A new book shows how Kansas City's drag performers influenced the national scene
A college professor with Kansas City roots is highlighting the city's influence in LGBTQ+ history and the national gay bar scene. Lucas Hilderbrand says the city was a nexus for gay political activity, activism and culture.
Lucas Hilderbrand says he never really imagined Kansas City “as being a gay city or a queer city.”
The University of California-Irvine professor of film and media studies had visited family in Kansas City a lot growing up, but it wasn’t until much later that he learned about the city’s rich history of gay bars.
“It actually had the best collection of any place around the country to tell the story of drag and how it emerged as a gay bar staple,” Hilderbrand says, referring to the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Despite being the primary social institution of the gay community for about 100 years, Hilderbrand says his is the first national history of gay bars.
Through his research, Hilderbrand learned that Kansas City was fertile ground for activism and art, and was at one point the national center for gay political organizing.
“In 1966, Kansas City was the host of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations,” he says, partly “because the bar scene was considered to be more liberal than most other cities in the Midwest. … We see political organizing happening in the center of the country in many ways earlier, or more impactfully, than sometimes in coastal cities.”
Hilderbrand’s research and writing treats gay bars as important sites for LGBTQ+ communities. "They give a form and a space and a structure for the gay and lesbian community to express themselves, to find other people,” he says.
“It's also the place that many of the political debates and a lot of the political organizing historically has happened, whether it's attention to gentrification and class, or whether it's attention to racism and sexism and transphobia, the gay bar is actually one of the sites where the community has looked because it is the most visible space for queer public life.”
Hilderbrand uses different cities across the country to highlight historic aspects of the scene. Boston is about urban renewal, gentrification and class conflicts. Atlanta highlights discrimination, coalition and community. New York City illustrates the “legends of sex and dancing,” as he describes it in the book.
The section on Kansas City focuses on female impersonation and drag.
“Kansas City had one of the few long-running show places, or cabarets, for theatrical-style female impersonation, and it was very successful,” Hilderbrand explains. “It was one of the early cities that had regular drag performances in gay bars as well.”
Hilderbrand also points out that drag and female impersonation are not the same thing.
The origin of the word “drag” is murky, but some trace it to Shakespearean-era theatrical performances in which women were not allowed, and say it was an acronym for “dressed resembling a girl.”
But what most people since the 1960s think of as drag, Hilderbrand writes — “gay-identified men lip-synching in predominantly gay bars and nightclubs” — was originally considered female impersonation, creating the illusion of being female as understood at the time.
“That was really predicated on this sense of wonder, or even disbelief, that someone that was understood to be male could so effectively perform a female identity or perform the codes of gender,” he says.
What’s different with drag now, Hilderbrand explains, is there’s no sense of disbelief; it’s an act everyone is in on.
“Drag is expressing a different sensibility,” Hilderbrand says. “It is playing with gender, it is playing with the social norms and the pressures on how you self-present in public, but it's doing so in a very playful way.”
The distinction between drag and female impersonation also becomes important for researchers like Hilderbrand who look at the types of venues where each is performed, and who’s watching.
In the 1960s, Kansas City was home to the Jewel Box Lounge and the Colony Bar, owned by the same people and situated one block apart.
“The Jewel Box marketed to straight tourists and slummers,” Hilderbrand writes, “whereas the Colony Bar billed itself as the oldest gay bar in the city.”
These days, even as Missouri and Kansas legislators attempt to limit drag performances in public spaces, they’re more popular than ever with general audiences. Hilderbrand cites the influence of places like Hamburger Mary’s, a restaurant with 14 locations nationally and which hosts a range of audience members for its drag shows, including some children and cisgender women.
That popularity might contribute to the “de-gaying” of those spaces, he notes, but “Hamburger Mary's is doing the work of helping to change the culture, in a broader sense, towards reimagining queer people and gay people and drag queens as part of a larger culture.”
If the next generation takes that inclusion for granted, he says, bans are much less likely to be proposed or last.
“I don't see this being a long-term culture move against drag, but I think that there are attempts to restrain it in this kind of last grasp of power to control queer people and trans people's lives and self-expression,” Hilderbrand says. “But if you have children going to Hamburger Mary's birthday parties … the next generation has fully embraced drag.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Kansas City Public Library.
Lucas Hilderbrand will discuss his book “The Bars Are Ours: Histories and Cultures of Gay Bars in America, 1960 and After” at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 17 at Kansas City Public Library's Central location, 14 W. 10th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64105. The event is free with RSVP. More information at KCLibrary.org.