“Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights:” How Progress Seen in Local Activism Impacts the National Narrative

This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.

In this installment, Archivist and COPA Early Career Member, Kristi Chanda, interviews Stuart Hinds. Stuart Hinds is a Curator of Special Collections & Archives at University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Hinds discusses the exhibit “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights” that was built by students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s public history program. It documents the rise of gay and lesbian activist community groups before the Stonewall riots. 

KC: What are the main aspects to your exhibit “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights?” What was the process like creating it and who are the main figures involved?

SH: The exhibit tells the story of gay and lesbian activism, both in Kansas City and in the US, in the 1960s before Stonewall, during the Homophile Movement, as it was called. The main thrust of the exhibit is to uncover Kansas City’s surprisingly pivotal role in that movement. The first gathering of gay and lesbian civil rights leaders from across the country, took place in Kansas City in February of ‘66. Out of that meeting comes the formation of umbrella groups for all these different, discrete advocacy and activist organizations across the country. As a part of that umbrella group there is the formation of an information clearinghouse. It was based in Kansas City because the folks here had access to a printing press. So, they would print and distribute the newsletters, the promotional material from a lot of different groups across the country. The exhibit focuses on those efforts, and the formation and activities of Kansas City’s first advocacy group which happened a month after that national meeting. In March of ‘66 the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom was founded, and they were really active locally. What kicked off the exhibit was the fact that I worked with a committee made up of community members to install a historic marker in downtown Kansas City commemorating the 50th anniversary of that civil rights meeting, and it was put in place across the street from where the hotel used to be. At the same time I worked with a public history faculty member here on campus and his Intro to Public History class developed the exhibit in conjunction with the installation of the marker to sort of flesh out the story that the exhibit tells or that the marker commemorates. It was a class-based exhibit that was a semester-long project, and then I worked with the faculty member and a graduate student who designed the final product. We sort of tightened up the writing and did transitions between panels and all that kind of stuff, and then we got some grant money to fabricate a local version of the exhibit and then a touring version. It went on display locally, in the spring of 2017. The touring version has gone across the Kansas City region and several places in Kansas since then. The process was interesting because it was a class exhibit and I know most of the students weren’t from the LGBTQ community, so they wanted to make sure that they got the story right from the perspective of that community. They interviewed a couple of different folks who were on the committee that worked on the marker. We had a panel discussion with the class, and then reviewed the drafts of their panels.  The main figures that are involved in the narrative of the exhibit include prominent national activists, like Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon from The Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco. The primary activist who started the Phoenix Society, who was really a driving force behind it, was Drew Shafer. He was president of the Phoenix for the first two or three years and, you know how some of these organizations work, there’s only one person who makes everything happen, and in this case that was true.

KC: How does the exhibit positively reflect the past and present of the LGBTQ+ community? In what ways can it help empower future LGBTQ+ activism?

SH: The exhibit contextualizes the situation both nationally and locally. The 60s were a particularly oppressive time for the gay and lesbian community. There were lots of efforts to really keep queer people at bay. The exhibit talks about the scene here in Kansas City and how it was surprisingly active. There was a very active social scene. Unlike in a lot of other cities, places where people congregated, essentially gay bars, weren’t typically raided by the police, which they were in lots of other cities in big cities like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, San Francisco. You saw a lot of raids and a lot of harassment by law enforcement and that wasn’t the case here in Kansas City. The exhibit talks about that. It goes into detail about the activities of the Phoenix Society, which was responsible for that clearinghouse for the national group. They also had their own agenda and set of activities going on locally. They opened a community center in 1968, two years after they founded the group. There was just a lot going on. By the end of the decade they had really overstretched themselves, they were really burnt out, they had really taken on too much.  I hope that’s a lesson that local activists take from the experience of members of the Phoenix, that as enthusiastic as you are, and as much as you want to achieve it, you must do it in a balanced way or otherwise you are going to burn yourself out very quickly. Everything’s going to come crashing down, which is exactly what happened with the Phoenix.

KC: What obstacles have you and your colleagues faced with creating this exhibit? What issues are you currently encountering?

SH: When the exhibit was first introduced and initiated, there really weren’t many obstacles. It was just a matter of the students doing the research and connecting with the resources that we have here, just doing the work of the class in conjunction with connecting with local community members. I will say we did get a little bit of pushback when we applied for grant funding. We received funding from the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, which straddles the border between Missouri and Kansas, which was a real hotbed during the Civil War;  that was the emphasis of the Heritage Area when it got started, but they’ve since broadened the scope to really focus on different interpretations of freedom. So, we thought this would be a good group to apply to for some of this grant money.

 There was some hesitation on the part of the institution’s leadership to take this to the review board because the concern was that they would just immediately push back on it because of the content.

We were able to convince them to be strident and move forward and they agreed, and we got the funding to do it.. The touring version of the exhibit has traveled across Missouri and across Kansas to several different places: to a small-town public library in southeast Kansas where there is a very active queer community, to public libraries here in the metropolitan area,  and to museums and historical societies. There was never an issue in the eight or nine places it’s been. Then I was working with folks who are affiliated with the Missouri State Museum,  which is in the state capitol in Jefferson City. We were having conversations about queer Missourians in advance of the state’s Bicentennial which is this year, as they were trying to do an exhibit on important Missourians in the history of the state, and they reached out and we talked about some of the the activists here in Kansas City. As part of that conversation, I mentioned this touring exhibit. They were excited about that, and reached out earlier this spring when we made the final arrangements to get the exhibit to them. It went up in what they call the History Hall, which is the hallway outside of the museum, inside the Missouri State Capitol. Some legislative aides, and a legislator reached out to the Museum and asked why this exhibit was on display. They got a very appropriate response from the Director of the Museum, and then they took it further. They took it to the leadership of the department that oversees the museum, which is the Department of Natural Resources.. The leadership of the Department of Natural Resources, four days after the exhibit went on display, decided to remove it from the state capitol. There was a big hue and cry that got a lot of media attention, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. It was in the New York Times, it was in the Washington Post, it was in The Advocate, it was an all sorts of queer blogs. You really couldn’t escape it. As a result of the outcry, the Department of Natural Resources relocated the exhibit in one of their buildings, also located there in Jefferson City, a historic building about four blocks away from the state capitol, far less visible and far less accessible. That’s where the exhibit remains to this day, even though most of the national, regional, and local professional history organizations issued public letters to the governor demanding that the exhibit be relocated back to the state capitol, which didn’t happen and won’t happen at this point. So that’s been challenging on many different levels.It’s just interesting that we encountered this pushback in a building that is supposed to be for all Missouri citizens. First, that they would censor student work and second, that they would censor a specific community of Missourians is really disheartening and frustrating.

KC: Has there been any discussion about future organized plans to take this a step further?

SH: Well, the flip side of the coin is that now we have about seven institutions in line that want the exhibit. I was just talking with the folks at the Missouri State Museum today and it looks like it will come back to us after the holidays, and then we’ll get it first in line for the next showing. Along the way we received generous support from a radio personality in St. Louis who has funded fabrication of another edition of the touring exhibit, and it will go to St. Louis probably within the next few weeks and tour. He’s coordinating several different sites throughout St. Louis to have short term displays of the exhibit through the first six months of 2022. So, it will get out there. It’s just unfortunate it took this ugliness to make that happen.

KC: What do you hope the public would gain when visiting your exhibit? 

SH: You talked about an awareness of stories that reflect the histories of the American LGBTQ communities that aren’t about big cities–that aren’t about New York, that aren’t about San Francisco, that aren’t about Los Angeles. That’s why we started this archive, because the stories that emanate from here help complete the picture. There are lots of Kansas City ties directly to the national narrative. That meeting is just one of those ways and we really hope to expand people’s understanding of the fact that there was activity going on here and similar sized cities and even smaller places while the more well-known stories we’re going on.

KC: Any plans in the making for future displays/events?

SH: We have a local undergraduate college of art and design here in Kansas City, the Kansas City Art Institute. I’m working with one of the faculty members there, and he has taught a class on queer archives the last couple of years. This year, he’s teaching it again in the spring, and he really wants to focus the students’ efforts  on this topic and the controversy around the exhibit, and then make work in reaction to the controversy. One of the venues that expressed interest was the Kansas City Public Library, so I’m hoping we can finagle having the Making History exhibit and the students’ exhibit on display at the Public Library simultaneously because I think that would really be an interesting opportunity for some conversations and just more awareness. I’m excited about that opportunity. We’ll see what happens.

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