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Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights

Now through May 13, 2022

Special Collections Gallery | Miller Nichols Library, 3rd floor


We often mark the passage of time by headline-grabbing events like elections, uprisings, or the passing of legislation. But progress often comes from much less flashy, much more local sources.

Built by students in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s public history program, the Making History exhibit explores the activism of gays and lesbians in the decades before the 1956 uprising of gay youth at the Stonewall Riots, "including Kansas City’s surprisingly pivotal role in helping to launch America’s gay rights movement. Focusing on ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things, the exhibit explores how history is made." 

The Making History exhibit panels installed on the wall in the Special Collections Gallery at the UMKC library

Documenting the rise of gay and lesbian community groups, this exhibit explores how community played a part in the pursuit of gay rights, and especially how local groups and community members from Kansas City contributed to these historical efforts. Following WWII, gay and lesbian people found community in local urban centers, prompting them to leave their rural roots. Local communities gave rise to regional communities that strove largely for social acceptance within the majority. This movement, called the homophile movement, is represented through the publication of periodicals representing groups of these close-knit gay and lesbian communities throughout the U.S.

The Phoenix Society from Kansas City was one such group and, armed with their own printing press, they proceeded to develop this strong sense of community and belonging in KC. The first national conference of these local and regional groups was held in Kansas City, launching a nation-wide movement toward social and legal acceptance. The persistence of these groups in conjunction with the national unity they’d developed converged with other social movements, shifting the conversation from acceptance to activism. Groups like the Kansas City Phoenix Society very much laid the necessary groundwork for gay rights activism for legal and social equality. The documents these groups and meetings left behind detail a rich and storied history that demonstrates how far gay and lesbian communities and rights have come in this exhibit.

View the Making History exhibit on the third floor of Miller Nichols Library. While you are there, make time to visit LaBudde Special Collections as well, home to the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America which provided many of the archival materials used to create the exhibit. 

Exhibit curators: Christopher D. Cantwell, Stuart Hinds, and Kathryn B. Carpenter. Contributing curators: Taylor C. Bye, Samantha Bradfield, Allie Donnell, Avery Goetz, Samantha Hollingsworth, David Jenkins, Tyler Johnson, Gaile Juknevicius, Gaetano Mondello, Maria Olson, Leah Palmer, Kevin Ploth, and Jennifer Tufts. 

Posted: September 09, 2021