At a significant spot in LGBT history – the northeast corner of Barney Allis Plaza, near 12th and Wyandotte Streets in downtown Kansas City, Mo. – dignitaries, honored guests, organizers and enthusiastic citizens gathered Oct. 20 to witness the unveiling of a historical marker. It informs passersby that 50 years ago, gay rights leaders from across the country met for the first time in one place at the State Hotel, once situated catty-corner across the intersection from the new marker.
Melinda Ryder and Kirk Nelson were on hand for the ceremony, as were Kansas City Councilwomen Jolie Justus and Katheryn Shields, who had the City Council proclamation in hand. The Heartland Men’s Chorus performed, and a post-unveiling reception took place at Hotel Phillips.
As Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) co-founder Stuart Hinds reported for Camp in last month’s issue, the group met at the hotel in late February 1966. This meeting led to the formation of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO – pronounced /NEY-ko/). In attendance at that meeting was local activist Drew Shafer, whose local impact in the seminal gay rights movement cannot be overstated. Shafer formed the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom in March 1966.
The Phoenix Society was headquartered in Phoenix House on East Linwood Boulevard. Besides its local functions, Phoenix House served as a distribution hub for information among the various homophile organizations around the country.
One golden week in October
A couple of years ago, Hinds realized that these two 50-year anniversaries – the State Hotel meeting and the Phoenix Society founding – were approaching soon and he wanted to celebrate them properly. Specifically, he wanted to look into the possibility of installing a permanent historical marker. He also thought pushing the celebrations into October would work better, because it is LGBT History Month.
Hinds formed a committee called LGBT-KC to plan for the marker and related events. David Jackson, Jon Barnett, Kay Madden, Ross Freese and Brad Wolf served on the committee and began meeting in the spring of 2015. Each member had an area of expertise: Brad Wolf, for example, is the city’s historic preservation officer, so he could help navigate the logistics involved in placing the marker. The bronze marker’s wording and design were also on the task list. Both the Municipal Art Commission and Visit KC had to approve its placement.
The LGBT-KC committee received funding for its effort from several sources. Melinda Ryder’s 60th birthday celebration designated GLAMA as a beneficiary, so Bruce Winter and Kirk Nelson made a significant contribution to the manufacturing of the marker. UMKC campus fundraising, UMKC’s history, English, communications studies and theatre departments, women and gender studies program, Center for Midwestern Studies, and Shook, Hardy & Bacon also helped provide funding.
Missouri Valley Speaker Series
UMKC history graduate student Kevin Scharlau gave a lecture on the 1966 conference and the Phoenix Society on Oct. 16 as part of the Kansas City Library’s Missouri Valley Speaker Series at the Downtown Branch. Scharlau won the 2015 Article of the Year award from the State Historical Society of Missouri for his published essay on the Phoenix Society.
Scharlau discussed the post-war State Department purge of homosexuals and the idea that so-called perverts were a cause of government peril. He noted that local gay bars at that time were often camouflaged to avoid being raided, but that Kansas City bore a unique distinction in its tolerance of male-male dancing.
He spoke of Drew Shafer’s parents, saying that his mother, Phyllis, was like a mom to many local gay people. Shafer’s father was a printer, which helped with the production of the Phoenix newsletter.
Shafer was one of the first homophile activists to use his real name in both personal and private matters. His union, the United Auto Workers, came to his defense when his employer wanted to fire him based on his sexual orientation.
John D’Emilio lecture
On Oct. 18, John D’Emilio, professor emeritus of history and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Illinois – Chicago, spoke on the topic “Before Stonewall: Oppression and Resistance in the 1950s and 1960s.”
D’Emilio reported that several gay rights groups existed in the post-World War II era, including the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and ONE Inc. However, he calls this period “the worst time to be queer.” The Lavender Scare (homosexuality) in the U.S. Senate paralleled the Red Scare (communism) of the same time period.
In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, meant to deal with security risks in government, one of which was perceived to be homosexuals.
Both Scharlau and D’Emilio discussed the contrast between the homophile activists, who were more conservative and steady-paced, and the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement, whose members took to the streets with in-your-face activism.
Phoenix Society members Mickey Ray, who was Drew Shafer’s partner, and Keith Spare were present at all three commemoration events.
Students are developing related exhibit
Hinds reports: “A UMKC Public History class has been given a semester-long assignment to develop an exhibit based on the events commemorated by the historic marker. They will develop exhibit themes, content and have even been tasked with developing a plan to tour it to local venues like libraries and other historic sites. Their Public History professor, Dr. Chris Cantwell, in partnership with GLAMA, is submitting a grant proposal to local funders to have the exhibit fabricated. We are anticipating the exhibit to begin touring in the spring of 2017.”
Hinds, who is also the assistant dean for special collections & archives at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library, said that GLAMA will continue to look for local sites with significance to LGBT history. One possible site is the building where the Jewel Box Lounge, which closed in the 1970s, was located at 3227 Troost Ave.
As always, GLAMA is looking for donations of local LGBT historical items; it also houses a growing oral history archive. If you have items that might fit the bill and you need a little closet space freed up, give GLAMA a call or send an email. The archive contains mostly two-dimensional records and is available to the public for research purposes.
GLAMA website: goo.gl/t1E1hi