KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The first day of June kicks off Pride Month across the United States where we remember the struggle the LGBTQ+ community has faced for equal rights.
In Kansas City, residents expect prominent landmarks like Union Station to be lit up in rainbow colors for the months, but long before that kind of support was able to be so out in the open, organizers in Kansas City were working behind the scenes, slowly but steadily building a community.
“I’m not sure that it would have happened here without someone taking the leadership role and it happened to be Drew Shafer,” said UMKC Curator of Special Collections & Archives Stuart Hinds. “Frankly, I attribute his confidence as a leader to his parents because like I said, they were really supportive of him as far back as the mid 1950s.”
Hinds is responsible for the Gay and Lesbian Archive of MId-America (GLAMA) at UMKC. It’s one of the best places to find information about the group Shafer formed: The Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom.
It was part of the “homophile” movement, adopting a name that was created to avoid attention. The Phoenix Society’s publication, The Phoenix, helped connect a population of gay and lesbian people who often lived their lives in secret under the threat of being harassed, arrested, or worse.
“What we have to remember is they’re doing all this printing and they’re doing all these mailing lists, they’re doing all this distribution before computers,” said Hinds. “Everything was done with a piece of paper and a phone.”
The group was most active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, until the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969.
“With the success of stone wall and the demonstration that a militant approach could actually work, that’s when everything changed,” said Hinds.
Hinds said the Stonewall Riots was an incredibly public instance of the gay community fighting back against harassment and oppression and being successful. It marked a departure from the approach older gay rights activists had been advocating for, where they attempted to avoid creating too much controversy. The new movement would be much more aggressive, radical, and overt.
“That is exemplified in the name itself,” said Hinds. “It becomes ‘Gay Liberation’ after Stonewall where it was the ‘Homophile movement’ prior to it.”
Over the following decades, homosexuality was removed from the medical community’s list of mental illnesses, openly gay politicians were elected, and gay marriage was legalized in all 50 states in 2015.
In 2022, groups like the Kansas City Center for Inclusion connect the LGBTQ+ community with support, medical care, and more.
“We have the gender affirmation surgery grants where people who are going to have gender affirming surgery, we can provide them funds for that,” said Kansas City Center for Inclusion’s Keaton Vaughn.
Roughly six decades after The Phoenix reached its first readers, a sticker used to indicate inclusion is causing controversy at a Missouri high school. “Safe Space” and “Safe Zone” stickers and cards were given to Grain Valley High School teachers and staff during a recent meeting. The signs were used to indicate that a certain teacher or staff member is an LGBTQ ally, and students can feel safe approaching them about personal issues. But the superintendent at Grain Valley School District confirmed teachers were told to remove the “Safe Space” stickers from classrooms and hallways Monday morning.
“We’re seeing the same kinds of arguments that were made 40 years ago, that were made 60 years ago, that were seen 100 years ago,” said Hinds.
After The Phoenix Society wasn’t active, Shafer continued to fight for LGBTQ rights around Kansas City before he lost high fight with AIDS in 1989.