Helped The Phoenix Society Rise 50 Years Ago
By David W. Jackson
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement’s origins in Kansas City; three years before the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. In 1966, Kansas City hosted at the Hotel State the first-ever national conference of lesbian and gay organizations from across the United States.
The Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) and LGBT-KC, an independent committee of community-minded citizens, will commemorate this auspicious anniversary in October to coincide with LGBT History Month. LGBT-KC has planned week-long activities culminating in the dedication of the city’s first LGBT-related marker on Barney Allis Plaza, facing the site of that historic event at 12th and Wyandotte.
This first of a multi-part feature will lead us toward the October festivities, and tell the story of Mickey Ray and his long time companion, Drew Shafer, KC’s pioneer activist for equal rights for LGBT individuals.
LGBT-KC hopes Mickey may be a part of the October historical commemoration since he was here during that monumental time in KC’s LGBT past, and he has written extensively about his life with Drew in Kansas City.
Like many gay youths, Mickey realized he was not like the other boys, even though he didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to describe the differences. In his childhood he never played “dress up,” or pretended he was a girl, although, as he said, “that’s not something unusual for either well-adjusted gay or straight boys to experience in their youth.” His later stage career, however, would provide him plenty of opportunity to embody a wealth of characters.
Mickey graduated high school in New York in 1964 and enlisted in the United States Army. His dream to become a clinical psychologist was dashed when eyesight issues forced him to be medically discharged after basic training.
With no military career and associated educational prospects, Mickey writes of his experiences over the next couple of years visiting Fire Island and frequenting New York’s famous gender bending 82 Club, featuring female impersonators and “male” waiters and bartenders who were actually women dressed like men.
After traveling and, “trying to find myself, and where I fit in with this new gay world,” at age 22, Mickey hopped off the bus at the downtown KC Greyhound station in 1968, “found a cheap room to let, and set-off to explore the city.” He found employment as a waiter at the Owl Club, a private gentlemen’s club within the Kansas City Club.
He quickly navigated to KC’s preeminent gay bar, The Redhead Lounge, and “walked into a circular bar with loads of red material and glass beads hanging decorously against the draping with red, flocked wallpaper all around the room.”
A sign in the men’s room welcomed gays to the Westport Methodist Church and Mickey thought, “Where do you meet a nice boy? In church!” There, he was invited to the Phoenix House at the corner of Linwood Blvd and The Paseo, and to the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom’s upcoming gay pride picnic held at one of the member’s property in the countryside.
At the picnic that day, Mickey met, began dating, and soon moved into Phoenix House with his one and only life partner, Drew Robert Shafer.
“Ten years my senior, he was 6’2” of open joy, gentleness and kindness. His loving, doting, and totally supportive mother, Phyllis Shafer, was [at the picnic], too. The rest is HIStory!” Mickey followed Drew’s (and Phyllis’) footsteps as a gay rights activist for the Phoenix Society the summer before the June 1969 Stonewall Riots.
Three years prior in 1966, Phoenix, KC’s first gay rights organization, had been founded by Drew, the only child of Robert A. “Bob” and Phyllis Fay Shafer. Drew grew up in a white, middle-class, liberal family, where he “came out” as gay as a teenager. Drew’s mother, Phyllis, ran a boarding house, which was filled with Drew’s gay male friends, and they held dances in the basement and provided entertainment when there was no place else to go publicly at that time.
By the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, a couple of the local strip joint owners began to realize the money that could be made from gays in Kansas City who wanted a place to dance and party.
In a sense, Kansas City was ahead of its time as our gay bars were left alone by law enforcement since they were owned, operated and protected by straight, Italian families through the 1960s and early ’70s. Straight strip bars like the Yum Yum Club and Cat Ballou, and the gay clubs like The Jewel Box Lounge and The Colony Bar were all on the strip at Troost Ave between Linwood Blvd and 34th Street. The Arabian Nights opened [adjacent to the present day Costco shopping center in midtown], followed by The Redhead Lounge at 39th Street in the Westport.
As Mickey wrote, “Kansas City’s bar life at that time was pretty hopping….[they] even allowed men to slow dance in one another’s arms. Each club provided protection where gays felt safe to be themselves. To show the stark contrast in what was permissible or not, clubs in New York City, Chicago, and other more liberal cities totally banned touching on their gay clubs’ dance floors!
“Outside the bar scene, however, life was a very different story. Gays were not openly tolerated. Gay people did not even give out their last names, for fear of retribution in their families, in their places of work, or even worship. There were often muggings and intolerance by the still conservative element throughout the city. These increased as the gay establishments became more independent. Police harassment also occurred now and again, but not frequently or violently,” he explained.
In 1966, born out of need for a national coalition of gay and lesbian leaders, the National Planning Conference of Homophile Organizations (NPCHO) was established. This first-ever, truly national coalition of LGBT leaders met in February at the Hotel State (aka The Stats at the northeast corner of 12th and Wyandotte; since demolished) in downtown Kansas City. It was here that they decided, with the Vietnam War growing, to launch a national campaign to protest the exclusion of homosexuals by the U.S. Military.
NPCHO united and formed the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO, pronounced “NAy-KO”). Drew Shafer, Al Greathouse, and Larry Hungerford joined 36 others from 14 organizations from across the country. Soon thereafter, Drew, “aware of the ‘gay movement,’ and that ‘being gay’ was much more than just a nightlife lifestyle,” co-founded Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom.
In August 1966, at the second meeting of NACHO, organizers decided to form a national clearinghouse of gay and lesbian publications. Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom in Kansas City was selected as the home and operator of the “Homophile Clearinghouse.”
The story continues in the next installment. Meanwhile, a GoFundMe campaign is also underway to bring Mickey to KC in October. https://www.gofundme.com/
David W. Jackson is co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) and activist/archivist for The Orderly Pack Rat (orderlypackrat.com). Phyllis Shafer’s scrapbooks, Mickey Ray’s recollections, and MANY other donated materials are preserved in GLAMA collections.
To donate to GLAMA, visit glama.us, call 816-235-5712, or mail your items to: GLAMA, c/o LaBudde Special Collections, 326 Miller Nichols Library, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 800 E 51st St., Kansas City, MO 64110.