When ACT UP/KC Stormed City Hall

The Ordinance Project’ is looking at the 1990s fight to add protections for LGBT people to Kansas City’s Civil Rights Ordinance. Filming begins in the fall.

Photo courtesy of OutHereNow film festival.

On May 17, 1990, roughly a dozen members of ACT UP/KC, Kansas City’s chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, stormed City Hall, blowing whistles and heckling the City Council members in attendance. Outside the Council chamber, ACT UP/KC member Mark Chaney proclaimed that “the city has blood on its hands” and smashed a vial of his own blood on the ground. He smeared it on the glass doors of the chamber, causing a mild panic among those who assumed the blood was HIV-positive. Chaney was arrested for his actions, although he and other ACT UP/KC members told reporters that they would return to City Hall in the near future. This was not the first time they had targeted the City Council, and it wouldn’t be the last.

One week earlier, the City Council had voted 8-5 to send a controversial piece of legislation back through the council committee process. Ordinance 65430 would have outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians or people testing HIV-positive in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Supporters and opponents had orchestrated massive campaigns, flooding City Hall with phone calls, letters and demonstrations. Over the course of one month, the Council’s Finance Committee heard more than nine hours of public testimony. On May 2, the ordinance narrowly passed out of the committee by a vote of 2-1.

Both sides braced themselves for either victory or defeat as they awaited an official vote on the measure. Instead, one week later, the City Council side-stepped the issue and referred it back to committee. Supporters of the legislation were outraged and said that this rare legislative move was “an attempt to kill the issue.” Although some remained optimistic that the council might vote on the measure the following week, it took three more years before “sexual orientation” was added to Kansas City’s Civil Rights Ordinance.

As a doctoral student of American History at UMKC, I’ve spent the last year and a half studying Kansas City’s efforts to pass anti-discrimination legislation for members of the LGBT community. With the significant advancements in equality witnessed over the last decade, it might be easy to forget that not long ago, the mere rumor of being lesbian or gay was enough to get you fired from your job. Additionally, in the late 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, homophobia was often fueled by the myths and misunderstandings of how HIV was spread.

To this day, Ordinance 65430 remains one of the most (if not the most) highly contested pieces of legislation in Kansas City history. It marked a turning point, after which discrimination against gays and lesbians could no longer be ignored, and it demonstrated how homophobia and the fear of AIDS were not only intertwined — they were inseparable.

With the help of Stuart Hinds and the Gay & Lesbian Archives of Mid-America (GLAMA), I’ve pored through thousands of primary sources and digitized dozens of hours of old VHS video footage. I have been blessed to meet many of the activists and politicians directly involved in Kansas City’s fight for civil rights. People have invited me into their homes and shared their stories over cups of coffee. This fall, I will be capturing their memories on film.

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of “sexual orientation” being added to the city’s Civil Rights Ordinance. Unfortunately, many of the key individuals involved in this fight were lost to the AIDS epidemic. Those who are still with us are now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. People cannot forget about this key chapter in Kansas City history. This is what has led to The Ordinance Project. The time to tell this story is now.

Film Fest to Help Launch ‘Ordinance Project’

A special launch reception for The Ordinance Project will be held June 22 at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport on the opening night of the 2017 Kansas City LGBT Film Festival. 

“The Lavender Scare”. Photo courtesy of OutHereNow film festival.

That evening, attendees can meet with Austin Williams and learn more about how to support and participate in The Ordinance Project, starting at 6 p.m. The kickoff reception will be followed by a 7 p.m. screening of The Lavender Scare, the first documentary to tell the story of the U.S. government’s decades-long effort to identify and fire gay and lesbian employees. The screening also includes the premiere of an animated short, In a Heartbeat. Both films are the recipients of 2017 OUT HERE NOW’s Courage Awards for excellence in LGBTQ filmmaking.

The evening is co-presented by the Kansas City Human Rights Commission and co-hosted by GLAMA and the Westport Regional Business League. Advance tickets and film previews are available at www.OutHereNow.com.   – Jamie Rich