts organizations large and small, from art museums to film festivals, galleries to collections. He and his wife Sarah recently collaborated on a new art project, a baby boy.

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