ABC will broadcast a four-part miniseries this week titled “When We Rise,” a history of the struggle for equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. The eight hours of prime-time, network, LGBT-related matter, which begins Monday, was created by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. It’s a historic television moment worth noting, especially given Kansas City’s role in the nation’s civil rights movements.
In March 1967, CBS aired “The Homosexuals,” which explored whether being gay was a physical or mental illness, moral crime or just another product of biological or physiological circumstances. At that time, Kansas City’s year-old Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom announced the program and printed in its Phoenix newsletter eight pages of quotations gathered from eminent psychologists, doctors and scientists dismissing the then commonly held belief that homosexuality was unnatural. Significantly, Phoenix cited Sigmund Freud: “It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too.”
In 1966, Phoenix had emerged as the city’s first LGBT organization after the first-ever national conference of LGBT organizations convened in downtown Kansas City. LGBT leaders from coast to coast began collaborating to confront homophobia, promote equality and educate. Three years later, the Stonewall riots in New York City kicked off the gay rights movement.
The 50-year anniversary of Kansas City’s role in the origin of this crusade was commemorated last fall with the dedication on Barney Allis Plaza of the city’s first historical LGBT-related marker.
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Clearly, times have and continue to change as society rises toward inclusivity. Kansas City has continued this progressive march, led in part by The Kansas City Star. In January 2015, The Star debuted The Phoenix: Kansas City’s LGBT Newsletter, which is inserted in Ink Magazine.
Today, our free press is vilified by some. Americans should uphold and cherish the right of quality, independent, objective, factual reporting guiding readers toward more informed conclusions, and evolve opinions and attitudes that strengthen our common good and unite, rather than erode our ideals and divide.
My research over the last decade uncovered many Star articles, features, opinions and guest columns written by local and syndicated contributors going back 50 years. They include more recent pieces by current staff members Mary Sanchez and Derek Donovan, both of whom are cited in my newest book, “Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s LGBTQIA History.”
“Changing Times,” like the miniseries “When We Rise,” is a retrospective whose time has come. The rich array of benchmarks presented in “Changing Times” includes a timeline, or almanac, stretching from 1812 to 2016, and includes Star articles dating to its origins in 1880. Perhaps the most popular section of this new book, for some, is a comprehensive census of gay and lesbian bars, community centers, friendly restaurants, and book and video stores dating from the 1930s to the present.
I hope viewers of “When We Rise” and readers of “Changing Times” may see how LGBT issues were reported over time; how punitive and discriminatory laws have been reversed; how Kansas City responded to the AIDS epidemic; how LGBT individuals and families have gained acceptance and overcome bias; and how public opinion has shifted to become more inclusive and compassionate of all minorities and more respectful of anyone “other.”
We are not there yet, but as times continue to change, may we rise to the occasion and choose inclusivity and defend our American ideal of true equality for all. Enjoy the show.
David W. Jackson is co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America.