Phoenix Society was Kansas City’s first gay organization
by STUART L. HINDS
With the founding of the Mattachine Society in 1950 in Los Angeles and the Daughters of Bilitis fi ve years later in San Francisco, the gay and lesbian community in the United States set out in an organized fashion to secure the rights due to them as citizens. A decade later Kansas City joined the burgeoning movement with the founding of the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom. New research into the collections of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America coupled with oral histories from elderly community members have shed new light and fresh interpretations on this important chapter of Kansas City’s LGBT history.
Over the course of the 20th century, being “gay” in Kansas City has assumed many forms, with varying degrees of visibility. Interviews with gay and lesbian Kansas Citians reveal a thriving subculture that became increasingly active immediately following World War II. Persons seeking same-sex partners seem to have had limited but effective means of meeting and socializing: house parties, public trysts and the like, but they still lived in nearly perpetual fear of being “found out” by discriminatory families and bosses, and of being made homeless, fi red or jailed.
As the LGBT civil rights groups gained a footing on the coasts, and news about their work spread across the country, what developed was a growing consciousness of a common identity. At a time when being homosexual was still considered a serious mental illness by the psychiatric community, these groups fought this and other negative notions. Describing themselves as “homophile,” they tried to steer minds away from identifying people in terms of sexual practice, and more as oppressed citizens who were “just like everyone else.”
As the groups flourished across the country, there was a need to come together on a national scale in an effort to become better organized and more efficient. Owing largely to its central location, Kansas City in February of 1966 served as the site of the first-ever national planning meeting of representatives of these groups from across the United States. Not only did this planning meeting result in the first North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO), it also gave rise to the establishment of the Phoenix Society. Early in 1966, a group of dedicated gay and lesbian Kansas Citians formed a local chapter of One, Inc., a national rights organization formed as an offshoot of the Mattachine Society. However, the structure of One forced the Kansas Citians to relinquish a significant level of local control over their activities and their finances to a degree that was unpalatable. So, after the planning conference, they reorganized themselves on March 13, 1966, as the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom, with a membership of about 15. The president of Phoenix was Drew Shaffer, who would be the primary fi gure associated with Phoenix over the course of its five-year existence.
Shaffer, an outgoing and social man, was a model leader for Phoenix. Out at 21, he was unafraid to use his real name in conjunction with the Society at a time when most members used pseudonyms. He regularly appeared on radio and television programs to promote the activities of the group and issues of the community. But perhaps most important, he was organized and efficient, with a knack for bringing people together to achieve common goals.
One of these objectives was the dissemination of information. Shaffer’s father had been employed as a printer at various local companies and had his own printing equipment, and he generously provided his son access to not only the machinery but also his professional skills. In turn, this led to the creation of both a regularly-issued newsletter from the Phoenix Society as well as occasional publications on topics of interest. Moreover, the availability of the press enabled the Phoenix Society to fill a role on the national scene – the Society became the central publication and distribution center for the American homophile movement during this period.
In its own newsletter – originally entitled Phoenix News and Views, later simply The Phoenix – the issues, concerns, and editorial stances addressed by Society members echo those reflected in similar publications from other American homophile organizations. These included questioning the armed forces’ ban on homosexual members, an ongoing dialogue with the religious community, practical advice to use in case of arrest, homosexual marriage, debate around the notion of homosexuality as a mental disease, updates from various regional and national conferences, local and national news, and Society business.
Like most civil rights organizations, the Phoenix Society experienced a regular ebb and fl ow of membership, but it was stable enough over time that by March of 1968 the Phoenix House was established. Situated on the southeast corner of Linwood Boulevard and the Paseo, Phoenix House served dual roles as both a community center and a headquarters for the Society. The two-story structure featured offices for the president and secretary, a library and publication room, and a general workroom for handling and distribution of magazines and pamphlets as they came off the printing press, which was in the basement. The second story housed apartments, which were rented in order to meet the costs of owning the building.
UMKC history graduate student Kevin Scharlau recently completed an intensive examination of this period and of the Phoenix Society, and he asserts that with the establishment of Phoenix House, the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom was reaching a level of activity that was unsustainable – “Phoenix was simply taking on too much, too quickly.” At a time when the Society was experiencing enormous success locally, Shaffer and other leaders simultaneously wanted to expand their presence on the national scene. Indeed, they agreed to organize at the last minute a second Kansas City-based conference for NACHO. In August of 1969, the conference was held at the Bellerive Hotel on Armour Boulevard, hosting 40 delegates from across the country.
Of course, by this time, the Stonewall Riots had occurred in New York City, and the tone of the gay rights movement had forever been changed. A new generation of activists demanded their rights with a greater militant stridence than had ever been seen by their homophile predecessors. These developments, coupled with ongoing serious fi nancial issues within the organization, signaled the end of the Phoenix Society – by 1971 it was gone, and Shaffer was $50,000 in debt. But his legacy is far richer. The Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom blazed a path for the numerous gay and lesbian rights organizations that emerged throughout the following decades in Kansas City, and, as a result, Drew Shaffer should long be remembered as a Kansas City civil rights pioneer.
Stuart L. Hinds is the head of the LaBudde Special Collections at UMKC and one of the founders of GLAMA, the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America.