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Archive Collects KC's Gay And Lesbian History

Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America

Back in 1966, Drew Schaeffer started a small group in Kansas City called the Phoenix society. 

The creation of this group doesn’t make it into a lot of history books, but for some, it’s one of the biggest events in the history of Kansas City. The Phoenix society was Kansas City’s first gay pride organization, and its creation is just one of many milestones in the little-known history of gays and lesbians in Kansas City. The Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America is working to uncover that hidden history. Alex Smith recently met with the project’s director.

Interview highlights

[On gay and lesbian media coverage of AIDS in the ‘80s] “Particularly the LGBT publications, they have a more frantic tone to them, as opposed to the mainstream articles, which have a frantic tone as well, but more of a “let’s all panic because we don’t know what’s causing this and we’re all going to get sick.” The firefighters won’t come rescue the sick people. The hospital workers are going to douse themselves in clothing and latex to protect themselves. But over time, as management of the disease happens,  you see it become more entrenched in the philanthropic efforts of the community at large.”

“As a research institution and as a publicly-funded museum, we try not to make judgment calls on the material that comes to us in terms of content, because everything tells a side of the story – a piece of the story. And so if we get something that’s hateful, like if someone were to donate a Fred Phelps sign, that’d actually be pretty awesome because it’d be pretty telling of the other side of the story. And so all the pieces - as I try to say to students and donors - all the pieces fit together to tell the complete story, and whether that’s a positive piece or a negative piece, you’ve got to have both.”

“What we have seen – and I can see it physically in someone – is a transformation in the way they think about the stuff of their life. To recognize that an institution of higher education and a museum would be interested in the stuff of their life really makes an impact on them. It brings home to them that their story really is a piece of history.”

[On the importance of collecting LGBT material] “To convey to young people what it was like, particularly young LGBT people. That you haven’t always had gay and lesbian people on television. You haven’t always had out people in the Olympics. You haven’t always had a president who will support same-sex marriage. It’s been a real struggle to get to this point. And kids today – young people today – don’t know that. And without this kind of documentation and without these kinds of stories, they will lose that.”

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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