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Homosexuality is simply a part of our collective history. It weaves throughout our past, tethering us all to various cultures and socioeconomic spheres, and is as prevalent and common as warfare or breadmaking. Ancient Greek men often courted younger male partners in addition to wives. Even Alexander the Great, a mighty and militant King, held an intimate relationship with one of his officers (in addition to hundreds of concubines.) Native tribes celebrated the “two-spirit” people (gender-variants), of whom it was believed that two spirits occupied in one body. “I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing and character of women,” writes Spanish soldier Pedro Fages in his 1769 expedition journals, “–there being two or three such in each village–pass as sodomites by profession. They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem.”
Yet despite humanity’s shared stories of homosexuality in antiquity, it has taken our modern selves over here in Missouri, a century to catch up. We’ve cast great strides in equal rights for our gay and lesbian communities since we first came into statehood in 1812. Missouri was born from the Louisiana Purchase and so inherited Louisiana’s harsh statutes. These included an anti-sodomy law, which awarded offenders a compulsory life imprisonment — sodomy was perceived as a “crime against nature.” An amendment in 1835 lessened the sentence slightly, from the compulsory life sentence to simply life imprisonment. Yet the pendulum swung high again in 1911, and the state imposed even stricter stipulations:
The state revised the statute in 1911 to recognize use of the mouth as a way to commit sodomy, but the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted cunnilingus as legal, because it believed that “sexual intercourse with the mouth” was an oxymoron. However, fellatio convictions uniformly were sustained. Thus, like neighboring Illinois, the state had a double standard for oral sex, with fellatio illegal and cunnilingus legal, only because of the apparent Victorian notion of sex between women as an impossibility.
– from Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest
Following decades of oppression and bullying of the gay and lesbian community — even by President Roosevelt, who called the gay community “mollycoddles” and demanded that no one turn into a “sissy boy” — our staunchly anti-homosexual political system smartened up. By 1986, the courts concluded that private, consensual sexual activity was a fundamental right—duh.
The city’s issue with cross-dressing, however, dates back to 1860 and was applied to whomever and however and whenever the authorities deemed someone offensive: i.e., mostly black men.
The Revised Ordinances of the City of Kansas City in 1860 reads as follows:
“Whoever shall, in this city, be found in any dress not belonging to his or her sex … shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.”
This law was completely ignored in theater, where blackface and female impersonation thrived. These cross-dressing men were so convincing that they’d oftentimes be mistaken for beautiful women, winning the admiration and affection of the most conservative (and oblivious) citizens.
Not everyone fell enamored with them, however. “[Gus Mils, a popular female impersonator of the era,]…draws a huge salary,” writes a reporter for the Kansas City Evening Star, “and is a most remarkable success, but as a man he is a gigantic failure and not worth the powder that would blow his effeminate soul to purgatory.”
Another exception to Kansas City’s rules regulating what one may or may not wear was evident upon the floats parading through downtown streets during the Priests of Pallas festival. This exhibition started in 1887 and spanned 40 years of lavish, ornate celebrations. The Priests of Pallas festival was meant to increase tourists in our fine town and rival the folks down in New Orleans. The most prized and extravagant float, always last, featured the Pallas Athena herself. The portrayers of Athena had to be beautiful, striking women, as she was the main attraction of the parade, and for whom the whole festival was dedicated. During a time when a man would be fined up to $25 for donning women’s attire, it suited the city to ignore its own laws and cast a male to play the role of Athena, as “it was considered too much for a female to manage.” Women, in later years, would obtained the honor of playing Athena. Director George M. Myers stated explicitly, however, that these women must be “of good reputation, good to look at, stately and taller than the average girl.”
It wasn’t until 1946 (53 years after the inaugural Pallas parade) that the city revised its laws to prohibit only lewd or indecent clothing, nonspecific to gender. After all, women demanded their place in the workforce and held down the homefront while the boys were at war. Ain’t nobody got time for pumps and petticoats on a factory line.
After Hitler attacked Poland, the U.S. government expanded factories that could help with the effort. This included nearly a 400 percent increase in labor for factory work. As many men fled to the war, women filed in. Kansas City’s B-25 Factory, which built and assembled war planes, ran under North American Aviation, home-based in California. The building was built as a black-out structure with no windows. Just after Pearl Harbor, the first Kansas City-assembled B-25 went into flight.
Upon taking office in 1953, Eisenhower waged war on homosexuals, issuing Executive Order 10450, which banned all gays and lesbians from federal jobs. He urged business owners to fire gay and lesbian workers. This was a systematic campaign known colloquially as the Lavender Scare. The Eisenhower administration went so far as to initiate an FBI surveillance program upon the LGBT community. Thousands were fired and many took their own lives to end the bullying and scare tactics of their own government.
Yet only 10 short years later, Kansas City’s LGBT community began to grow strong and resilient. We hosted the nation’s leading LGBT activists at the Hotel State, “The Stats,” originally located on the northwest corner of 12th and Wyandotte. Here, the group conducted the National Planning Conference of the Homophile Organization, leaving with the mission to campaign for the betterment of all LGBT lives and inclusion of gays within the military.
The decade saw the rise of our local gay rights pioneer, Drew Shaffer. He opened his home as a safe haven for his gay friends and launched an organization called Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom, where he printed The Phoenix: Midwest Homophile Voice, quickly circulating from our eastern to western seaboards and everywhere in between. When the publication made headlines in the mainstream media, mob-owned bars discontinued advertisements in The Phoenix, not wanting to draw attention to whatever business rackets they kept swept under the rug of Kansas City’s authorities.
Then came the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and we all smashed and crashed our way out of the closet. Local Mafia in New York owned the Stonewall Inn. Raids on gay bars were common in the 1960s and ‘70s, but one fateful night in Greenwich Village, the gay community fought back. The Stonewall Riots were drawn-out over several nights, resulting in a ferociously unwavering backlash against authorities that would last indefinitely. The LGBT community no longer tolerated the need to obscure themselves in the shadows of a hetero-centric political system, one that necessitated the use of fake names to avoid arrest, termination from jobs or losing custody of their children.
After the riots, the public dialogue about homosexuality remained active, resulting in gradual changes. Finally in 1973, the diagnosis of homosexuality as a psychological disorder was removed from the American Psychiatrist Association’s official handbook, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They found that “homosexuality does not meet the criteria to be considered a mental illness.”
Kansas City activists continued solidifying into powerhouse groups, forming coalitions all over the city. Eclectic Umbrella (a house at 38th and Gillham) provided childcare for children of gay women. Lavender Umbrella, a membership-driven lesbian center, issued I.D. cards that would signify the owner an “official card carrying lesbian.” S.A.V.E Foundation formed, with a mission to provide housing for those dying of H.I.V. and A.I.D.S (no longer called the “gay disease”). Represented by the symbol of a pink triangle, which originated in Nazi Germany to denote the gay population among men in concentration camps, The PINK Triangle Political Coalition of Kansas City set out to provide condoms to all who would accept them. The coalition provided free safe-sex packets to area bars and restaurants in an effort to combat H.I.V. and A.I.D.S.
The Kansas City Police Department hired on EVOKE, a Gay Services Network company that provided education and awareness about the LGBT community to authorities—an effort to stave off altercations. More momentous achievements in the political sphere came about in 1986, when a new Hate Crimes Bill passed, protecting victims of crimes related to sexual orientation.
Kansas Citians cumulate into a vast array of cultures and ideologies, meaning sometimes, you have to shout louder to be heard. And that is what the brave LGBT activists have done in Kansas City. We most definitely have leagues to go, but now we celebrate our gay and lesbian community officially June 12-21 and with the passing of the landmark vote on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage throughout the land. Drew Shafer and his friends, who pioneered the LGBT activism in Kansas City, brings to mind that age old Margaret Mead adage to “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
And now, ladies and gentlemen, we offer you a smattering of some of the most beloved gay bars of Kansas City yore. They pioneered the development of safe social spaces for the gay and lesbian community, establishing in their wake the colorful LGBT community of today.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, various bars opened that fancied and supported the gay and lesbian community. Ranging from the infamous Colony Bar at 3325 Troost, popular in the late 1960s, to the Jewel Box at 3110 Main St. from 1950s-1970s to Dante’s Inferno, the Rail Room, Arabian Nights and Redhead Lounge. The latter two clubs were even more progressive than clubs of New York City and Chicago, allowing same-sex slow dancing and touching. But when the bar owners flashed the lights on and off, everyone knew to quickly sit down and act square. What a sight! Bars were plenty and varied, and especially thrived under Boss Tom’s laissez-faire attitude towards regulation of any kind (except how many people turned out on election days.) Some bars hosted drag balls and others tea dances.
Through the 1950s, one of the earliest lesbian bars in Kansas City, aptly named the Rail Room, served male railroad workers from the busy Union Station during the day and lesbians at night. “After a certain time of day,” writes Linda May in the 1992 article “Women in Kansas City’s Heritage,” “magic transformation happened. It was taken over by women and there was a halfway point in the room, unspoken and unmarked, past which no men ventured.” Owner Ray Mitchell provided a group of lady musicians the safety to band together and perform as the Rail Runners in his Rail Room bar for nearly 10 years.
The Rail Room was located near Union Station, in the area where Crown Center stands today. Before Crown Center was remodeled in the 1960s, the area was known as “Signboard Hill”. Everything changed when real-estate visionary Joyce Hall and his son, Donald, along with Hall’s megalithic company Hallmark, began buying up all the properties on Signboard Hill. “…[U]rban redevelopment,” writes a reporter with the Observer-Reporter in 1974, “cured the city’s worst eyesore—a monstrosity known as ‘Signboard Hill’ – by draping an elegant hotel on the slope where a forest of billboards once flourished. The hill is now considered one of Kansas City’s best tourist sites.” After a total of 85 secured acres and a mission to build a city within a city, Signboard Hill, along with the Rail Room, became memories in the shadows of Crown Center.
The Colony Bar, located at 3325 Troost Avenue, advertised in 1961 that it was the GAYest bar in Kansas City and didn’t care who knew it. Other bars welcomed the LGBT community, but only if entering through a door off the alley in the back. The Colony Bar would close on afternoons and put a sign on door that read “private birthday party.” Gay and lesbians held long tea dances inside. A tea dance is not what you think. Only tea provided contained copious amounts of tequila, vodka, gin, rum and triple sec. These dances were usually extended happy hours involving a lot of dancing. At this time, most out-loud gays and lesbians ran the risk of losing jobs or even being arrested. Most gays used pseudonyms or fake names to keep themselves out of trouble and out of the limelight. One brave activist, Drew Shafer, came out on radio, shocking his coworkers.
One of the Colony Bar’s most beloved female impersonators, Skip Arnold, entertained patrons by performing fairytales where all the characters were gay or lesbian.
Jewel Box, 3110 Main St., popular during the 1950s-1970s. The Jewel Box revolutionized drag culture in Kansas City. Originally located at 3219 Troost Rd., The Jewel Box incubated such talent as Rae Bourbon and Skip Arnold. It shared the neighborhood with The Yum-Yum Club and The Cat Balleu Lounge, and the three clubs collectively called themselves “Mid-America’s Greatest Fun Complex.” Every night talented femme mimics and female impersonators took to stage performing comedy acts and concerts. Bourbon became a very well-known femme mimic and recored his most popular hit “A Trick Ain’t Always a Treat” at the Jewel Box in the 1960s.
Dante’s Inferno rose to prominence during the Pendergast realm. Located on Independence Avenue, Dante’s Inferno was known for drag shows and the ever-beloved Mr. Half and Half—who is described as follows by Stuart Hinds, director of Special Collections at Miller-Nichols Library: The artist’s costume was a long, white gown on one half, and a tuxedo and bowler hat on the other. He would alter his singing voice to accommodate the side of the costume facing the audience.