Nearly 40 years ago, Brian Hyland’s song "Gypsy Woman" played on a Jukebox and former St. Louis resident Lee Maynard found his name for performing in drag: Gypsy Lee. It was the first song that came on and someone said that was a great name. Maynard agreed.
When Maynard performed as Gypsy Lee around St. Louis in the 1970s, his standby song was Cher’s "Half-Breed." It’s a song that matched his elaborate costume.
Maynard made the costume himself, to resemble Cher’s outfit in her 1973 music video for "Half-Breed." The look includes a giant white headdress with blue tipped feathers and a giant loincloth covered in white and blue beads and sequins.
“I think most of what I did then was based on a character, as well trying to not just be another performer in a dress -- another boy in a dress is not what I was about,” Maynard said.
Maynard stopped performing in 1977 and moved East. He now works as an artist in Connecticut, but he hung onto his Cher-inspired costume until a few years ago, when he saw a picture of himself in the outfit on the St. Louis LGBT History Project’s website.He contacted Steven Brawley, who runs the project and asked if he wanted the dress.
Brawley was delighted to add it to the collection.
History in a basement
Lee’s outfit is now stored in Brawley’s basement along with thousands of other LGBT artifacts including videos, photo, periodicals, trophies, clothing, buttons, pins and banners.
Brawley started the St. Louis LGBT History Project in 2007 as a blog that documented the history of St. Louis’ LGBT community. It expanded to collecting documents and eventually artifacts though donations. Today the collection includes hundreds of objects and thousands of documents.
In the past, the project partnered with the University of Missouri-St. Louis to preserve paper artifacts. Brawley says he realized that, once they started collecting larger objects, they needed a way to preserve and display items beyond paper.
“That’s why we pursued a relationship with the History Museum,” Brawley said. “It’s a natural fit and we have items that we believe will help them tell the greater story of LGBT life in St. Louis.”
Frances Levine, president and CEO of the Missouri Historical Society and the museum, says this is a great opportunity for the museum to examine the life of the St. Louis LGBT community.
“Many museums are taking these steps in broadening the definition of whose story we are telling and how do we tell the story of life in the 20th and 21st century,” Levine said. “It’s been such a huge part of the news of my life, that for my generation I think there is no question that we would end up wanting to tell the LGBT community's stories.”
LGBT history as a part of St. Louis history
The Missouri History Museum will be curatorial partners for select items in the collection. On a recent afternoon, Brawley showed leaders from the Missouri History Museum around his artifact filled basement. They are working to assess the collection and to establish the next steps for collaboration.
One of the first things that becomes clear on this tour is there is a lot of stuff and a lot of organizing to do.
Levine says archiving and sorting through items will take time.
“There is so much that goes on in the background. That means that the collection not only speaks to us now, but 200 years from now somebody is going to look at it. Are they going to know who is in that photograph if we don't do the work now?”
Sharon Smith is curator of Civic and Personal Identity at the Missouri History Museum. She says the next step is for the museum to determine how to incorporate the collection into the museum in an organized fashion.
“It’s a substantial amount of material; and if we just bring it in and then it takes us a long time to understand what we have, we aren’t doing anything with it,” Smith said. “We want to approach this in steps. We’ll work closely with Steven to come up with a plan and we'll articulate what that plan is and then find folks who can help us.”
Smith says that doesn’t mean that objects won’t make their way into some exhibits in the near future.
“I would love to see some of these objects get into exhibits quickly,” said Smith. She sees the importance of not just telling the LGBT story on its own but of including material in “whatever exhibit is coming up, that we just include the LGBT community in those stories I think that's important, and that’s a way for the LGBT community to understand that we aren't just taking this stuff and not doing anything with it.”
As for what Lee Maynard thinks of his costume potentially becoming part of a mainstream history museum.
“I started to cry. I said this is an immense honor. And it just meant that holding onto it, there was a reason. But it just absolutely overwhelms me with pride.”