Treasure Hunters Seeking St. Louis LGBT History


An old St. Louis lesbian bar poster
  • An old St. Louis lesbian bar poster
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in St. Louis has a storied history -- are you holding on to any of it? The St. Louis Gay History Project wants to know.

The project is brainchild of blogger Steven Brawley, a longtime history buff. It seeks to find and preserve pieces of LGBT history in St. Louis. That can be anything from old bar posters and matchbooks to photos to pins to scrapbooks and diaries.

"There wasn't a good, well-rounded, thorough review of gay life," Brawley tells Daily RFT. "What was life like? Where would you go to socialize?" Tidbits and word of mouth kept reaching him through his blog. So he got the idea to ask people about what they might have stored away in the attic.

This Sunday afternoon, the project is conducting its second Treasure Drive. Anyone with artifacts is invited to come by Novak's in the Grove neighborhood and either donate them, or have them photographed or scanned, for eventual inclusion in the University of Missouri - St. Louis' LGBT History Archives.

"There's a lot of stuff out there, but there are roadblocks to getting into the community," Brawley says. Get-togethers like the Treasure Drive are a good way to remind people that things they have are useful pieces of history.

The first treasure drive netted buttons and bar posters from as long ago as the 1940s -- and Brawley's favorite find so far. Someone brought the paperwork for the permit for St. Louis' first official pride march back in 1980, a walk from Washington University to the Central West End. It was billed somewhat innocuously as a "Walk for Charity," and mayor James Conway signed on to a vaguely congratulatory proclamation that didn't mention the walk's LGBT roots.

Another recent great find was "A Crystal Diary," one lesbian's account of life in St. Louis in the 1950s.

Brawley describes a recent party where everyone got up and shared their pieces of LGBT history in St. Louis. It was a raucous affair detailing LGBT life in East St. Louis, including stories from Faces, a notorious drag bar. There will be more themed storytelling parties forthcoming, so keep your eyes peeled.

The project is looking for history in general, as well as info on specific stories they'd like to track down and confirm or expand upon. Brawley says there's word floating around of early gender reassignment surgeries at Wash. U., which he's seeking details on.

He'd also love to hear more about St. Louis' version of Stonewall, the violent (and galvanizing) New York City raid credited with kicking off the modern LGBT rights movement. In 1969, the police raided several gay bars in St. Louis and arrested men in drag, which was a criminal offense at the time. The community was incensed. Phone calls flew through the night, and people pooled their money to bail out the nine arrestees at $50 apiece. In response to that, the Mandrake Society was formed, an early gay group.

As with most social justice movements, it's important for people to be aware of their history and how much things have changed, Brawley says. Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a very different experience now than it was a generation or two ago.

"The internet has changed gay life so dramatically," he says. "You don't need to go to the bar or the park to meet someone. For the elders, it was 'Where do you go? Wink, wink? Special knock?' You'd go to bars and build friendship and your world would grow."

If there's history hiding in your closet, let it out! Head to Novak's between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday. The event takes place right after the SAGE Lunch Bunch, a social event run by SAGE Metro St. Louis, a group serving aging LGBT folks -- who surely have some tales to tell! Stop on by to be a part of history.


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