As I prepare to launch my new book - Gay and Lesbian St. Louis (Arcadia Publishing) - I have been reflecting upon the dramatic growth in studying non east and west coast LGBT history.

Ask most people (LGBT or straight) about their knowledge of American LGBT history and you will most likely hear about Stonewall and Harvey Milk.

However, in recent years there is a growing network of regional and state LGBT history projects taking shape across the nation that are uncovering the LGBT histories of what many call the “fly over states.”

Did you Know?

Here are some examples of important LGBT historical moments that did not take place in New York City or San Francisco:

• Chicago, Illinois - 1924: The first U.S. gay rights organization - Society for Human Rights - was founded.

• Ann Arbor, Michigan - 1971: The University of Michigan became the first college in the country to establish an LGBT office,

• Denver, Colorado - 1973: More than 300 LGBT people organized to confront police harassment, discriminatory laws, and gain an ear to the powers that be for the first time in Colorado's history. They successfully helped overturn four laws.

• Minneapolis, Minnesota - 1975: Minneapolis became the first city in the U.S. to pass trans-inclusive civil rights protection legislation.

• Kokomo, Indiana - 1990: Ryan White dies. The young teen inspired the Ryan White Care Act passed by the U.S. Congress. White helped educate mainstream America that the HIV/AIDS did not just affect gay men.

• Humboldt, Nebraska - 1993: Brandon Teena was raped and murdered. The transgendered man’s life and death was the subject of the 1999 Academy Award winning film Boys Don’t Cry.

• Laramie, Wyoming - 1998: Matthew Shepard is murdered. Efforts by his mother Judy and others to promote hate crime legislation lead to the U.S. Congress passing, and President Obama signing, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act into law in 2009.

• Houston, Texas - 1998: Tyron Garner and John Lawrence challenged homophobic sodomy laws after they were arrested for having consensual sex. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Texas's "Homosexual Conduct" law, which criminalized gay sex, was unconstitutional.



Through LGBT history projects across the Midwest and south, thousands of oral histories are being documented and artifacts being collected that tell the everyday stories of what gay and lesbian life was like back in the day in states such as Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and many others.

Brandon Wolf of Houston, Texas, has been involved in documenting LGBT history since the 1970s.

“We know so little about our lives as gay people before Stonewall,” says Wolf. “And people need a sense of connection to history – to know we’ve been around since the beginning of time. And that we are everywhere, and not just on the coasts.”

MidwestHistoy2Wolf says the LGBT ‘movement’ made its progress by the efforts of people in every state of the union.

“Stonewall bound us together, but each of us who were activists had our own local work cut out for us,” he says.

Wolf moved to Houston in 1977, and just missed a seminal event for Houston’s gay history. He tells the story of how Anita Bryant, who had led a successful campaign to repeal a Dade County Florida ordinance protecting gays against discrimination in housing, employment, loans and public accommodation rights, had come to sing at a convention in town. An estimated crowd of more than 5,000 showed up to protest her appearance. The police, expecting only 50-200 people had to literally block off two streets so that the marchers could move.

“They reached her hotel and circled it a couple times, he says. “Inside, Anita was praying for her life. The crowd moved to City Hall, listened to speakers and dispersed. And finally, there was a visible ‘gay community’ in Houston.” Currently there are several efforts underway to document Houston’s queer history including the Botts Collection of LGBT History, Houston Area Rainbow Collective History (ARCH) project, and the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum (GCAM). These collections proudly record the history of the Diana Foundation which was founded in 1953, making it the oldest continuously running gay organization in the country.

Chicago is the largest city in the Midwest, and they are taking their queer history very seriously. The “Windy City” has several major history initiatives underway including the Chicago Gay History Project, the Leather Archives and Museum, Gerber/Hart LGBT Library and Archives, and a Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame to name a few. Recent Chicago -focused gay history books include Chicago Whispers by St. Sukie de la Croix and Out and Proud in Chicago edited by Tracy Baim.

In Minnesota, the GLBT Oral History Project has collected over 100 interviews with LGBT residents published in book Queer Twin Cities that tells stories of how the Minneapolis-St. Paul region has become known as the “San Francisco” of the Midwest. On May 18, 1969, the group "Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE) was founded at the University of Minnesota, making it the first known queer student group in America. Minnesota is also a pioneer in hosting a Midwestern gay pride “picnic” event in 1972 also at the University of Minnesota.

MIdwestHistory3Missouri sits in the heart of the heartland, and with its strong conservative red state reputation it might be surprising to learn the “Show Me” state has three highly active LGBT history projects underway.

According to Dr. Holly Baggett, a history professor at Missouri State University and co-founder of the Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives in Springfield, Mo., their LGBT history preservation efforts began in 2003 to originally document discrimination taking place on the campus of Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University).

One such story includes the performance of a play about AIDS and homosexuals that drew a firestorm of reaction in the Ozarks in 1989 when MSU planned to perform Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart. Opponents, led by Missouri State Representative Jean Dixon, formed a letter-writing campaign, signed petitions and placed ads in the local newspaper.

Supporters also gathered together and included notable MSU Theatre alumni Tess Harper, Kathleen Turner and John Goodman. Many wore red felt hearts to show support. MSU President Marshall Gordon denied requests to cancel the production, and all performances were sold out.

However, not all MSU Presidents were as supportive of the LGBT community. In a 1995 letter to a funder, then University President John Keiser described gays and lesbians as “biological perversions.’ Keiser opposed and slowed efforts to include sexual orientation in the university’s non-discrimination policy.

Dr. Baggett further describes the importance of their local archival efforts in Creation of a Community: A History of Gay and Lesbian Springfield, 1945-2010, a chapter in the book entitled Springfield's Urban Histories: Essays on the Queen City of the Missouri Ozarks.

In the book, Dr. Baggett writes, “Nestled in the Ozarks of southwest Missouri, Springfield, like the rest of the region, is conservative, evangelical and traditionalist. Common sense tells us that gays and lesbians in such an environment have suffered isolation, repression and bigotry. However, scratching beneath the sense of place and time in the Ozarks, and unearthing the stages of change, another story surfaces-the evolution of a community that will develop as open, active, and vocal.”

The Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) based in Kansas City, Mo. was founded in 2009. GLAMA is a collecting partnership based at the University of Missouri Kansas City Library’s LaBudde Special Collections Department. GLAMA’s mission is to collect, preserve, and make accessible evidence of the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Kansas Citians throughout the city’s history.

According to Stuart Hinds, Director of Special Collections at Miller Nichols Library, University of Missouri-Kansas City, and one of the founding partners of GLAMA, the response from the Kansas City LGBT communities to GLAMA has been overwhelming.

“We have clearly tapped a pent-up demand for preserving these histories, as evidenced by the fact that we’ve received nearly three-dozen discrete collections totaling well over 150 linear feet, not to mention numerous smaller donations of miscellaneous material. This level of support has surpassed all of our expectations, and continues to the current day – we receive two or three inquiries each month about additional donation opportunities. We could not be more pleased, and our gratitude to the LGBT communities is deeply profound,” says Hinds.

GLAMA’s archives include several notable LGBT events. In 1966, three years before Stonewall, Drew Shafer, an early gay activist in Kansas City formed the Phoenix Society, an advocacy group and information clearinghouse that eventually had its own community center.

Another historic moment in Kansas City’s queer history occurred when the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO) held their first conference also in 1966 at the Lincoln Hotel, the first-ever national meeting of groups involved in the struggle for rights and recognition for LGBT citizens.

You Met Me in St. Louie?

One of the challenges of studying non coastal LGBT histories is that many of these places did not always have “fly over” status.
In my book I note that St. Louis was the fourth largest city in America in the late nineteenth century. Its dense urban environment made it a queer mecca during its heyday.

BrawleyBook“The foundations of LGBT life in St. Louis were laid during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Urban growth and economic change opened up new possibilities for people with same-sex desires, and modern ideas about sexuality emerged,” says Ian Darnell, a historian and researcher with the St. Louis LGBT History Project.

According to Darnell, prior to World War II, St. Louis was a booming center of manufacturing and commerce - a city of newcomers that offered many opportunities for earning and spending money outside of the old household-centered economies of farms and workshops.

“In the saloons, theaters, rooming houses, and street corners of industrializing St. Louis, queer people connected with one another and began to think of themselves as sharing an identity and forming a community,” says Darnell.

The earliest autobiography of an avowed American homosexual was published in St. Louis. In 1901, a St. Louis resident writing under the pseudonym Claude Hartland penned his book The Story of a Life. He describes the gender confusion and strong sexual attraction to men that he experience while growing up in the rural South.

An excerpt from his autobiography gives insight into his turn of the century life. “I met a young man one evening on the corner of Sixth and Olive Streets, who was affected as I am and we knew each other at sight. I spent that night at his house and we had a most delightful time. He was gentle, refined and very interesting, and we soon became fast friends.” His book details many struggles, including an affair with a married man and being assaulted.

HistoryProjectSeveral efforts have been made to preserve St. Louis’ gay and lesbian history in various forms over the years. In 2007, the current St. Louis LGBT History Project began and is now an archival contributor to the Missouri History Museum, State Historical Society of Missouri, and Washington University in St. Louis. The Project has collected thousands of photographs and artifacts, conducted oral histories, and created history tours and mobile displays.

St. Louis’ queer history timeline includes this tidbit from Nicholas Biddle, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition that left from St. Louis in 1804. Biddle recorded that among Minitarees (Indians) if a boy showed any symptoms of effeminacy or girlish inclinations he was put among the girls, dressed in their way, brought up with them and sometimes married to men. They were referred to as berdache or two-spirit.

Also from St. Louis’ archives we learn that from 1968 to 1977, the Masters and Johnson Institute ran a program to convert (or revert) homosexuals to heterosexuality. The program reported a 71.6% success rate over a six-year treatment period, numbers which Johnson would later say she thought were “fabricated” by Masters. At the time of their earlier work, homosexuality was classified as a psychological disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, a classification which was repealed in 1973.

The St. Louis LGBT History Project further documents that in 1969 the Mandrake Society was formed as St. Louis’ first LGBT rights organization. The group was immediately called into action when St. Louis' version of Stonewall occurred on Oct. 31, 1969, when St. Louis police arrested nine men in drag for violating masquerading laws. With support from the Mandrake Society, the men were quickly bailed out that night. Charges would later be dismissed and the masquerading laws would finally be overturned in 1985.

Read all About it

Attempts at discussing and analyzing gay history in middle and rural America are taking place in a variety of ways. Several noted authors and scholars have certainly not ignored LGBT histories that do not exclusively focus on the major media centers on the coasts. I am proud to join this impressive literary circle.

In his 2010 book, The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South, Brock Thompson weaves together dozens of oral histories that highlights rural drag shows, and how state sodomy law were rewritten to condemn sexual acts between those of the same sex in language similar to what was once used to denounce interracial sex.

Thompson also describes several lesbian communities established in the Ozark Mountains during the sixties and seventies and how Eureka Springs’s earned its informal status as the "gay capital of the Ozarks."

Another entry into gay Midwest and southern history is the book - Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America by Colin R. Johnson.

Johnson furthers the argument that queer history is not always urban based. He brings to life the experiences of small-town eccentrics, "mannish" women, and cross-dressing Civilian Conservation Corps workers.

Other literary works that have been lauded for their Midwestern and Southern queer history themes include: Reclaiming the Heartland by Karen Lee Osborne and William J. Spurlin; Farm Boys by Will Fellows; Men Like That: A Southern Queer History by John Howard; Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968, by James T Sears; Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Chris Packard; Cotton's Queer Relations: Same-Sex Intimacy and the Literature of the Southern Plantation, 1936-1968 by Michael P. Bibler; Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota by Stuart Van Cleve, and many others.


Reading about queer history is great, but being able to see artifacts and memorabilia from the past offers a more intense experience. The coasts have dedicated queer-focused museums, notably the GLBT Museum in San Francisco and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History in New York City. In June 2013, The Philadelphia History Museum launched a new exhibit entitled “Private Lives in Public Spaces: Bringing Philadelphia’s LGBT History Out in the Open.”

However, there are growing efforts across America to offer LGBT history exhibits. In cities such as Buffalo, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Orlando, St. Louis, and Tucson, area LGBT centers and history projects are setting up displays at special events such as Pride celebrations.

Major mid America museums are also getting into the LGBT history business. In 2011, the Chicago History Museum debuted its "Out in Chicago" exhibition, a groundbreaking, LGBT-centric take on Chicago history that emphasized the everyday lives of queer communities throughout the city, through the years. The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis and the State Historical Society of Missouri have dedicated collecting initiatives with the St. Louis LGBT History Project.

There has also been an effort by the Velvet Foundation to create a National LGBT History Museum in Washington, DC, where the LGBT story would effectively reach a national and international audience.

Get Involved

Despite the many advances in the field of queer history, Dr. Baggett and Wolf encourage people across America to continue to do their part to help preserve and promote the contributions and legacies of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
“When doing oral histories people often say they don’t have anything interesting to say about their lives, that they are pretty boring. But, in fact they have led very interesting lives,” says Dr. Baggett.

After completing an oral history, she notes that people are very proud of what they have done and that they are now a part of history.

“They feel a tremendous sense that they have contributed something important when doing oral histories or by donating playbills, photo albums, and letters to our archives,” she says.

To learn more about the St. Louis LGBT History Project visit





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