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Gay and Lesbian St. Louis

New book offers a window into the colorful history of local LGBT life, from drag queens to business leaders

St. Louis LGBT History Project founder Steven Brawley with his new book, "Gay and Lesbian St. Louis." The book features artifacts and photographs of the region's LGBT legacy. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)

February 24, 2016
Steven Brawley lives and breathes history. For years he has dedicated countless hours to documenting a vital part of St. Louis' past as founder and leader of the St. Louis LGBT History Project.

The project's mission is to "preserve and promote the diverse and dynamic history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community of Greater St. Louis."

Brawley has advanced this mission with the recent publication of his new book, "Gay and Lesbian St. Louis." The book, part of Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series, covers everything from day-to-day life in St. Louis to the city's own "Stonewall" moment.

A launch party for the book will be held Monday, Feb. 29, 7 p.m., at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave. in the Central West End.

"Gay and Lesbian St. Louis" has more than 200 photos, but Brawley, a serious historian, also packed in as much written history as he could.

"I used photography to tell stories that are lost," he said. "It really isn't an academic book, it's a picture book, but I didn't want it to be fluffy. I put my heart and soul into telling the story."

Brawley said the Central West End is considered St. Louis' original "gayborhood," with LGBT businesses and bars prevalent in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Those establishments are long gone, said Brawley, but the history is there.

"From a historian's perspective the Central West End will always be the LGBT epicenter," he said. "The LGBT community lived here, played here and worked here."

Herbie's was the St. Louis area's best known gay disco in the 1970s. Located in the Central West End, it was owned by Herb and Adelaide Balaban. The bar and Maryland Plaza (at left) were central to Halloween celebrations. file photo West End Word (click for larger version)
Brawley pulled photos for the book from archives at the Library of Congress, the Missouri History Museum, State Historical Society of Missouri, Washington University and others, including the West End Word.

He included anti-gay activist Phyllis Schlafly and sex researchers Masters and Johnson in the same chapter as LGBT pioneers Michael Kearns and Lisa Wagaman because, he said, these St. Louisans are all a part of the story.

As comprehensive as it is, Brawley hopes the book will help him uncover many more St. Louis stories.

"I want to be more of a cheerleader than an expert," he said. "My desire for this book is for people to come to me and say, 'You missed something.' That would be like Christmas for me."

LGBT History Project

With the Midwest often referred to as a "flyover state" by those more interested in the East or West Coast, St. Louis was getting short shrift in recognition of its LGBT history, said Brawley. At the turn of the 20th century, St. Louis was the country's fourth largest city; its LGBT history shouldn't be relegated to the shadows, he insisted.

Brawley has included a pivotal event in St. Louis LGBT history in his book. It's what he calls St. Louis' "Stonewall" moment.

"On Nov. 1, 1969, nine men were arrested for being in drag after celebrating Halloween at the Onyx Room bar near Olive Street and Grand Boulevard," Brawley writes.

At that time, St. Louis had laws against masquerading, he said. A group calling themselves the Mandrake Society protested at police headquarters and posted bail for the men. What followed was an annual drag ball, held on Halloween, to highlight the Mandrake Society's advocacy work. For many years after, the Central West End's adult Halloween party was a staple of the LGBT calendar.

It's stories like these, and many others of just everyday life, that Brawley doesn't want to see lost.

"I've always been interested in history in general," he said. "In 2007, I started a blog on the LGBT history of St. Louis. The elders were dying and people would say 'someone should have done an oral history.' I decided to quit talking about it and do something."

The Gerhardt Building at Vandeventer and Laclede was home to Mag's, an LGBT mainstay from 1985 to 2014. file photo West End Word (click for larger version)
The St. Louis LGBT History Project was born. Word spread and soon Brawley and his group of volunteers – "kindred spirits" he calls them – had their hands full.

"We had a dilemma – a good one," he said. "People would want to give us stuff. The dilemma was, what happens to these things, and how do we deal with them?"

The solution was to seek out partners who were already in the business of archiving objects. The St. Louis LGBT History Project now has three archival partners: the State Historical Society of Missouri, the Missouri History Museum and Washington University in St. Louis.

The archives of the state historical society are housed at four Missouri universities, said Brawley, including the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL).

"UMSL has an LGBTQ collection that dates to the late 1970s," he said.

The project's collaboration with the Missouri History Museum has helped boost an LGBT collecting initiative the museum began in 2013, said Sharon Smith, curator of civic and personal identity at the museum.

"Part of what's been so amazing about working with Steven is he has his finger on the pulse of the community," said Smith. "Steven has been doing this a really long time. He's really been concerned about making sure people's stories and things are protected.

"We want people to know that we want your stories, your really amazing items that you kept," she added. "We want to collect material and then be able to present it. We are hoping by 2020 we can be doing an exhibit on gay rights in St. Louis. Steven is a huge part of that."

Programming in the near future includes a talk Smith will be giving about the collecting initiative on April 27 at the museum.

"Another one, which is in partnership with Steven's LGBT history project, is a program called 'She Went 14,000 Miles As A Boy,'" said Smith. "It is about women who were dressing as men to sort of make it in the world back in the day – this is back in the 1800s. I think it is going to be an amazing program."

That event, presented by University of Illinois doctoral student Nathan Tye, is about "hobo girls," women who dressed in men's clothing and rode the rails in the late 1800s. The event is set for Monday, March 28, 7 p.m., in the Missouri History Museum's auditorium.

Brawley's day job is executive vice president of ARCHS (Area Resources for Community and Human Services). He has been with the non-profit for 11 years. ARCHS serves as the fiscal agent for donations to the LGBT History Project. To donate funds or objects to the St. Louis LGBT History Project, visit stlouisLGBThistory.com.

For questions about "Gay and Lesbian St. Louis," email stlgayhistory@me.com.

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