The Stonewall riots, which took place in New York City during the summer of 1969, are generally considered the spark that ignited the gay liberation movement. While there’s no denying the importance of Stonewall, many people often overlook another event that also played an important role in the emergence of LGBT activism.
The first ever national meeting for LGBT Americans was held right here in Kansas City, in February of 1966. To commemorate the 50-year anniversary of this historical event, the UMKC community was treated to a presentation by Dr. John D’Emilio.
“Dr. D’Emilio is a pioneer in the field of LGBT studies,” said Stuart Hinds, who serves as Assistant Dean for Special Collections and Archives. In addition to this position, Hinds is the curator for the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid America. Hinds introduced D’Emilio at his presentation last Tuesday, which was held in the Student Union.
“It wasn’t an earth shaking event,” said D’Emilio. “In fact, few LGBT Americans ever knew that it happened. Most LGBT activists today do not know that this city was the site of our community’s first national gathering. It was a start, though. We can certainly use it to open a window, allowing us to explore the gay experience of the time.”
The presentation focused on LGBT activism before Stonewall and painted a grim picture of life for gay Americans during the fifties and sixties.
“I frequently refer to this as the worst time be queer,” said D’Emilio. “There were powerful institutions that promoted oppression. It was a period of gay witch hunts like we’d never seen before and haven’t seen since.”
Unlike other social movements, such as the women’s liberation or the civil rights movement, the LGBT community never had a singular, national organization that promoted their cause. Instead, the gay community relied on a multitude of smaller, more community based organizations to incite change.
The Phoenix Society, Kansas City’s first LGBT organization, helped bring together the 1966 meeting.
Keith Spare was a founding member of the Phoenix Society and lived through the period described by D’Emilio in the presentation. “There [were] so many terrible things that happened,” said Spare, “you can hardly believe it.”
Spare recognizes that there is a lack of knowledge among younger LGBT Americans regarding their community’s past and the struggle they went through to bring about change.
“Very few people, when they headache goes away, miss it,” said Spare. “But we have to tell our stories and recognize the struggle.”
Although the meeting in Kansas City fifty years ago will never go down in the books the way that the Stonewall riots did, D’Emilio believes it was a vital moment for his community.
“It was only possible to leap ahead so quickly,” said D’Emilio, “because of the work done by slow and steady advocates during those early years.”