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‘We need to continue to move forward:’ The history of the LGBT community in St. Louis

Steven Louis Brawley and Nancy Fowler.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Steven Louis Brawley and Nancy Fowler.

Author Steven Louis Brawley said that at the first Pride parade held in St. Louis, in 1980, many participants had to disguise themselves with painted faces and masks as they were worried about what repercussions revealing their sexual orientation would have.

Times have changed. On June 25, 2014 four same-sex couples married in St. Louis City Hall despite Missouri’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. A little over a year later, on July 26, 2015, the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, ensuring same-sex couples could marry the country over. 

Changes over the past decade

This movement toward acceptance has made all the difference.

“When pride moved downtown on Market Street [in 2013], I had a gentleman come up to me and just hug me and cry and say ‘I was in the ’80 parade and I was hidden and now I’m walking down Market Street proud and out and not afraid any more. I hope the folks that are here understand how far we’ve come,’” Brawley told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “Don’t rest on the laurels. We need to continue to move forward. There are a lot of things to still fight and advocate for, but it was a big deal to go from walking down the street masked to walking down it without a mask.”

Credit Steven Brawley
'Gay and Lesbian St. Louis,' by Steven Brawley

Brawley recently wrote a book entitled “Gay and Lesbian St. Louis,” which tracks the history of the lesbian and gay community here since before St. Louis was even considered a city. Brawley will discuss the book later this month at Left Bank Books and said it was important both because it recognizes St. Louis’ lesbian and gay pioneers and because it teaches a younger generation that “the life they are living today is only possible because of the efforts of those pioneers.”

For St. Louis Public Radio reporter Nancy Fowler, this history is personal. Fowler was the editor of the Vital Voice, a publication highlighting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the area, from 1999 to 2007. The late ‘90s were also a great period of change for Fowler as she went through a divorce and came out as lesbian.

Fowler said that at that that time, if custody was contested by a spouse and you were gay or lesbian, you did not get custody of your children. Fowler had three children and said she was looking at the possibility she would have no legal right over her children and would only see them a few times a month.

“It was understood by my attorneys that if this goes before a judge, the law supports that gays and lesbians are immoral and shouldn’t raise children,” Fowler said. “It’s a little different now.”

Fowler said Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out in 1997 was a turning point in public awareness and acceptance of LGBT people.

“It was probably something I always knew but that I began to identify as I got older and met people,” Fowler said. “Truthfully, it had a name. People could say the word ‘lesbian’ finally, out loud, in whispers.”

Prior St. Louis LGBT history

Brawley said gay and lesbian culture thrived in St. Louis in the early 1900s. He even described St. Louis as a “mecca” for gay and lesbian people.

“It was a mecca because, as the fourth largest city in America, you had folks who may have lived in rural areas or farms in the South to come to the big city and blend in,” Brawley said. “I’m not saying they would have been out in the way that we think of being out, but they may have been able to find partners and have relationships. If there’s 800,000 people around you, it is easier to hide than in a town of 300 people.”

In 1969, The Mandrake Society was formed by a group of students at Washington University. That is considered the first formal LGBT Civil Rights group to be formed in St. Louis.

Although Brawley’s book touches on famous St. Louisans who have come out as a gay or lesbian (Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs and Andy Cohen, to name a few), he says the book focuses a lot on the unsung heroes of St. Louis’ LGBT history. 

“My books focus on the quiet people that we’ll never know their names,” Brawley said.  “Like straight counterparts, doctors, lawyers, teachers. Rodney Wilson, a teacher in Mehlville, who created LGBT history month in ’94. There are so many people from all walks of life in the LGBT community that have done an amazing job of living their life. Most of them tell me, ‘I didn’t set out to do something remarkable. We did it and now we’re told it is remarkable.’”

Moving forward

Today, the St. Louis LGBT bar scene is quite large. “We probably have as many, if not more, than larger cities,” Brawley said. “St. Louis over the years has had about 120 bars. The earliest we know of are from the ‘30s, but currently it is an active entertainment scene.”

Brawley said the history of the LGBT bars is important because it offered a space for people to feel comfortable and be themselves. That was also a role filled by LGBT community centers. St. Louis’ LGBT center closed its building in 2014. Brawley said that may be because people may feel more comfortable communing out and about in other places.

Fowler said that Metro Trans Umbrella Group is trying to change that, with plans to open up a community center with more of a focus on the transgender community. Both Fowler and Brawley agreed that although the gay and lesbian community has made great strides in the past decade, there’s a lot of work to be done for acceptance and non-discrimination against transgender people.

This spring, St. Louis will host the 2016 Out Games, a multi-event sports competition, cultural celebration and three-day conference that uses sports competition to promote and discuss human rights. Five thousand participants from across the U.S. are expected to join in the games from May 27 through June 4.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards,Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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