How Michael Shreves, AKA Michelle McCausland, Changed St. Louis LGBTQ History
For years, Michelle McCausland was among St. Louis’ most notable drag performers. She captured many hearts through her boisterous shows — and her mile-high legs, once named the best in St. Louis. More critically, she won a landmark victory striking down the archaic city ordinance used against drag performers and transgender residents alike.
Under the city’s masquerading ordinance, first passed 1843, it was illegal to dress in clothing meant for the opposite sex. In 1984, McCausland was arrested for dressing as a woman at the Uncle Marvin's lounge on Washington Avenue. The ACLU challenged the misdemeanor arrest, leading to the ordinance being overturned two years later.
But underneath the glitz and glamour was Michael Shreves, a native of Mount Vernon, Illinois, and a resident of south St. Louis. He died of COVID-19 on Nov. 28. He was 61 years old.
Shreves’ longtime friend Matthew Kerns, the executive director of the St. Lou Fringe Festival, calls Shreves “the fairy godmother of my life.” He joined host Sarah Fenske on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air to explain Shreves’ willingness to push boundaries.
“Michael was talking about gender, and pushing it into the public conversation and questioning gender roles, long before anybody really was out there in the public zeitgeist doing it,” Kerns explained.
The Fox Theatre’s televised competition, “Betty Grable’s Best Legs in St. Louis,” in the early ‘80s is a prime example. The contest was meant to showcase women. But Shreves competed as Michelle McCausland without letting on he was in drag — and won.
“He was flanked by two military folks who walked him down a runway that they had built out into the Fox Theatre’s audience,” Kerns recalled. “And the two military guys let him go to wave and say ‘hi,’ like you do in a pageant. And he snatched that wig off in front of everybody and was like, ‘Hey, everybody,’ and let them know: He was a man.”
Also joining Monday’s conversation was Steven Louis Brawley, founder of the St. Louis LGBT History Project. He discussed how the masquerading ordinance was used to target the LGBTQ community.
“Police would randomly, without warning, go into a gay bar, and they usually could arrest someone if they were performing in drag,” Brawley said. “It could have been an election year, it could have been the mayor or the police wanting to show they were cleaning up the town and getting rid of crime, vice and lewd behavior. So Michelle was just one of hundreds of people arrested.”
The city’s enforcement didn’t just affect drag performers. Transgender people and women who masqueraded as men to make more money, or to feel safer, were also targets, Brawley said.
“There's so many issues of gender that come into play here,” he said. “The law wasn't created back in the 1840s specifically against drag queens; it was a bigger societal issue that St. Louis didn't grapple with until Michelle's case.”
The ACLU quickly took up the case. It represented Shreves along with a transwoman who was also performing at the same lounge that night.
“Michael's half of the case was fought [by citing] the Broadway community. The argument was, ‘Well, if Broadway can do it, why can't these performers do it?’” Kerns explained. “When the laws were finally changed, it did make an opening for the trans community to finally walk around as their authentic selves without being harassed by the police.”
Shreves’ and McCausland’s legacy
While Shreves built a huge fan base in St. Louis, his glamorous persona was largely kept a secret from his family. His mother still lives in Mount Vernon, Illinois. Kerns recalled that Shreves would explain that, when he was home, “we just don't talk about it.”
That changed last month, when Kerns met Shreves’ mother after his death.
“I was asked to tell her about the importance of Michael as a gay icon in this area and what he’s done for our community,” Kerns said. “What I tried to explain to his family is, ‘Whether you agreed with Michael's choices or not, for whatever your reasons, please just take this into account: He had a giant heart, and because he chose to be a performer, he touched hundreds of thousands of lives in his lifetime.’
“And he changed them — if just for a second. He changed their life and he brought happiness and joy to people.”
Added Brawley, “We each have an opportunity to do things that make a difference. And Michael, through Michelle, did that … so we should all remember his spirit and try to be a little bit more like Michael and Michelle.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.