Kansas City is one of the epicenters of American queer history, and today, that history is under assault.
To understand the city’s importance, we have to go back in time––before queer liberation, before Pride, and before Stonewall––to the “homophile” movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis worked to persuade politicians, physicians, and academics that “homosexuals” were no different than straight Americans. These groups were generally white and middle class; when they began marching in the mid-1960s, they enforced a dress code to project their morality or respectability.
But as the 1960s wore on, divisions between the groups grew. Some activists, like Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, began demanding change, especially when it came to the government’s purges of “sexual deviants”. Others preferred to organize quietly, working with straight allies.
There also existed a rivalry between the coasts: the east eschewed social events, but the west saw them as a vehicle for political organization. The east believed in firm stances on ideological matters (e.g., were homosexuals mentally ill?), but the west believed in concrete action. And because these groups had so many differences in philosophies and priorities, their leaders decided they should find a way to better communicate with one another.
In 1965, at a meeting of the Eastern Conference of Homophile Organizations (ECHO), activists proposed establishing a national conference but geographically, they would have to compromise. The Midwest? The South? The delegates voted on the location, and they settled on the perfect halfway point. America’s first national meeting of independent homophile organizations would take place in Kansas City.
In February 1966, at the first National Planning Conference of Homophile Organizations, thirty-eight delegates arrived to represent fourteen organizations. And although the delegates voted against affirming the mental health of homosexuals, they made other progress: they planned a national demonstration for the following year, and at last, there existed a national umbrella organization for homophile organizations.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2021. A week ago, an exhibit titled “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights,” went up in the Missouri State Museum, located in the state capitol building. The exhibit, created by history students at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, chronicled the history and significance of the 1966 NPCHO conference.
But after only four days, the exhibit disappeared. State authorities had quietly dismantled the display after Republican staffers complained that the exhibit was “pushing the LGBT agenda.” When openly gay Senator Greg Razer demanded an explanation, state officials cited an obscure exhibit approval rule––one that had never been enforced for previous exhibits––to justify their (literal) dismantling of our history. Yesterday, House Minority Leader Crystal Quade demanded that state officials remove every other exhibit that hadn’t been pre-approved. That would mean “stripping the Museum bare.”
Indeed, the Republicans’ tactics are almost identical to those used by anti-queer bigots (and by white supremacists) for decades: using unenforced rules, like sodomy or vagrancy statutes, to selectively target only queer and trans folks. And just like the bigots of the past, these Republicans should be ashamed of themselves.
Stephanie Rowe, Executive Director of the National Council on Public History, put it best in her Wednesday letter to Missouri A Governor Michael L. Parson: “When peoples’ histories are marginalized, people often become marginalized as well.”
At a time when queer and trans folks are under attack across the country, and when our civil liberties are gradually being eroded by a reactionary Supreme Court, we are on a slippery slope. We must fight injustice wherever we see it, and we must protect our history.
Please consider calling Governor Parson and tell him to reinstall the LGBTQ History exhibit at the Capitol Museum (not the “closet” next door, where they moved the exhibit).
Phone: (573) 751-3222
You can also donate to PROMO, Missouri's statewide organization advocating for LGBTQ equality through legislative action, electoral politics, grassroots organizing, and community education.
Queer history is American history, and erasing our past only enables the erasure of ourselves.