The moments in Kansas City that set the stage for Stonewall

Posted at 9:38 AM, Jun 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-29 11:38:01-04

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    KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) — Fifty years ago today, a group of gay, lesbian and transgender people in New York’s Greenwich Village made history when they fought back during a police raid of the Stonewall Inn.

It was a pivotal event that has been commemorated every year since.

KCTV5’s Betsy Webster looked deeper into the history to learn about the moments here in KC that set the stage for that revolt.

If you ask most people about important moments in the gay rights movement — before the term LGBTQ came along — you’ll probably hear about Stonewall in New York and, later, Harvey Milk in San Francisco.

But, at 12th and Wyandotte, a group of Kansas City activists also played a crucial role with the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom three years before Stonewall.

Nowadays, LGBTQ-friendly establishments advertise their presence with rainbow flags. It’s something that helped Matt Stretz when he came out at the age of 43.

“I actually looked for a rainbow flag as sort of a safe haven to go to,” Stretz said.

The predecessors of Westport’s 303 existed underground as recently as the 80s.

“There was no signage out front, no neon, no nothing,” Martha Boyd said. “You had to press a doorbell.”

There’s no doubt the riots at the Stonewall Inn played a major role in starting the move for equality. When the police raided the bar 50 years ago today, hundreds of patrons fought back by throwing bottles.

“That was like the shot across the bow,” Boyd said.

“People successfully said, ‘We’ve had enough and we’re not going to take it anymore,’” Stuart Hinds said.

Hinds is the curator of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America, who spoke at Unity Temple tonight about that moment.

“The flood of activism that it unleashed, the pent up resentment and anger that it allowed to be expressed,” Hinds said.

However, there was a less volatile moment that mattered at 12th and Wyandotte first.

In a time when people had to hide who they were, it was local groups and magazines that created community.

Kansas City’s group became the Phoenix Society. In 1966, they were part of a meeting to make the movement go national.

At the State Hotel right here in Kansas City, activists from 15 groups across the nation gathered to hash out a strategy for taking their civil rights movement national.

They chose to protest poor treatment in the military and created something.

“The establishment of a national legal defense fund,” Hinds explained.

Stonewall gathered more attention because it was so explosive. It was sudden and spontaneous. It involved a particularly marginalized subset of an already oppressed group. Or, as it was perceived at the time…

“The fairies took on the cops and the fairies won,” said Hinds.

It was a pivotal event that those mingling in KC tonight hope the younger generation values, understands and builds on.

“Whatever you find to be freedom in your life now, you need to do something to continue it,” Boyd said. “It’s not going to be just handed to you.”

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