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New Film Recounts Kansas City's Contentious, Early 1990s Gay-Rights Battle

LaBudde Special Collections, Miller Nichols Library
This scene from 'The Ordinance Project' shows a volunteer with the Kansas City chapter of ACT UP at a GALA picnic in 1989.

Who in Kansas City remembers AIDS activists smashing vials of HIV-positive blood in City Hall, and abortion opponents trying to display fetuses in coffins at Planned Parenthood protests?

It was 25 years ago, so you’d have to be a certain age to remember. And you’d need to have been paying attention to the news.

“It felt important to tell the story now,” says Austin Williams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City whose documentary about those days, “The Ordinance Project,” premieres at the kick-off of this year’s Out Here Now Film Festival.

Through oral histories of the people involved, it tells the story of a moment when Kansas City was unusually progressive for its time, attempting to update its civil rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and people with HIV/AIDS.

Now is the time to tell the story of the ordinance, Williams says, not only because of the chronological significance of 25 years passing, or because we live in increasingly divisive times in terms of cultural values and activism.

He also had pragmatic concerns: People who were involved in those days are growing older, video footage deteriorates over time, personal photographs and home movies are misplaced and memories fade.

Williams, who describes himself as a "self-taught" filmmaker, involved the community in his effort not only through an Indiegogo request for financial backing, but also in a call to local activists who could have materials relevant to the story.

Credit Austin Williams / The Ordinance Project
Austin Williams/The Ordinance Project
A still from 'The Ordinance Project' shows Jon Barnett, Kansas City's first openly gay candidate for City Council, at City Hall in the early 1990s.

“I asked for people to contact me to talk about their memories and experiences,” Williams explains. “And some of them had VHS recordings of news reports, or photos from the protests.”

Because local news stations routinely re-used their broadcast tapes, recording over previous news footage, some of these personal recordings were the only primary source records of the events.

Credit Austin Williams / The Ordinance Project
The Ordinance Project
Jon Barnett today, in a still from 'The Ordinance Project.'

Through these tapes, along with oral histories and photographs, Williams explores the controversy that made Kansas City a microcosm of the nation’s culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It wasn’t the film he set out to make. Williams was digging through archives for his doctoral studies in history at UMKC, looking for information about the history of activism in Kansas City and the Crossroads District, when he kept finding articles about Jon Barnett, Kansas City’s first openly gay candidate for City Council.

In the late 1980s, Barnett had started a local chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP/KC), an organization that began with community-building and acts of civil disobedience to bring attention to gay-rights causes — particularly more funding for AIDS research. This political activism led to the vociferous defense of Kansas City Ordinance 65430, and fueled Barnett’s run for City Council.

Credit Austin Williams / The Ordinance Project
The Ordinance Project
Lea Hopkins is among the Kansas City activists whose oral histories are part of 'The Ordinance Project.'

Barnett’s ACT-UP days coincided with a growing national coalition of loosely connected conservative causes, which started in the 1970s with Anita Bryant’s anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign and groups organizing to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment, which snowballed in the 1980s to include organizations battling abortion and pornography. And Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church was just beginning to expand its activities beyond Topeka.

“There was this large, cohesive conservative movement in Kansas City following the Webster Decision,” Williams explains, referring to Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, a 1989 ruling by the United States Supreme Court which upheld Missouri’s restriction of the use of state resources in connection with abortion.

“And many members of that group,” he says, “happened to be at City Hall on the day ACT UP/KC was there to propose the ordinance revision.”

Credit Austin Williams / The Ordinance Project
The Ordinance Project
Linda May is among the activists featured in 'The Ordinance Project.'

The two sides, predictably, clashed. The ACT UP/KC protestors blew whistles and shouted; one member smashed a vial of blood to represent his view that the city had “blood on its hands” for its lack of response to AIDS. The conservative protestors retaliated vocally, then regrouped for more formal opposition to the ordinance. The resulting protests and conflicts are part of Williams’ collected footage and oral histories.

But each side also struggled with in-fighting.

“They were often united on the issue but not on the methods,” Williams notes. “There is a sense that some of the internal arguments on both sides helped to keep the message in the forefront of peoples’ minds.”

Williams’ research and subsequent production of the film has been unusually fast by any measure, but particularly for someone trying to simultaneously finish a PhD.

He was spurred by conversations with Out Here Now festival director Jamie Rich and contacts at the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) at UMKC.

“It seemed appropriate to try to finish the film in time for the 25th anniversary of the ordinance revision,” Williams says.

Credit Austin Williams / The Ordinance Project
The Ordinance Project
Demonstrators at Kansas City's City Hall in a scene from 'The Ordinance Project.'

Intriguingly, Williams says, some of the people who were present 25 years ago are only now comfortable telling their stories. Events surrounding the passage of the ordinance might have been uplifting and empowering, but were also deeply traumatic for many participants. And Williams recognizes that some who lived through the AIDS crisis suffer from survivors’ guilt.

The sensitivity of the topic is one reason Williams chose to present the material as an oral history rather than through interviews, a format that limits outright questions and interjections on the part of the filmmaker and allows the subjects to tell their own stories in their own voice and at their own pace.

The resulting oral history footage, which Williams plans to donate to GLAMA, promises to be historically significant, inspiring, and moving.

The Ordinance Project” premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 21 at the Tivoli Theater, 4050 Pennsylvania Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, as part of Out Here Now: The Kansas City LGBT Film Festival. Williams’ co-curated companion exhibition, “The Ordinance Project: Voices Raised,” is on view through June 30 at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri.

Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at melissalenos@gmail.com.

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