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The Gateway to pride Exhibit includes several pieces of the city's history including this rainbow St. Louis flag with sigantures from 2012 PrideFest at Tower Grove Park. Photo courtesy of Missouri Historical Society Collections

Missouri's LGBTQ+ community is often left out of history. A new effort fights to preserve it

ST. LOUIS – Steven Louis Brawley still remembers the first year St. Louis PrideFest officially moved downtown, and the man who came up to him in tears.

It was 2013, and "I have this guy who's crying on my shoulder and I'm kind of like, taken aback going, 'Okay, who is this?'" Brawley, founder of the St. Louis LGBT History Project, told the PBS NewsHour.

Brawley later found out that the person who was so emotional that day had created one of the posters for St. Louis PrideFest back in the 1980's.

"He goes … at the first Pride in 1980, people came and a lot of them wore masks and disguises because they were afraid to be seen in public, they were afraid they would be fired from their jobs, they were afraid of their families finding out," Brawley said as he became emotional himself. "He goes, 'Today … I walked down the main street without a mask.'"

Brawley has spent more than a decade collecting and preserving stories like these – many of which are now being shared more widely by the Gateway to Pride, a virtual exhibit debuting this year from the Missouri Historical Society and other community partners.

The new online exhibit is the first iteration of a far bigger initiative to launch an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum in 2024. For Brawley, who's been collecting LGBTQ+ history for years, the goal is for people to walk away with three things: empathy, understanding and the ability to become more of an ally."

"There's going to be thousands of people who come to this exhibit and they're going to see these items and hopefully some people will walk away, who are in the community, very proud and then people who may not have exposure to the community walk away saying, 'I learned something,'" he said.

An itinerary of events for the first ever St. Louis Pride celebration week,, which took place in April 1980. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Visitors who arrive at its main page, are welcomed with the opportunity to comb through recorded oral histories, a timeline of LGBTQ+ history in St. Louis and collections of photos, art and artifacts illustrating stories across different time periods. Displayed prominently on many of the pages are five yellow words that Sam Moore, managing director of public history for the Missouri Historical Society, said is really the core of the exhibit's purpose: "Share your story with us."

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"These are stories that often get lost in the shuffle or have gotten lost in the shuffle," he said. "We're really committed to this idea that … all St. Louisans deserve to have their story told, and that includes LGBTQIA+ St. Louis."

'Nothing more powerful than an oral history'

One of the highlights of the exhibit, Moore noted, is a page where visitors can listen to firsthand accounts from the people who lived through historical events – the people who made them.

"There is nothing more powerful than an oral history, to be quite honest with you, and objects can tell you incredible stories. But there is something to hearing a person's story from that person's mouth and being able to share that. It humanizes the story. It makes it incredibly personal, and these are valuable," he said.

The first person in the lineup of narratives is Jeanette Mott Oxford, often called J-MO for short, who is agender and uses ze/zir/zirs pronouns.

"To have anyone consider you a pioneer worth interviewing is just a wild experience. That's not how most of us think of ourselves," ze told the NewsHour.

Oxford is in fact a pioneer. Ze is the first openly lesbian member of the Missouri state legislature. Ze was elected in 2004 and would go on to serve for eight years in the state's House of Representatives.

Since then, young people have approached Oxford and let zir know that they plan to run for office because of the barriers ze broke down. And while those moments feel "wonderful," Oxford told the NewsHour that ze never intended to go out and make history, but instead, to stay true to who ze was and who ze wanted to be.

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"Every decision point in my life has been: How can I be faithful to who I am? How can I follow my heart? How can I be honest about me?" ze said.

In 11 clips listed in the exhibit, Oxford shares what it was like to come out while in seminary, how life for LGBTQIA+ people has evolved and what involvement in lesbian and gay activism as a student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in the 1980s was like. Oxford also speaks on barriers ze has overcome, and zir wedding to zir longtime partner Dorothy in Illinois before it was legalized in Missouri, among other chapters of zir life.

This 1936 photo from the Gateway to Pride exhibit shows men dressed as female performers at the Mabel Thorpe Cocktail Lounge. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society Collections.

The stories Oxford recorded will live on with the Missouri Historical Society, and when people from all over listen to zir words, all ze wants is for them to walk away with a fuller picture of different lived experiences.

"There's so many hidden histories that people don't know about, so I want them to recognize that there's been a lot of courage and a lot of beauty happening that had been invisible to them before," ze said. "If you go to a museum to learn something about what people have gone through, it may help you spot some lies that you were told."

Oxford's voice is accompanied by those of other important figures, including Sharon Love, a Black trans woman who has been a leader in advocating for the trans community in St. Louis. There are also words from Dr. David Prelutsky, a physician who was at the forefront of treating people with HIV in St. Louis, who described the pushback he received at a medical practice he worked for while treating HIV patients — and what he decided to do about it.

"I actually moved upstairs from them and started my own practice 30 days later [after quitting] and it was the best thing I ever did, as far as my career and for the gay community and the HIV community," Prelutsky said in one of the clips. "The practice snowballed from there and I was able to practice medicine without picking and choosing the diseases I wanted to take care of, which I think is horrid and despicable."

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Lastly, there's the voice and story of Catherine Hunt, who came out as a lesbian while attending college in Springfield, Missouri and lent her voice as a lesbian feminist activist in St. Louis.

Moore at the Missouri Historical Society said having all of these people's lives recorded is vital not only to documenting history, but to ensuring the work of people and changemakers such as Oxford, Love, Prelutsky and Hunt, aren't lost to time.

"Everyone deserves to have their stories told," he said, noting that St. Louis history is LGBTQ history. "There is a community here today and has been a community here historically that has made history, making contributions to the narrative of queer rights in the United States, to the narrative of LGBTQIA+ culture in the St. Louis region."

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