This spring, a new exhibit is opening in Miller-Nichols library and at locations around Kansas City. Titled “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights,” the exhibit explores Kansas City’s surprising role in the US gay rights movement of the 1960s. The exhibit opened April 19 at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library (800 E. 51st Street) and will be on view through September 30. If you want to learn more, you’ll need to see the exhibit. However, for a special post this week I thought I would share my perspective as one of the contributing curators. I can’t speak for everyone who worked on the project, but I hope my experience gives readers a taste of what its like to work with the “stuff” of history and turn it into an exhibit panel.
Most of the time, the history that you see in an exhibit or read in a book is just the tip of a very big iceberg. Historians deal in a particular type of story – we call them “narratives.” A narrative is a vehicle for explaining how and why certain events in the human past happened the way they did. We use narratives the way Physicists use models – to explain how and why systems work. In our case, our system is the whole of past human affairs and the narrative is a model for why some of the atoms (humans) behaved the way they did. Coming up with one of these models means balancing between staying true to the historical evidence and inferring something more from the evidence that makes it part of an interpretation. Having just the facts, with no interpretation or narrative, results in the dry “history” you hated in high school. Just a narrative with no supporting evidence? That’s called fiction. Good histories mix fact and interpretation, and also answer what we call the “so what” question. This asks why is what we have to say important? What lesson can be drawn from it, or how does understanding this part of the past allow us to understand a different part better? Sometimes, particularly challenging source material makes the entire process harder.
The most salient aspect of this project for me was the challenge my source material presented. My panel is about the Gay Bar scene in Kansas City in the 50s and 60s. The most amazing source material I had was a huge set of pictures taken at a few different bars.The problem I faced was a difficulty to do either one at all. In some cases these were just pictures of people. The subject, date, and location were unknown. Pictures of people at a bar is not history. I was going to have to make some judgements about what I was looking at and why it was important. On the other hand, these were like people’s Facebook photos. Who am I to draw any sort of conclusion about what they “mean” or what the “significance” is? I wasn’t there. I don’t know them.
Picture from the GLAMA collection, similar to the ones I worked with. The people, place, and date are unknown.
I’ve never been at such a loss about how to interpret a source, in part because I felt as if any interpretation violated someones privacy. Then I realized the answer lay in the problem: the intimacy of the photos was the lesson. These photos show how important gay bars were at that time because they were a place where people could be intimate, or could take pictures together without fear of repercussions. My panel presents the photos without telling you a great deal about who those people were. But it does tell a story about why gay bars were so important. If you ask me what these photos “mean” in an historical sense, I’d say they’re evidence that bars were special places for gays and lesbians in the 1950s and 60s. You can see it in the pictures they took.
So, why Pride? Hasn’t the LGBT community come so far that “Gay Pride” is unnecessary? Granted, the achievements made in the struggle for civil rights have been breathtaking as of late, especially, of course, in the push for same-sex marriage. But those accomplishments didn’t just happen. They were the result of decades of struggle by known and unknown individuals seeking a life without persecution based on who they were and demanding to be treated equally as any other citizen of this country. The fact that they achieved success is such a relatively short time is astounding. We celebrate Pride to celebrate them.
It is because of them that, in one lifetime, we went from this:
Undesirable Discharge from the military, given to thousands of gays and lesbians.
In one lifetime, from this:
1965 march at the White House protesting treatment of homosexual federal employees.
Mid-America Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce
In one lifetime, from this:
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the first lesbian advocacy group in the US. At their first meeting in 1955 they made sure that the curtains were drawn so they wouldn’t be seen from the outside.
Martin and Lyon at their first wedding ceremony in 2004 in San Francisco
That’s plenty to be proud of.
Happy Pride, Kansas City! Here’s to another 40 years!
So what do the next 40 years hold for Kansas City Pride Celebrations? Recent years have seen the development of Pride for specific populations within the LGBT community:
Black Pride 2014 Poster
Black Pride 2015 Poster
Latino Pride 2015 Banner
Whether these celebrations can be seen as positive or additional fracturing of the community is up for debate. But as we move toward what we hope will be additional civil rights accomplishments in a post-same-sex-marriage world, how will Pride be affected? Will we even need a Pride Celebration?
In addition to many different musicians, a number of comedians have trod the boards at Kansas City Pride, including:
Phyllis Diller, 2000
Sharon Gless, 2002
Judy Tenuta, 1997
As local Pride Celebrations became more commercial over the years, a wide variety of notable musical acts have performed at them. Here is a sample:
C+C Music Factory, 1997 and 2000
En Vogue, 2006, 2010
Jennifer Holliday, 2012
Chaka Khan, 2007
Lisa Lisa, 1999
Pansy Division, 2004
CeCe Peniston, 1999
Jody Watley, 2002
Chely Wright, 2011
In the last 40 years, Kansas City’s Pride Celebrations have been held throughout the city. Here’s a list of most of those venues:
1975: Gay Community House, 3825 Virginia
1978, 1979, 1994, 2004-2009: Penn Valley Park/Liberty Memorial
1988-92: Southmoreland Park
1993: Roanoke Park
1995-2003: Barney Allis Plaza
2010, 2015: Berkley Riverfront Park
2011-2012: Power and Light District
2014: West Bottoms
Of course, it wouldn’t be a festival without a t-shirt, so here are the logos from a random assortment of Pride Celebrations:
2000, featuring the fabulous Flo, beautiful Belle Starr, and legendary Melinda Ryder
By the 2000-teens, Pride Celebrations in Kansas City were on the decline. Perceived focus towards a target market group rather than the entire community, uneven production values, and ongoing concern around fiscal responsibilities have all contributed to a sense of frustration and apathy about Pride. Indeed, there have been attempts at offering what some might consider competing Pride events. For these reasons, this 40th anniversary year brought a new emphasis on improvements to the Celebration, resulting in the largest crowds of the decade so far.
Pride 2015 volleyball game
Pride 2015 Human Rights Campaign Booth
Missouri Air National Guard Booth (!)
Heartland Men’s Chorus
Local drag legends Flo and Melinda Ryder
Linda Clifford, one of the “First Ladies of Disco”
The Kit Bond Bridge showing its Pride
The trend towards making a profit from the Pride Celebration that started in the 1990s continued into the new century. Various entities were formed to manage production of the event, some with greater success than others. Pride Celebrations in Kansas City during this time were plagued with real or perceived financial malfeasance, which soured the event for many.
The scale of the events, however, continued to benefit from the influx of funds and grew as the decade progressed. The location was shifted from Barney Allis Plaza to Penn Valley Park, which could accommodate more attendees, more vendors, and a larger stage for entertainment. Several years saw a Street Festival in what is now the Crossroads District prior to the weekend’s main events in the park. Exhibitor booths expanded to include a much greater percentage of commercial vendors, further contributing to the move towards a greater corporate feel to the Celebration. Marketing seemed to be a goal, not community-building.
Support from politicians for the LGBT community and its concerns was another facet of the Pride Celebrations that expanded during this time as well. Proclamations for Pride were regularly issued by city, county, and state leaders. But nowhere was this support made more memorable than the cover of the June, 2006 issue of Camp, Kansas City’s primary LGBT news periodical. Mayor Kay Barnes, a longtime supporter of the LGBT community, appeared in a blond wig and 1950s housewife garb holding a iced rainbow cake:
Mayor Kay Barnes in 50s drag
It was a masterful and unforgettable depiction of growing political support for Kansas City’s LGBT communities.
The mid- to late-1990s saw a shift in the evolution of Kansas City’s Pride Celebrations. Organizers noted the size of crowds in attendance, and realized that the Celebrations could turn a profit if presented appropriately. The first evidence of this transformation in GLAMA collections is in 1996. While the Celebration was presented for the second year by Project Pride, a new initiative of GLSN, it appears to have been the first time a fee was levied on attendees. The one-day festival was held at Barney Allis Plaza in downtown Kansas City, preceded by a parade.
1996 Parade flyer
1996 Parade Route
By 1998, a for-profit corporation was responsible for the Pride Celebration, again held in Barney Allis Plaza with an accompanying parade and admission fee. In 10 years, Kansas City’s Pride Celebration has gone from a grassroots, community-driven effort to a profit-driven event.
1998 Pride Guide
1999 Pride Guide
Participants in Kansas City’s 1993 Pride Celebration had reason to revel. In April of that year, the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation was held, drawing 1,000,000 marchers, including a Kansas City contingent. Locally, the Kansas City Council passed the ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing and employment in June – fittingly, Pride Month. Spirits were high that summer.
The Celebration itself was moved to Roanoke Park in order to accommodate growing crowds. Indeed, owing to the non-discrimination ordinance passage, attendance at the 1993 Pride Celebration broke all records.
1993 Pride Program
That year’s parade was rather extensive, assembling at Mill Creek Park and marching north along Nichols Parkway/Broadway through Westport to Valentine Road and on to Roanoke Park. Note the instructions for the parade cautioned larger floats to integrate after the parade passed beneath the former streetcar overpass at 43rd. Street.
1993 Parade route
This appears to have been the last Pride Celebration organized by Gay and Lesbian Awareness. Evidence shows that subsequent Celebrations continued to be organized by GLSN, the Gay and Lesbian Services Network, the umbrella organization of GALA and several other initiatives, but, after five years of increasingly successful Pride Celebrations, GALA was no more.