Gay history in St. Louis takes center stage as PrideFest arrives

Gay history in St. Louis takes center stage as PrideFest arrives

THE GROVE – Businesses flying the rainbow “gay pride” flag barely warrant a second look these days in south St. Louis’ Grove neighborhood.  The flag is nearly everywhere, on homes, even painted into crosswalks.  But there was a time when that was hardly the case.

Steve Brawley, who runs the St. Louis LGBT History Project, remembers the leaner times for St. Louis’ gay community and has researched and chronicled earlier eras some might describe as oppressive.

He points to all the national discussion of this week’s 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City.  Those are a major part of the origin story for the national gay rights movement. He said that here in St. Louis, in that same year, 1969, we had our own first pushback by activists.

“St. Louis had its own Stonewall in 1969,” Brawley said, “in which nine local men who were dressed up in drag for Halloween were arrested for violating what was then a masquerading ordinance.  It was illegal in St. Louis from 1840 to 1985 to dress as a member of the opposite sex.

“That night, on Halloween of 1969, nine men walked out of a bar in drag in the Grand Center area and were arrested.  There was a new group in town, St. Louis’ first gay rights group, the Mandrake Society. They went down to help bail the guys out, and the case was eventually thrown out.  But it sort of started St. Louis’ Gay, LGBTQIA rights effort.”

That effort in St. Louis, as in so many areas, has forged gradual change over the years. Groups quietly and discreetly gathering in the 1950s became public clubs by the ’70s, and then, in 1980, St. Louis’ first official Pride event took place.    Brawley has the T-shirt.  But even by the ’80s, attending Pride wasn’t always a comfortable undertaking.

“I can remember people still at that time being somewhat nervous,” he said.  “People maybe not wanting to be photographed even at that time.  Now you have the main Pride, there are several Prides in St. Louis, Pride Fest that goes down Market Street now.

“I’ve had several elders come up to me and actually cry to me and hug me and say, ‘At the first Pride in 1980, people were still in the shadows.  People were in masks.  People had their faces painted. They were afraid to be outed, their employer seeing it or their family, and now we’re walking down St. Louis’ main street.  I would have never believed we would be doing this.  It was not an option for us in 1980, and it’s just hard to believe this is happening.’

He said those were feelings that were somewhat foreign to people in today’s LGBTQ community.

“It is easier and there is some frustration among the elder community because, ‘Hey, you kids don’t know how good you have it nowadays. It’s different, and you have some opportunities we didn’t have.’

“It is easier.  So that’s one of the reasons I founded the history project – so younger folks could understand from where things have come and that people are standing on each other’s shoulders.”

All that has led to not one Pride event but several in the area, including the downtown event, one in Tower Grove, and others in St. Charles and the Metro East.  That is something Brawley thinks may make St. Louis unique.

“I’m trying to lay the groundwork that St. Louis may have one of the most diverse, and maybe one of the largest, ‘Pride communities’ in America,” he said.

“I haven’t figured this out yet, but I think we’re on to something.”

He also points to a diverse and growing number of neighborhoods with thriving gay populations –  “gayborhoods,” he calls them.  He said that the Central West End and Tower Grove remained constants, that South Broadway was growing, but that he worried about what has become the social center for St. Louis’ LGBTQ crowd, the Grove.

“There’s been gay bars on that strip since the late ’70s, so that’s really not a new thing; but what’s happened is, with development and some of the new bars that have moved in, it’s changing,” he said. “The fear now is gentrification, because there’s new high-rises going up and it’s getting kind of fancy. So is that going to drive out maybe some gay businesses that can’t afford to stay there?”

Whatever happens, he said, his LGBT History Project will be there to document it.  Brawley believes attention to history here will allow St. Louis to seize a place in the national history of the gay community.  He said the progress that led the nation to a point where gay marriage is legal, and acceptance is common, was made in many more places than just New York and San Francisco.

“As a ‘flyover’ city, St. Louis really has had a robust community, and a lot has happened here that a lot of folks don’t know about,” Brawley said. “There has been a lot of civil activity, political protesting, etc. that has occurred here.”