Finding evidence of early lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history often involves reading between the lines. Veiled references in diaries or letters, police reports, records of social work organizations, and legal documents give us insight into the experiences of LGBTQ individuals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as they navigated a society that ostracized and even criminalized their community. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, the records, papers, publications, photographs, and ephemera of LGBTQ organizations and individuals tell stories of love, community, struggle, the AIDS crisis, and growing public acceptance.
In the twenty-first century, the LGBTQ community in Missouri has worked to become more inclusive, bringing together individuals of different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds and providing support for youths, seniors, veterans, and those who are differently abled. Organizations such as PROMO lobby for a statewide anti-discrimination law, and numerous organizations have been studying ways in which LGBTQ Missourians can be better served by the health care industry. Cities and towns all over Missouri hold Pride celebrations, and most colleges and universities, as well as many middle and high schools, provide support groups for LGBTQ students and allies. After a long series of court battles, in 2014, Missouri began recognizing marriages performed in other states, and in 2015, when the Federal Supreme Court ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), LGBTQ couples across the state earned the right to marry one another without legal barriers.
When Missouri was incorporated as a US territory in 1812, it inherited the former Louisiana Territory’s sodomy law, which carried with it a sentence of life in prison. As LGBTQ identity began to take shape in the mid- and late nineteenth century, city and state government in Missouri devised increasingly specific anti-sodomy and anti-crossdressing laws to suppress homosexual and gender-nonconforming behavior. Despite such laws, an underground community could be found in most cities and even some small towns by the 1920s. Through the mid-twentieth century these communities grew and LGBTQ individuals gathered, often clandestinely, in bars and at parties, finding each other through mutual acquaintances and intuition. It was common for LGBTQ individuals to be harassed, arrested, or fired from their jobs for their sexuality, and many remained closeted for their own safety. In spite of such challenges, numerous gay men and lesbians lived together as couples, and some even experienced a kind of tacit acceptance by their local heterosexual community.
During this time, the first gay and lesbian organizations formed on the East and West Coasts. In February 1966 multiple organizations came together in Kansas City for their first national conference, forming the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO). This prompted Drew Shafer, an early Kansas City gay rights activist, to found the first LGBTQ organization in Missouri, the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom. In 1967 Shafer established Phoenix House, the first LGBTQ community center in the Midwest. It published a magazine, housed a library, provided meeting space, and served as a clearinghouse of gay and lesbian literature for NACHO.
Across the state in St. Louis, the Mandrake Society was established in April 1969, two months before the momentous Stonewall riots in New York City. On Halloween of that year, police in St. Louis raided gay bars and arrested nine men in drag. In bailing the men out of jail, the Mandrake Society became a powerful advocate on behalf of St. Louis’s LGBTQ community. The society began holding an annual Halloween ball and publishing a newsletter.
After the Stonewall riots, gay liberation politics came to the forefront and other organizations formed in Missouri, including the Lesbian Alliance and the Gay Patrol in St. Louis, and, in Kansas City, the 10-400 club, SIS (Sisters in Sin), and several LGBT sports leagues. Numerous gay and lesbian rights organizations continued to form in Missouri throughout the late twentieth century, including student groups on college campuses, advocacy groups, AIDS activist organizations, and religious groups. Cities became host to numerous gay and lesbian bars and nightclubs, drag venues, and LGBTQ-themed events. In the late 1970s, Pride Week began to be celebrated in Columbia, St. Louis, and Kansas City, and by the 1980s groups had formed in cities all over the state, including Springfield and St. Joseph. From that era to the present, LGBT organizations and individuals have continued to fight for equality while organizing around common interests and needs.