Kansas City Gay Archivists ’Out’ Early Gay Enclave
A GLBT history activist has discovered that a heartland American town served as an urban destination for lesbians in the 1970s.
A June 3 story published by The Pitch quotes Ross Freese, a local who conducts a "gay lost history tour" of Kansas City, as saying, ""There’s a ton of gay history in Kansas City that is pertinent locally and nationally." Warns Freese, "And unless we start shining a light on it and preserving it, it’s going to be forgotten."
Gays and lesbians are part of American society in every town, city, and rural locale, but American history is often lacking when it comes to their stories. Once archivists start looking into the gay history of any locale, however, they are liable to unearth startling facts and insights that make the overall picture more complete.
Freese told The Pitch that in the 1970s, lesbians came to Kansas City because housing was affordable; once there, "They developed skills to support each other--carpentry, plumbing, landscaping--and really started their own community."
But living memory is transient, and the records of times past only reflect what archivists and historians invest the time and effort to put into them.
At the local university--the University of Missouri Kansas City--the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America is preserving the city’s gay legacy. The director of special collections at one of the university’s libraries, Stuart Hinds, began assembling an archive of GLBT documents and artifacts in the mid-1990s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. "It’s important for us to preserve the artifacts and documentation of an oppressed minority community, because young people don’t know what it was like," Hinds told The Pitch. "There weren’t same-sex proms when I was in high school. There wasn’t Will and Grace and Glee and all these TV representations of gay and lesbian people." Another historian, David Jackson, of the Jackson County Historical Society, joined hinds in his efforts the article said.
Others also noted a need to preserve GLBT history and culture. "We’re at a generational changeover," Christopher Leitch of the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall told The Pitch. "If you were 30 years old at [the] Stonewall [riots], you’re retired now." As GLBT pioneers age and die, the story of sexual minorities is rendered vulnerable to distortion or even erasure: "One of the surest ways to combat that is to collect and preserve and make accessible the raw materials," Leitch noted, "so that we’ll know when people are fibbing or not telling the whole truth."
University of Kansas researcher Tami Albin launched an oral history project to help ensure that rural GLBT voices are not silenced by time. "Rural queer studies is going to become really, really important, and people are going to be looking at the Midwest," Albin told The Pitch. "What people were doing here will become an area of research, and having material ready will help show there is a history in these states."
The archive already has historical treasures, such as "Scoop" Jackson’s writings, which chronicle the rise of pre-Stonewall GLBT equality groups such as the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations and Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom. Another collection in the archive’s holdings is a set of T-shirts from local Walk for Life events.