Celebrate Pride Month with a tour of Kansas City's historic LGBTQ landmarks
Kansas City played an important role in the early gay rights movement, even predating Stonewall. Here's how you can honor LGBTQ history in Kansas City this Pride Month.
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As LGBTQ Pride Month kicks off, it’s a great time to celebrate all of the ways Kansas City promotes LGBTQ equality.
The city of Kansas City, Missouri, created the state of Missouri's very first LGBTQ Commission in 2020. And just last year, the city received a 100 — a perfect score! — on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. Kansas City also promotes LGBTQ+ economic interests through the LGBT Mid-America Chamber of Commerce.
But Pride Month is so much more than a time for organizations and businesses to celebrate the LGBTQ community. It’s an opportunity to remember the resistance undertaken by groups that have long been marginalized by mainstream society.
Many people know that June marks the anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in 1969. But what many people don’t know is that Kansas City played an important role in the “homophile movement,” the early gay rights movement that predated Stonewall. In 1966, Kansas City hosted the first national homophile conference.
This was a time in the not-so-distant past when LGBTQ folks could not easily be “out” in public. The latest episode of A People’s History of Kansas City details the efforts of local activists who worked to promote LGBTQ equality in Kansas City in the 1960s.
This Pride Month, commemorate this history with a self-guided tour of important landmarks in Kansas City's LGBTQ history — many of which have since disappeared. Some pivotal spots, however, have been memorialized thanks to the efforts of activists.
The Jewel Box
While the 1950s are commonly thought of as an intolerant time, Kansas City actually had an active gay bar scene in this era near Troost Avenue and Linwood Boulevard.
“Subject to police harassment, the gay bar district advertised through word of mouth,” according to historian Kevin Scharlau.
Scharlau says the Colony Club near 33rd and Troost Avenue was “the most famous gay bar.” But just down the street at 32nd and Troost Avenue was the Jewel Box — the preeminent drag club in Kansas City, promoted as “Mid-America’s Greatest Fun Complex."
The Jewel Box hosted nightly performances of what they called “Femme-Mimics,” commonly called drag queens today. On any given night in 1962, you could sip a mint green grasshopper while watching dancer Terry Lee or comedian Skip Arnold perform in drag.
The club attracted a general audience, not just members of the LGBTQ community. The Jewel Box billed itself as “The Most Talked About Night Club in the Midwest.”
Stuart Hinds, the curator of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid America (GLAMA) discussed the significance of the Jewel Box on KCUR’s Up to Date in June 2021. “It was insanely popular with local audiences,” said Hinds. “It was just a very visible icon of the LGBT community.”
The Jewel Box moved to a new location on 31st and Main Street in the 1970s, and eventually closed for good in 1982.
Photos from the 1950s-1960s Kansas City drag scene, including at the Jewel Box, are available online on the Private Birthday Party website. KCUR also reported on the Private Birthday Party project in 2014.
The Phoenix Society
Kansas City was an important hub of LGBTQ activism in the 1960s. The latest episode of A People’s History of Kansas City tells the story of Kansas City’s role in the national homophile movement, which was the precursor to the modern LGBTQ movement.
Interestingly, the first national homophile conference was held in Kansas City in 1966. Kansas City was selected as the site of the National Planning Conference of Homophile Organizations in part because of its central location.
The Phoenix Society’s plaque stands downtown at the site of the conference, at the corner of 12th and Wyandotte Streets. It was dedicated on October 20, 2016, to mark the 50th anniversary of the conference. Thanks to the effort of GLAMA in conjunction with the organization LGBT-KC, this important element of Kansas City history has now been properly documented.
The marker also celebrates the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom. Drew Shafer formed the group in 1966 in the wake of the national conference. Eventually, the group secured the Phoenix House, a community space near Troost Avenue and Linwood Boulevard where queer Kansas Citians could gather.
The Phoenix Society also printed and distributed its own magazine, the Phoenix. It advertised local LGBTQ events and gathering spots, such as Hang Out, “a gay coffee house” near 31st and McGee Streets. The magazine also publicized national events relevant to the LGBTQ community and featured a recurring column written by Shafer’s mother.
You can peruse digitized issues of the Phoenix online through UMKC.
In the 1980s, a group of radical lesbians created Womontown, an intentional community for women in the Longfellow neighborhood. Not every home in the neighborhood belonged to a Womontown resident, but at its peak there were 80 residents. Some of them had moved from as far as California.
There is no monument or plaque to commemorate Womontown. But if you walk between Cherry and Harrison on 31st through 25th streets, you will find yourself in this lesser-known landmark of Kansas City queer history.
More than a place to live, Womontown provided a sense of community through potlucks, social groups and a newsletter. At a time when lesbians faced social stigma and difficulty securing housing, Womontown was a safe haven.
“Just having all that female energy. It was just very life affirming,” former Womontown resident Cyndi Moses says in the documentary "Womontown."
Listen to A People's History of Kansas City to hear voices from Womontown and an interview with Sandy Woodson about her recent documentary "Womontown."
The Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America
Housed in UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library at 800 E. 51st St., the GLAMA archives contain collections donated by LGBTQ community members in the region. It's thanks to GLAMA and its curator Stuart Hinds that many of the stories here are accessible to the public.
At the GLAMA archives you can find ephemera — signs, brochures, newsletters and pamphlets from LGBTQ organizations over the decades. There are photographs of bars, parties and drag events, and collections that chronicle Kansas City’s history of HIV/AIDS activism. The archives exist to preserve histories that, until very recently, were excluded from traditional archives and history books.
If you want to visit the archives, you have to request specific materials from the archival collections and make a research appointment — archival documents can only be viewed in person.
Fortunately, GLAMA also has a number of digital resources — such as this timeline of LGBT history in Kansas City. Peruse GLAMA's website for other digital resources including photographs and oral histories from members of the LGBTQ community.
Trinity Church AIDS Memorial
Another important LGBTQ marker in Kansas City is the AIDS memorial at Trinity United Methodist Church in North Hyde Park. Located at 620 E. Armour Blvd., the church proclaims its inclusivity through a rainbow-painted sign out front.
On the lawn near the building’s east side is a memorial dedicated in 2016 to “those who lived and died with AIDS and the Trinity Congregation who cared for them, their memory, and their legacy.”
At the time of its dedication, the church claimed that the marker was the only known AIDS memorial in the region.
If you want to learn more about the history of HIV/AIDS in Kansas City, you can watch the documentary "The Ordinance Project," directed by Austin R. Williams, on the GLAMA site.
The film tells the story of Kansas City's local chapter of the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP). It describes how the group worked from 1989–1993 to pass an ordinance banning housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and HIV status.
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