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Arts & Life

Leaders Mark Kansas City's Early Role In The National LGBT-Rights Movement

The Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America/Labudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City
The Jet Lounge was inside the State Hotel, where gay and lesbian leaders from around the country gathered in 1966.

A common misconception about the history of American gay activism is that it began on June 28, 1969.

That date was the beginning of a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by the gay and lesbian community in New York City after a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Those much-publicized riots are considered a catalyst in the fight for LGBT rights.

But an equally potent gathering took place three years earlier — in downtown Kansas City.

Because it was a peaceful meeting and barely covered by the national press, a two-day conference held at the State Hotel at 12th and Wyandotte in February of 1966 didn’t quite shake the foundations of long-held anti-LGBT beliefs like the “Stonewall Uprising” did. But the Kansas City conference created a different kind of history as the birthplace of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, or NACHO (pronounced nay-ko).

Kansas City officially recognizes its role in LGBT history on Thursday, October 20, at 5:45 p.m., with the unveiling of a bronze historical marker at the northeast corner of 12th and Wyandotte, the former site of the State Hotel (which was razed in 1973) commemorating the first-ever national meeting of LGBT rights activists.

Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections / Kansas City Public Library
Kansas City Public Library
The State Hotel no longer stands at the corner of 12th Street and Wyandotte in downtown Kansas City, but a marker will commemorate the national LGBT organizing that happened there in 1966.

Years before LGBT became a commonly understood acronym, gay and lesbian activists pushed for acceptance of the "homophile” community; by using "-phile," activists hoped to educate people that they were about more than the sex in "homosexual." NACHO’s goal was to expand coordination among homophile organizations in the United States. Those organizations included the early lesbian political group Daughter of Bilitis (1955-1995) and the Mattachine Society (founded by Harry Hay in 1950).

One of the most public figures in the Mattachine Society was Missouri native Hal Call, a former Kansas City Star employee who had been fired after he was arrested for “lewd behavior” in Chicago and forced to pay an $800 bribe to have the charged dropped.

That event politically galvanized Call, who moved to San Francisco. He became one of the founders of the NACHO conference at the State Hotel. Call, who died in 2000, was a frequent TV spokesperson for national gay issues in the 1960s, but is nearly forgotten as an early LGBT right advocate.

Kansas City's historical marker is one way of correcting that oversight, says Stuart Hinds of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America.

“Kansas City was chosen as the site for the NACHO conference because most of the gay organizations at the time were based on the coasts. But Kansas City was in the center of the country and Hal Call — who was an important figure in the Mattachine Society — had formerly lived here,” Hinds says.

Credit The Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America/Labudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City
The Kansas City Star covered the NACHO meeting.

The bronze marker will be the first to acknowledge an LGBT historical site in Kansas City. A local committee, LGBT-KC, presented the idea for approval to the Municipal Arts Commission, and has ideas for additional commemorative plaques, including one in front of the building on Troost that operated for several decades as the legendary Jewel Box Lounge.

“There are other opportunities as well,” says Hinds. “There’s been a recent push by the National Park Service to honor LGBT historic sites.”

Kansas City Council members Katheryn Shields and Jolie Justus will appear at the dedication of this first marker, as will Bruce Winter (best-known as longtime Kansas City performer Melinda Ryder) and his husband Kirk Nelson. Winter and Nelson, through their fundraising efforts, raised much of the money for the marker.

KCUR contributor Charles Ferruzza's work can also be seen in the Independent and online at the Blue Valley Post. You can reach him at charlesjferruzza@gmail.com.

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