The Gay Community
Length: 3706 words (10.6 double-spaced pages)
Part of the impetus for writing this paper is that I want to explore Kansas City s character and how the dominant culture in the city relates to the gay community. Citizens view the city as the archetypal Midwestern city, and I think this is more than an inflated sense of self-importance. Cultural references to Kansas City suggest its significance, which plays a large part in the formation of citizens identity. During the flood of 1951 Norman Rockwell, who purposely accentuated the wholesome Americana prevalent in the Midwest, offered to help Kansas City in any way he could. The result is the painting Kansas City Spirit, a painting that, in the words of Joyce C. Hall, would forever symbolize that something in good men s hearts that makes them put service above self and accomplish the impossible (Kansas City 61). In many ways Kansas City has come to represent the qualities of the American Heartland that are most revered.
Just as significantly, we can understand the city s character in terms of space. Most often, citizens define and praise their city not in terms of what happens there but in terms of what kinds of spaces they have. Kansas City is the City of Fountains and the City of Boulevards and Parks, important characteristics that relate specifically to space. The first of these, the fountains, is also the most popularly espoused one. In Kansas City s book of self-adoration titled Kansas City, fountains are described in this way:
Fountains: they are a Kansas City hallmark. Few cities in the world can boast the water artistry that graces the boulevards, parks, and centers here. Herbert Silverman was amazed when he completed the aqua pura tour. Afterwards, he wrote for Travel and Leisure: In the order of magnitude of citizens pride - one must marvel first at its fountains.
New York has fountains and so has Rome, but Kansas City is deluged with them. (16)
The public see their city as one of the most beautiful and affluent in the country. It is no wonder, then, that a fountain s display of beauty and wealth is so important to them. Fountains can be seen as a metaphor for a level of affluence so high that resources flow from the city like water out of a fountain, and yet this excess of materialist culture is revered as the most beautiful application of plumbing ingenuity. This identity based on affluence and standard of living is also associated with the other characteristics of the city. The desire to use resources to beautiful and esthetic excess is inherent in the desire for expansive boulevards and enormous parks. Once again we can turn to the egocentric Kansas City to see that:
Today Kansas City has more boulevard miles than Paris. Motorists make their way down 140 miles of broad, expansive thoroughfares and tree-lined parkways...Unlike the cramped and Gothic avenues of some eastern cities, the broad expanses and beautifully landscaped thoroughfares here seem to reflect the easygoing charm of the Midwest. (68)
This depiction creates a hierarchy where cities are judged by spatial determinates, placing Kansas City at or near the top. The more space a city has, and the more excessively that space is used, the better the city is. Kansas City s national position as a major metropolitan center is asserted by its use of space. The fact that there are 140 miles of boulevards and 125 parks (making it grassier than Ireland) is critical to the public s self-image.
This focus on space by the dominant culture reinforces the significance of space to the gay community. Just as Kansas Citians see their citizenship nationally tied to space the citizenship of a community within the city will be assessed by their control and acquisition of space. By increasing the value of their space both quantitatively and qualitatively, gays have improved the dominant culture s evaluation of their community.
Nothing gay in Kansas City happens until Pride (Hardwick). It may be true that, in the eyes of the straight media, nothing happens until the yearly Pride Festival, but every day the gay community exists in time and space. Even if the gay community doesn t do anything to grab the media s attention, it still creates and moves through space. Despite this fact, the common mode of analysis for any historian is to research and analyze events, occurrences, and happenings. If, in my analysis of Kansas City, I used this paradigm, the evidence would suggest that yearly, a gay community materializes to create this Pride Festival event, and then disappears.
I propose we use a different means to analyze the KC gay community. Instead of focusing on the events created by the community, we should focus on the physical space created by the community. Having an understanding of the places gays locate can give us a sense of their relationship to and function in the dominant culture. How these areas are described by gay citizens, gay national theorists and academics, and straight citizens will inform us greatly on how these different groups relate to Kansas City s gay community. Space provides a backdrop for the creation of identity and the kinds of spaces the gay community occupies effects how that identity is produced.
Where space is located is a very important signifier of how marginal (or not) the community is. If gay spaces are located in marginal regions within the city, the message being sent is that those who reside there are marginal citizens. The citizens who possess the valued space, then, are the valued citizens. The amount and kind of space controlled by a group relates to the power that group can wield in the culture. Lawrence Knopp shows, in his essay Sexuality and Urban Space, that as a sexual minority gains control of space they exert their influence on it by coding it as gay space, that is to say, they use signage and behavior to claim ownership. This then gives them more power in the space because those who benefit from certain codings are those whose particular sexual practices and preferences are privileged in those codings (Knopp 153). Knopp then goes on to argue that, in response, the interests of social power coded all non-heterosexual spaces and experiences in cities as in some way sexually depraved and uncontrollable (Knopp 156), the sources of social evil. If we apply this knowledge to discourse about gay spaces, we can see a shift in the location of gay space in Kansas City that gave no overt mention of homosexuals. In the late 70 s gay public spaces centered in an area known as the Country Club Plaza (White), but by the late 80 s, the gay community had focused in the Westport/Midtown area (Murray). This migration was both caused by a change in the rhetoric of the place, and the effect of this change. In his book on Architecture in Kansas City, George Ehrlich is capable of recording this shift in the community without having to explicitly mention the gay population because he can, instead, use the discourse of coding. In the Country Club Plaza,
The 70 s and 80 s saw the replacement of some familiar shops and services by more upscale specialty stores...the perception has also grown that the Plaza is a place for the affluent, which the elimination of many modestly priced apartment units in the area seemed to confirm. (211, my emphasis added)
After illustrating how the removal of the gay community led an area to become more upscale and affluent , Ehrlich moves next to show the negative impact of a gay community moving into your neighborhood.
Changes also occurred in and around Old Westport, north of the Plaza...[there was] redevelopment in the mid 70 s of the block now called Westport Square...but without an overall plan and with multiple owners. An increase in the number of bars and the attendant nightlife, coupled with financial problems for some of the enterprises, diluted the district s character as a mixed-use venue for all types of people. In the process the future of the district became less secure... (211, my emphasis added)
Now that we see how the removal of the gay community acted positively on an area and the addition of the gay community acted negatively, Ehrlich reiterates that these different groups (straight and gay) have little to nothing in common with each other, further gentrifying Kansas City. Old Westport and the Country Club Plaza, separate and different from each other, tend to attract different clienteles...These three [an intermediary hospital being the third] almost contiguous special districts have little in common socially or physically (211-213, my emphasis added).
This description of Ehrlich s tells us a great deal about how the gay community related to the dominant culture. These negative codings covertly highlight the high level of discrimination in Kansas City. In 1975 it was difficult to even get a group of homosexuals to talk about being gay because they were so scared. People often lost their jobs when they came out at work, and gay parents could lose custody of their children if their homosexuality became an issue (Spare). In the 80 s, the practice of outing arose on the coasts, but this never caught on in Kansas City. It s not that a political agenda didn t exist, but rather, Kansas City was a far different place. Outing was still too dangerous in a city where people could easily be attacked for being gay (Murray).
Another way of looking at space is to look at the acquisition of space. The more space controlled by a sexual minority, the more visibility that group has. In the essay Placemaking and the Dialectics of Public and Private, Gordon Brent Ingram and colleagues discuss how placemaking can increase visibility and effect the politics of the community.
How sexual minorities come to placemaking says much about social networks and relationships to local political economies...Just as queer identities are constructed within the context of hetero-normativity, queer places have been forged within spaces not originally intended for gay use. Identifying a place as queer is a deliberate action parallel to coming out. (Ingram et. al. 295)
Over time the shear number of places for the gay community in Kansas City has increased, and with each one the community has come out even further.
This then raises the question of what was done in 1970 s when the gay community lacked adequate space. The result was that private space flowed over into the public sphere as public parks were coded as gay - not just for cruising purposes, but for social interaction as well. In the parks, gays could regulate their own visibility as a homosexual to each other and to outsiders to appropriate the public space. Very crucially, the parks also served as the one place gay youth could participate in the community legally. Henri David discusses the cruising park in Philadelphia, Rittenhouse Square, and how in the 60 s gay youth would have little birthday parties for each other there and bring cake and sodas because we had nowhere to go (qtd. Stein 89). In Kansas City there were two parks that served this function, Loose Park south of the Country Club Plaza and the Mall at Liberty Memorial. Because the parks served as the only place for gays to socialize outside the barroom, it was not uncommon for gay people to rent gazebos at Loose Park and have parties there. On a warm weekend afternoon you would often find large groups of queens partying at Loose Park, or a game of Frisbee at the Mall (Murray & Spare). Park culture served another important function in the early gay community. Marc Stein describes how Rittenhouse Square was one of the only places where Lesbian and gay geographies converged and diverged in the public sphere (Stein 86). In Kansas City, the same held true. The gay community was very gentrified, but one rare exception to this was interaction in the parks. There was a standing lesbian softball game on the Mall and there was a group of gay men that would act as cheerleaders for the games. The parks seemed to be the one place where gay and lesbian space overlapped (Spare). When the sum total of gay space in Kansas City consisted of bars, the parks served as an overflow area, where cruising was surmounted by more basic needs for expanded social space.
Now there is very little fear of talking about being gay in Kansas City. It is easier to talk about being gay, and because of this, visibility and exposure have increased, which have in turn led to greater education and awareness in the dominant culture (Chapa-Malacara). This visibility means that even though there is not a substantial population of out youth in KC, it is easy to be out once you make the first step according to some youth (Castillo & Jennings).
Linked with this ease of being out in KC, is the larger number of gay related spaces. As a sexual minority gains space there becomes more room to create an identity different from that of the dominant culture. Lawrence Knopp explains: The growing consciousness of a private sphere of existence...meant that people could explore identities and communities based on the possibility of non-conformist and non-commodified roles and practices (Knopp 154-5). In the mid-70 s there were approximately 10 spaces that were focused on the gay community (Spare). This lack of space made it difficult for people to develop a complete gay identity, which decreased visibility in yet a new way. Now, however, there are a number of places in which to develop a gay identity in the city, including spaces open to gay youth. According to estimates based off of local listings (Current News and Liberty Press KC) there are approximately 100 spaces specifically focused on the gay community. This has a cyclic effect in that the more space there is the more people develop a gay identity, and at an earlier age. This then provides the community with more people to create more space, which once again provides more opportunities for Kansas Citians to develop a gay identity.
These differences between the gay community of the mid-70 to early-80 s and the present community are quite drastic. Overwhelmingly, any evaluation of the Kansas City finds that the city has progressed and it is easier to be openly gay than it was in the 70 s. The last 30 years, and in fact the last 10 years, have marked the growth of a community in Kansas City that provides a much wider array of services to gays, and extends those services to a much larger portion of the gay community.
These characterizations of the gay community in Kansas City suggest an alternative way of thinking about the regressive trend in national gay politics. Most often, national assessments of gay political and social movements have focused solely on the activities in select cities, and like Robert McRuer s analysis of A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan, rather than concede that everywhere actually means New York and San Francisco, I am interested in the (perhaps more radical) implications of recognizing that everywhere includes such an apparently marginal and inhospitable place (69). Currently there is a trend in gay academia to further develop national accounts of the movement by including under analyzed areas. Instead of accepting mainstream media representations of gay culture and politics, which are biased toward coastal activities, I have looked into the culture of Kansas City critically through local media resources and personal interviews. This new evidence pool has provided a different point of view from which to analyze the national gay movement.
The most widely accepted view of the national gay movement has been one from liberationism to assimilation. The contention is that for short periods in the early 50 s and 70 s, gay organizations and politics favored a liberationist approach where the very structures of society were seen as contributing to the oppression of gay people. The position advocated the conceptualization of gays as a minority that should therefore join other minorities in a mass attempt to restructure society. In both the 50 s and 70 s these ideas where cultivated in a consciousness-raising discussion group. The function of these groups, as visualized by one of the founders of the early Mattachine Society Henry Hay, was
...to be forums in which members of the gay minority developed a consciousness of their social oppression and a cohesiveness among themselves that would make political action possible. Hay described the discussion groups as the setting in which to fashion a homosexual ethic whereby homosexuals can begin to conceive, comprehend, form themselves into a minority in fact. (D Emilio 29-30)
This kind of activism, as the national story goes, has regressed into an assimilationist position, characterized by the desire for acceptance in and tolerance from the dominant society. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which had struggled to change society, have been replaced with groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an assimilationist organization whose focus is on working within the structures of society to achieve modest gains like marriage rights. Most people see this trend as a step back, and when you are coming from a liberationist approach I would agree. Kansas City, however, was not a bastion of liberationist politics in the late 70 s.
The narrative of Kansas City is quite different than that of New York. The last 30 years have not seen a slip from liberationism to assimilationism. Rather, our history suggests that a partial assimilationism is what we have risen to out of a relatively non-existent community. Kansas City is indicative of a trend outlined by John D Emilio, where The 1980 s have witnessed the reinvigoration of grass-roots local activism and the spread of the movement to parts of the country that had barely been touched by it in the 1970 s (266).
I say that Kansas City has risen to a partial assimilationism because not all aspects of the community are assimilationist, whereas the 70 s community most definitely was. Kansas City was home to a conservative homophile organization called the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom, and social life, if not centered around a bar, was centered around a gay church organization (Spare). The current climate of the Kansas City gay scene still seeks acceptance in the dominant culture, but some aspects of liberationism have popped up. The focus on religion has nearly disappeared. In place of religion, the one organization that effects the majority of gay youth in Kansas City is the gay youth group Passages.
Passages, in almost every account of coming out in Kansas City, is one of the first truly gay spaces entered. Formed in 1990 as an organization to provide social and educational opportunities in a safe environment (Passages), the main tool used by the group is a weekly youth discussion group. In the 1950 s Mattachine Society discussion groups provided the opportunity for people to share
...the pain of discovering their sexual identities as well as the strengths which survival in a hostile society had produced. Together they imagined how life might be different, how a gay subculture might emerge that provided emotional support and sustenance, and how homosexuals might act to change social attitudes. (D Emilio 29)
Passages has been using these same techniques to discuss the almost identical topics of Coming Out at Work, Gay Identity, Gay Rights, and HIV/AIDS. In addition to the discussion groups, Passages provides a Speakers Bureau to educate the dominant society (Passages).
This sort of organization is not only becoming more common in Kansas City, but is also becoming the norm of new organizational structures nationally. In many key organizations on the national level, progressive leaders have surfaced. In his book Making Trouble John D Emilio discusses how these leaders are heirs of sixties radicalism who are willing to work for change within the system yet without abandoning a long-term vision of social transformation (270). Externally, Passages relates to the dominant culture in an assimilationist manner, providing information to Kansas City much in the same way as its earliest predecessor did, the Phoenix Society. Internally, however, Passages uses the same techniques and pursues the same goals as organizations that had previously skipped over Kansas City like the early Mattachine Society and the GLF. Like other progressive organizations, Passages is in the beneficial position of being able to interact with both the activist youth of Kansas City and the status quo interests that provide the funding to keep Passages alive. Even more significantly, one of the key institutions of the gay community in Kansas City is participating in a national trend as it happens, arguably for the first time in Kansas City history.
By looking at history from a different perspective, using space and not events to describe Kansas City, I ve drawn a more extensive description of the gay community than had been previously done. Conflict over space and its location provided clues to the relationship between the gay community in Kansas City and the dominant culture, and as gay space changed in the city the changing status of gays could be extrapolated. By using this method of analysis new information about the city was produced which provides an even more complex description of the state of gay politics, and shows that in moving opposite of the national trend, Kansas City may still have what it takes to accomplish the impossible (Hall qtd. Kansas City 61).