KC’s new Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America remembers a pioneer town
Ross Freese slows his car to a crawl and drops his voice as if he’s about to tell a secret. He throws a glance over his left shoulder, advising his passengers to survey a brick home at the corner of Harrison and 44th Street.
The two-story structure isn’t anything special. It blends with the rest of the modest homes in this Hyde Park neighborhood.
“Just take a look as we drive by,” Freese says. “We’ll get back to that.”
There’s hidden history at this location, but he isn’t ready to tell just yet.
Freese, an IT specialist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, speaks with Shakespearean pomp. For many years, he worked for the Missouri Repertory Theatre. Now he digs for drama in Kansas City’s gay and lesbian history. Last year, on Coming Out Day, his gay-history tour packed school buses.
“There’s a ton of gay history in Kansas City that is pertinent locally and nationally,” he says. “And unless we start shining a light on it and preserving it, it’s going to be forgotten.”
One of the first stops on the tour, not far north of UMKC, is Hyde Park. Of course, that’s not what Freese calls it. “We’re in lesbian town,” he says with a flourish. Women settled here in the 1970s, he explains, because houses were cheap. “They developed skills to support each other — carpentry, plumbing, landscaping — and really started their own community.”
A few streets east, he points out another house, deep-blue with white trim. He sighs with relief to see that it’s still standing. It served as one of the first LGBT community centers in the 1970s, he says. But it also serves as a different kind of reminder. A few weeks ago, he spotted a Dumpster on the front lawn. He feared demolition of the little-known landmark. “That is one of the challenges,” Freese says. “Our built history is centered largely in the early urban core. With redevelopment, some of our built environment is going away.”
As he turns onto Troost, Freese describes other points of interest that are long gone. He points to an empty lot between an art gallery and a weathered home. There stood a bar called the Colony, an early LGBT watering hole. “They had an ad in the phone book in 1961 that said ‘The GAYest bar in Kansas City,'” he says, emphasizing the capitalization. “So the nomenclature was out there — and they weren’t afraid to advertise it.”
He turns right on Linwood, and gestures to a beige industrial building. “A very significant, now-gone structure was the home of Phoenix Society, one of the earliest efforts to raise the visibility of the LGBT community,” he says. “The Phoenix newsletter is an integral linchpin of my personal preservation efforts.”
Delving into Kansas City’s gay past is tricky. So far, Freese has unearthed just one copy of a Phoenix Society newsletter, which was published from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. “This is just hearsay,” he says, “but I’m told somebody here in town has almost all the copies but is hesitant to release them.”
Freese knows that there are key pieces of Kansas City’s gay past stuffed into boxes, abandoned in attics. For years, no institution was interested in collecting such artifacts. That’s finally changing.
Which reminds Freese to mention Jeannette Howard Foster.
Foster was a lesbian librarian who, in the 1940s, started cataloging instances of romance between women. The research became a self-published book titled Sex Variant Women in Literature. “She’s now considered one of the foremothers of lesbian literary research,” Freese says.
“Remember that house over on Harrison?” he says, alluding to the mysterious first stop on the tour. “Well, for about a year, Jeannette Howard Foster — that crazy, sex-variant librarian — lived there.”
His smile widens. That’s not the end of the delicious coincidence.
Foster, he continues, moved to Missouri to take a job at Kansas City University, which became UMKC. There, she worked for Kenneth LaBudde, who was the director of libraries from 1950 until 1985. When LaBudde died, in 1999, the special collections at UMKC were named after him.
Now, UMKC is a key partner in assembling a new collection.
The Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America is barely a year old. But even its first artifacts are enough to make historians such as Freese swoon at Kansas City’s key role in the national struggle.
On the fourth floor of UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library, the only sounds breaking the mandatory silence are pages turning and the rustle of books being reshelved. Students passing by don’t bother to glance at the glass display cases outside the closed door marked “Special Collections.” The pictures are black-and-white. The books and documents are yellowed with age.
But there is one oasis of color. It’s splashed across a table in Stuart Hinds’ office.
The director of special collections has laid out laminated advertisements from long-closed Kansas City bars — lively images that promise “Experts in the art of drag and entertainment!” Next to these he has placed an arrangement of political pins with rainbows and bright-pink triangles.
These items are the beginning of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America.
The project started with Hinds, who graduated from the University of Iowa in 1994. “At that time, people were still dying from AIDS, and I was really concerned about what was happening to their effects,” he says. No cultural infrastructure existed to collect those items. There was no museum to house them, either.
More than a decade later, Hinds started working with David Jackson, director of archives and education at the Jackson County Historical Society, on a cataloging project. The tedious work led to idle conversation about preserving local LGBT history. At the time, in 2007, the only gay artifacts in the JCHS collection were a postcard and a matchbox from the Jewel Box Lounge, a well-known venue for female impersonation, and a CD of recordings by Ray Bourbon, one of the most famous local performers.
Jackson himself had purchased all three items on eBay.
Both historians saw the need to fill the vacuum. “It’s important for us to preserve the artifacts and documentation of an oppressed minority community, because young people don’t know what it was like,” Hinds says. “There weren’t same-sex proms when I was in high school. There wasn’t Will and Grace and Glee and all these TV representations of gay and lesbian people.”
The urgency that Hinds felt during the height of the AIDS epidemic had grown more pronounced as the years passed. Christopher Leitch, director of the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall, also recognized a looming historical tipping point. If they weren’t lost to AIDS, many of the pioneers in the gay-liberation movement were entering their golden years. “We’re at a generational changeover,” Leitch says. “If you were 30 years old at [the] Stonewall [riots], you’re retired now.”
Once those people are gone, Leitch says, history can be easily edited or amended. “One of the surest ways to combat that is to collect and preserve and make accessible the raw materials, so that we’ll know when people are fibbing or not telling the whole truth,” he says.
Preserving the evidence of LGBT history is already happening on the coasts, says Tami Albin, a librarian and researcher at the University of Kansas. But that civil rights movement has a hole at its center. In 2008, Albin initiated an oral-history project that has already recorded more than 50 personal histories of gay Kansans. It added to the effort of researchers at Missouri State University in Springfield, which houses the Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives.
“Rural queer studies is going to become really, really important, and people are going to be looking at the Midwest,” Albin says. “What people were doing here will become an area of research, and having material ready will help show there is a history in these states.”
Hinds, Leitch and Jackson say they had little difficulty convincing their institutions to combine resources to collect such materials from the cultural hub of Kansas City. In early 2009, the three men created GLAMA. With little more than word of mouth, the archive now holds items that historians have craved for years.
Scoop Phillips outlined his research in careful cursive script. In spots, the pencil has smeared on the sky-blue, lined paper. Notes in the margins show where Phillips edited and added extra bits of information.
Nearly two years after Phillips’ death, his writings fill a gray file folder. The Scoop Phillips collection was an early GLAMA acquisition.
“Scoop was fairly young when he came out — I think he was around 15,” says Jim Phillips, Scoop’s brother. Unlike many other activists, Scoop never used a pseudonym. He didn’t hide his private life from his family, either. “In fact, at one time, Scoop lived in my parents’ home with his lover, David,” Jim says. “Which wasn’t exactly typical of Kansas City suburban life in the ’70s.”
Scoop was born F. Gorodess Phillips III — but he lived up to his nickname’s journalistic connotation, Jim says. In high school, he wrote stories with a vaguely Twilight Zone-like flavor. But when he became an activist, he recognized himself as a witness to history and a participant in it. “He thought the story should be known, especially to the younger generations who seemed to have no idea what gay life was like not very long ago,” Jim says.
Before the seminal Stonewall riots in New York City, Kansas City was a center of the LGBT civil rights movement. And Phillips was there to document it.
In his handwritten history, Phillips flashes back to 1966, when the gay-rights movement existed mainly on the coasts. The early, organized groups jockeyed for power and prominence and struggled to come up with a city to host a national gathering. Kansas City offered a solution because it was in the middle of the country. It was also neutral turf. There was no local organization to dominate discussion.
When the Eastern Conference of Homophile Organizations met other groups from around the country in 1965, its members recognized that the growing movement required a national planning conference. Only a small group of Kansas Citians attended the resulting three-day gathering in 1966. But the contentious sessions made their way into history books. “The significance of the meeting was profound,” Phillips writes in his papers.
The conference established the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO). It was the first national coalition of gay organizations, and even the name was significant. “It began the extensive use of the term homophile to get away from the emphasis on sex usually associated with homosexuality and begin to view gay people as whole persons with intellectual and emotional needs,” Phillips writes.
From that meeting, Kansas City activists were energized. They formed the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom with just a dozen founding members. Their influence in the national movement grew quickly. In 1967, delegates at the second NACHO conference selected Kansas City as the location for a national clearinghouse of gay publications. In 1968, they tapped the Phoenix Society’s leader, Bill Wynne, as NACHO’s president. The selection encouraged local activists to take a courageous step: dropping their activist pseudonyms.
“[Drew] Shafer and myself had been using our real names, as had our significant others,” Phillips writes. “Immediately following the conference, other Phoenix members also decided to use their real names. While most cities could claim, at the most, one or two gay activists using their real names, Kansas City could boast seven. Within a year, that number had more than doubled.”
Their public presence expanded. When the Phoenix Society purchased a house on Linwood Boulevard, it was the first LGBT community center in the Midwest. The group produced pamphlets such as “The Church and the Homosexual” and worked with the Kansas City Police Department. Shafer, the society president during the late 1960s, openly discussed gay issues on radio shows such as Assignment: Kansas City, hosted by Steve Bell.
Kansas City, according to Scoop Phillips, became “an oasis” for gay men and women. One example was an annual drag-queen ball hosted by bar owner Joe Lombardo. According to Phillips’ papers: “The revelers were rarely harassed, a situation few other cities could boast. While other groups were grappling with bar raids and cross-dressing ordinances, Phoenix was holding dances and publishing a newsletter.”
After the Stonewall riots in June 1969, the movement started to shift. Once again, NACHO gathered in Kansas City for a weeklong conference that Phillips called “the largest gathering of gay activists to date.” The riots, according to his papers, had inspired a more militant approach to civil rights. The homophile movement had been too soft. NACHO disbanded, and the members united under a new banner: the gay liberation movement.
Phillips continued to write into the early 1990s. When he died, in early 2008, his brother found drawers full of pencil-written histories. One concludes: “Kansas City has a unique place in gay history. The gay citizens of this city are proud of their heritage.”
Evelyn Akers wasn’t an activist. She never considered herself an actor in local history. The first sentence of her scrapbook admits: “History, to me, was never very interesting.”
Now 75, she came out in the late 1950s. “When I first started out in this life, it was more or less underground,” she says. “You didn’t want people at work to know you were, and I didn’t talk to my family about it. It was more underground because, you know, there were gay bashings.” She struggles to suppress a giggle. “But it was still fun.”
Her memories, packed into a thick binder, were another early donation to GLAMA. The cover is decorated with stickers of baseball bats and volleyballs. More than 100 pages brim with photographs of drag queens parading through bowling alleys and athletes drinking beer on the field.
While Phillips fomented solidarity through politics, Akers used sports.
On the cover page of Akers’ scrapbook is a card from Pete’s Pub, an early lesbian bar that was later renamed Birds of a Feather. “Probably most of you that look at this book have never heard of Willine ‘Pete’ Munhollon,” Akers writes. “It wasn’t easy to have a bar in a residential neighborhood, especially in Kansas. It had to be operated as a private club with membership cards and someone on the door. My friends and I always felt safe at Pete’s — not that she wouldn’t call you down if you did something she didn’t like.”
In 1974, Munhollon rolled out the idea of a gay bowling league. To protect the players, the name was vague: Pete’s Mr. and Ms. League. Full names never appeared on the weekly league sheet. Akers was still wary. “When I heard Pete was starting a ‘gay’ bowling league at first I was excited,” she writes. “Then my second thought was, ‘What if someone sees me?’ I went to the bars but shied away from being openly gay in public. But I considered joining and it was one of the best things I have ever done.”
Within three years, the league went from 16 to 30 teams. Akers became its president. With 120 people packing the bowling alley, the league could close the doors to outsiders. “And things got wild,” Akers says.
“Mission Bowl didn’t have a liquor license, so David Dickerson, owner of the Tent [bar], brought in a suitcase filled with bottles of vodka, bourbon, scotch, etc., so all you needed was a set-up from the snack bar,” she writes. “Ron Thomas would wander through the bowlers, offering a sip of his drink he called ‘shoe polish.’ Only the brave or the drunk took him up on it.”
Kansas City wasn’t the only town with a gay league. In 1981, players in Pete’s league traveled to Houston, Texas, for a national tournament. The gathering led to the establishment of the International Gay Bowling Organization. At the founding meeting, Akers served as Kansas City’s representative. She was also the only woman. “They were telling me how great we were in Kansas City,” she says. “Women and men did their own thing back then. They didn’t really mix. Everyone was really amazed that we got along so well.”
That led Akers to spearhead a second mixed-gender endeavor: The Kansas City Co-Ed Sports Association. The gay sports league was established over drinks on the upper floor of the Tent bar in 1982. But Akers, as president, kept things organized. To gauge interest in different sports, she created a questionnaire, which was distributed in bars and churches that were popular in the gay community. “In the wintertime, it was bowling and shuffleboard on Friday,” she says. “Then we went into the summer months, and we’d go to the park and do horseshoes. We always had something going on, something that was fun. We didn’t have to be in the bars, though we usually ended up there.”
She laughs. “Oh, if I had all the money I spent on booze, I’d be rich.”
The coed sports association lasted less than a decade, Akers says, but gay sports leagues proliferated. In 2006, the International Gay Bowling Organization held its national tournament in Kansas City. The leaders of the group honored Akers for her leadership in the early years.
“I felt like a pioneer,” she says. “I just felt happy in those days. I was just … busy.”
On a humid Saturday morning, Akers stands quietly, hands folded, under a white tent in Theis Park. She chats with Leitch and Hinds, who let the commotion of the 22nd annual AIDS Walk wash over them. Between the tents, men and women meet in groups and snap pictures. The air is thick with music, barbecue smoke and floating balloons.
But the GLAMA banner, with its baby-pink lettering, is an eye-catcher. Hinds has once again laid out the laminated bar ads across the table. Like magnets, the old imagery for the Colony and a disco called the Baghdad attract people from the boisterous crowd.
One woman points to an ad for Billie Jean’s. It was the first place she ever went out dancing, she tells Hinds. Another woman tells a story about how she worked at one of the first nursing homes that cared for AIDS patients in the 1980s. Hinds smiles warmly, encouraging the discussion. Leitch hands out cards, urging residents to add their histories to the GLAMA collection.
Already the archive has produced an artifact of its own.
Next to the old bar ads are stacked copies of What We Did for Love. The small book depicts T-shirts from each AIDS Walk since the event’s inception in 1988.
Mike Sugnet was the accidental curator of the What We Did for Love collection. He also never intended to be a historian. But he slides into storytelling as though pulling on a favorite shirt.
Now 67 years old, Sugnet moved to Kansas City in 1968, when he was still feeling his way out of the closet. He remembers his first trips to the Red Head, a gay bar in Westport that had a buzzer on the door. The vibe, he says, was much different from what he had felt in his hometown.
“When I was in Chicago, I was just getting into the bar scene, and it was terrible,” Sugnet says. “There would be plainclothes cops sitting and waiting, and if you kissed another guy, they were on you. They arrested you and took you away. You couldn’t do anything. You couldn’t even dance. Then I came to Kansas City, and they were dancing, and the cops weren’t bothering them.”
But Kansas City didn’t escape the AIDS crisis.
In 1988, Sugnet’s partner at the time was diagnosed with HIV. Sugnet had never considered himself an activist. His community, like Akers’, was composed of the sports leagues and the gay bars. “But as he got sicker and sicker, I started to think I should find out about this disease and how to care-give,” Sugnet says. That led Sugnet to the Good Samaritan Project, a group formed in 1985 to provide care for patients with HIV/AIDS. The organization’s efforts turned him into an advocate.
“AIDS rallied the community unbelievably,” Sugnet says. Haphazard fundraisers by local drag queens were replaced by organized efforts to serve and advocate for those diagnosed with HIV. Groups like Good Samaritan centralized the voices of the gay community. The issue wasn’t political — it was personal. “I’ve had seven partners; my current one and six others,” Sugnet says. “Five of them have passed away, four of them from HIV.”
In 1988, a small group organized a public march to raise money for AIDS services. They didn’t announce their intent in the name, calling it simply the Walk for Life. “In the late ’80s, certain people didn’t want to project that image,” Sugnet says. “It was quite obvious what we were walking for, and we were happy to do it, but a lot of the public wasn’t with us.”
Over two decades, Sugnet has held on to each walk’s T-shirt. The style evolved as public perception shifted, he says. In 1991, the multicolored design was simplified to a list of names: men and women who had lost their lives to the autoimmune disease.
“In those days, those were my friends that were dying,” he says. “They were way too young to be passing away from a fatal disease, but I probably knew about a third of those.”
It wasn’t until he had a closet full of T-shirts that Sugnet recognized the cotton clothing as a historical collection. He started displaying the shirts at AIDS Walk. “I’d go back to that tent, and there would be families there, looking for the names, their son or their friend, on the T-shirt,” he says.
Last year, he donated the T-shirts — some still flecked with mud from the years he walked through downpours — to GLAMA. Now that the Kansas City Museum has turned the shirts into a commemorative booklet, he’s a bit bashful about the attention he has received.
“People are coming up to me, wanting me to autograph the book,” he says.
He chuckles at the absurdity of anybody wanting his signature. But then he reconsiders.
Back at the GLAMA tent, Hinds tries to persuade the men and women who stroll up to the table that their memories and mementos make up the fabric of history.
Sugnet doesn’t have to be convinced. He knows that his recollections — his first night at the Red Head bar, the loss of a lover to AIDS — are more than anecdotes.
“I am history,” he says. “You get to a certain age, and then you are history.”