Meet Lea Hopkins, the bold, Black lesbian behind Kansas City’s very first Pride parade
Kansas City’s first Pride parade in 1977 was spearheaded by Lea Hopkins, whose organizing sparked a wider gay rights movement that continues today. But it was only a few weeks after that successful event that Hopkins found herself on the defense again, when a prominent anti-gay activist came on a crusade through town.
Every June, LGBTQ communities and their allies across America get together for Pride celebrations. Depending on where you are, the festivities can include parades, street parties, performances and corporate sponsors.
But behind the rainbow flags and celebrations of joy, these events are also crucial reminders of the decades-long struggle for LGBTQ civil rights — one that continues.
It’s reminiscent of the intolerance Lea Hopkins was up against back in 1977, when she spearheaded Kansas City’s first gay Pride parade.
“Everyone who's ever known me knows one thing: I will speak my mind. If it works for you, fine. If it doesn't, that's OK, too,” Hopkins says.
Meet Lea Hopkins
Lea Hopkins, 79, has a lot of fond memories of growing up in Kansas City, Kansas — but she remembers her mother was strict about who she played with and what she could wear. She got her first pair of pants around age seven.
"They were pink pedal pushers. I was so excited," Hopkins remembers.
She was 13 when she realized she was gay.
“I knew I was different, as they say.… But at 13, what are you gonna do?” she says. “It was my secret for a long, long time.”
Before she was an activist, Lea Hopkins was Kansas City’s first Black Playboy Bunny — something she never imagined in her "wildest dreams."
Hopkins mostly enjoyed her time at Kansas City's Playboy Club, but she was the unfortunate recipient of harassment.
“You just had to keep quiet and deal with it. But the other girls really used to protect me,” she told the Kansas City Star in 1983.
That experience led Hopkins to professional modeling with the Barbizon Agency, where she remembers successfully negotiating for higher pay on behalf of all of the models.
But she felt a continual pull to leave the Midwest and go to New York, where she could more easily be herself.
“I went to New York to come out,” she says. “Take it or leave it, I’m not changing for anybody. And once that became obvious, then I had tons of friends, tons of places to go.”
She was in New York City during the gay liberation movement of the early '70s. That's where she went to her first lesbian bar, forged formative relationships and learned about the importance of finding your community.
The origin of LGBTQ Pride month
The reason we celebrate Pride during the month of June is because of the Stonewall uprising in New York City.
Early on the morning of June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay and lesbian bar.
Unlike the many raids that had come before, this time patrons fought back. After years of homosexuality being criminalized, they’d had enough.
Stonewall came to be known as a watershed moment in the gay liberation movement. But gay rights groups had been around for two decades at that point — including here in Kansas City.
In the mid-1960s, some gay people in America referred to themselves as “homophiles" and formed activist organizations. Every year, they organized marches in Philadelphia known as the Reminder Day Pickets to raise awareness that homosexuals didn't have basic human rights.
On June 28, 1970, organizers shifted gears and decided to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising instead.
Thousands of people marched in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago in what are considered the first gay Pride parades.
The making of a Kansas City activist
Pride parades migrated from New York City to Kansas City by way of Lea Hopkins. She moved back to Kansas City in 1974.
At the time, Hopkins was pregnant with her son, Jason, who she conceived with the help of a friend. One of the first things she did was come out to her mother.
"I said, 'Well, you're gonna have the grandchild that you've always wanted. And your daughter is a lesbian,'" she says. "If you cannot deal with who I am, you will not be privy to your grandson."
Inspired by her time in New York, Hopkins was done compromising — but Kansas City in general was a huge departure from the fast-paced life she had grown used to.
"When I left New York and came back to Kansas City, I thought I had died. It was such a shock to me," she says. “I was like, ‘What have you done? This is gonna be the biggest mistake of your life.'"
It took her awhile to feel the same sense of community she had felt in New York. Eventually, she understood she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
A pivotal moment was when she joined the Kansas City chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church, a national LGBTQ-affirmative church founded in California in 1966 by Rev. Troy Perry.
After seeing Perry speak in Kansas City, she was moved to tears.
“It meant a lot,” Hopkins says. “I knew I was never going to go into a Baptist or Methodist church because the pastors were preaching against homosexuality… But I am (religious) in my own way.”
Jason Hopkins was one of the first children to be baptized at MCC, which is one of the longest-operating LGBTQ organizations in the city.
In 1975, MCC was one of the sponsoring organizations for Kansas City’s first Pride festival, which advertised picnics, dances, workshops and conferences.
The city's first Pride parade didn't come around until 1977.
By that point, Hopkins had started organizing under a group called the Christopher Street Association.
“I started feeling a higher power is speaking to me,” she recalls. “And I got the message loud and clear: You are a lesbian. You are with this group. You'll speak out to the day you die.”
Kansas City’s first parade was "small but mighty," with 25-30 people marching to the Liberty Memorial, holding their heads high while ignoring hateful comments from passersby.
"It was rather dangerous during those times. Gay men were getting beat up,” Hopkins says.
“For the people that came on board, they had to realize they may give up a lot. Because you're out now and there's gonna be a camera in your face. Do your parents know you're gay? Your brothers and sisters? Do they know in your apartment building?”
The day Anita Bryant came to town
Only a few weeks passed before Hopkins found herself organizing another event. This time, it was a protest against anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, a well-known singer, beauty queen and brand ambassador for the Florida Citrus Commission.
At the time, Bryant was planning a stop in Kansas City to perform at a Christian Booksellers Association convention in the midst of a national anti-gay crusade across America. Bryant's organizing led to the repeal of municipal gay rights ordinances in Wichita, Kansas; Miami, Florida; and Eugene, Oregon.
The gay community retaliated with huge protests and orange juice boycotts.
“I found out she was coming to Kansas City. I was like, OK, we've gotta be ready,” Hopkins says. “I was on TV. I was on the radio.”
When Bryant arrived in July 1977, she was met with blocks of protesters marching — 600 people reportedly took part.
While it wasn't Bryant's intent, Hopkins says Bryant played an important role in uniting the gay movement back then.
“We would like to thank Anita Bryant for the media coverage she has afforded us across the country,” Hopkins told the Kansas City Times in 1977. “We could not have done it without her.”
Hopkins sees parallels between Anita Bryant’s anti-gay rhetoric and the language in the far right's rhetoric today. It didn't deter her from speaking out then and it doesn't now.
Hopkins went on to become a public spokesperson for Kansas City's LGBTQ movement.
She was active with the National Organization for Women, and helped start the gay injustices fund, which supported gay young people who needed legal counsel and gave them a place to go.
She's also published several books of poetry, and continues her activism by writing letters to the editor.
"There are just certain issues I will not stand still for," Hopkins says. “Writing helps me a lot ‘cause I can go deeper inside my own head and my own heart… I just felt that that needed to be out there when I'm no longer here."
A nod to a historic legacy
For much of the 2000s, most young people in Kansas City probably didn’t know who Lea Hopkins was, but that seems to be changing.
Last year, Hopkins was named the grand marshal of Kansas City's 2022 Pride parade, exactly 45 years after starting the city's first such parade.
"I've never seen so many people in my life," she says. “Seeing parents with their kids, the baby strollers… That just made my heart just sing."
Jason Hopkins, Hopkins’ only biological child, died from cancer in 1997 at the age of 22. But today, Hopkins says she is surrounded by people she thinks of as sons and daughters.
"I was a semi-mother to all of his classmates. I'm so proud of that. And they're grown now. And when they're in Kansas City, they call me and come by," she says.
For kids today who are struggling with their identity, Hopkins has some advice.
“First thing I'd say was, it's all gonna be alright. Know who you are. It won't be easy, but it's all going to be alright. You'll find your footing. You'll find your space. And you will definitely find your voice. Use it.”
A People's History of Kansas City is hosted by Suzanne Hogan. This episode was produced and mixed by Mackenzie Martin with editing by C.J. Janovy.