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Gay Life in the Queen City: A History Seldom Recorded

the normal heart
Photo credit: Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives, Meyer Library Special Collections

For our local history series, Sense of Place, we examine the pieces of the past that have formed the culture of Springfield and the Ozarks. For this installment, KSMU’s Emma Wilson explores recent writings on a lesser-told history of the area.

The history of marginalized groups is often difficult to research and retain as records. This was the challenge facing Missouri State University History Professor Dr. Holly Baggett, when she was approached to write an article about the history of Springfield’s gay and lesbian community for Springfield’s Urban Histories, a recently published collection of essays about local history.

“This is what historians call “social history”-the history of everyday people and writing about every-day people who, for the most part were trying to remain invisible was going to be a little tough,” says Baggett.

Oral histories, newspaper clippings, and letters provided much of the base for Baggett’s research, so the time span she covers focuses on the last half of the twentieth century. The article is titled The Creation of a Community: A History of Gay and Lesbian Springfield, 1945-2010.

“The good was, that there has always been a vibrant community here, since World War II, which surprised me”

In her research, she found that gay and lesbian men and women always found ways to get together, in earlier days, bars like the Rendezvous lounge in the Colonial Hotel or The Fox and Hound in the Kentwood arms were known as friendly places and became gathering spots.

Baggett says, “The bad part of it is a lot of people had bad experiences during those days. There were straight bars that would let people in but sometimes it would get a little ugly and people had to go running out, police taking down their license tags, etc.”

Jim House moved to Springfield in the Late 1950s from St. Louis to go to school, his was one of the oral histories used in Dr. Baggett’s article. He lived, closeted, in Springfield until the mid-‘70s.

“At Drury I was president of my fraternity and editor of the newspaper and really active on campus and in those days if you would’ve ‘come out,’ you would have been out. So I was really afraid.”

House says when he did ‘come out’ he was appalled at the lack of organization of the gay community.

“And I decided I would open a bar to give gay people a nice place to go. I opened a bar called Mister Jones which was where Martha’s is. It was small and intimate, but it was nice” says House.

The creation of Mister Jones was a starting point for further community organizing as much as it was a place to relax.

“In those days, you know, you had your own family…which were your gay friends, and they took the place of your real family, who generally weren’t accepting. I had a group of about twenty and we used to do everything together: float trips, camping out, parties, dinner, everything! And then when HIV hit and they just started getting picked off one by one. And I think of those 20 people, there may be three that are left that didn’t die in their early thirties or late thirties,” says House.

The AIDS Crisis hit hard in the Ozarks as it did across the country.

“I got to the point that I didn’t want to make friends because I knew if I made friends with someone they would die. It was that bad. I mean, you didn’t want to get too close to people because you’d lose them,” House says.

With the help of a visitor to Mister Jones who was impressed by the services offered for HIV-positive people in San Francisco, House started the AIDS Project of Springfield.

“It was kind of a rough go because people didn’t want to talk about it. The poor guy who came in and admitted he was HIV-positive was a customer at the bar and when people found out he had AIDS, man, they were like, ‘do you really sterilize his glasses, do you throw his glasses out, you should serve him in a paper cup, what if he uses the bathroom?’ Ignorant stuff. I thought, that’s what the AIDS project needs to do, is educate, particularly the gay population.”

Eventually the organization became AIDS Project of the Ozarks, which now has more than 30 employees working all in five locations across the region treating, testing, and distributing materials. The AIDS Crisis coming to Springfield had a community-wide impact and spurred community-wide support.

“It brought a lot of straight allies in, I think people started to realize how many gay people there were,” says House.

Despite that support, there were numerous road blocks. When APO first opened as AIDS Project of Springfield, House says, they had a hard time finding office spaces that would rent to them. Another incident that many remember is the 1989 backlash to the play, The Normal Heart. Local representative Jean Dixon opposed the play and led a petition drive and media campaign to try to convince then Southwest Missouri State President Marshall Gordon to cancel the play, Holly Baggett says.

“And that was a big to-do. And one of the students who [supported] the theater department had his house burned down and he was accused of Satanism, that he had done it himself. And this was on the Today Show. Often, some things that happened in Springfield ended up in the national news,” says Baggett.

Baggett says that in Springfield’s gay and lesbian community, the good and the bad have often been intertwined.

“Those events helped galvanize the community. People started to get politically organized and say ‘You know, we’ve got to let people know we’re here, and this is our home, too.”

The push to organize after the failed attempt to add sexual orientation to the city’s Biased Crimes Ordinance led to the creation of GLO.

“And today,[it]  is the only gay and lesbian community center open in the state of Missouri,” Baggett says.

This was another of Jim House’s organizing efforts. GLO is a resource and community center for the LGBT community that opened in 1997 and serves a variety of organizational functions. House says that the most important is having a safe place where young people can express themselves and realize a sense of community.

“So we’ve had hundreds of kids come through here and that, to me, makes it all worthwhile,” Says House

ForThe Creation of a Community article Baggett used many oral histories, including one recorded by Jim House. These histories are stored in the Ozarks Gay and Lesbian Archives in the Special Collections Department of the Meyer Library at Missouri State. This archive was created in 2003, and the idea was presented, in part, by Dr. Baggett. Anne Baker is the Archivist for Special Collections.

“Part of what we’re doing here, is not trying to document ancient history. We’re looking at what we can document now that will be needed a hundred years from now. So contemporary activities, we try to get newsletters that are still going out, the oral histories, quite a few of these people are younger, but their stories being told now will be very useful 50 years from now, a hundred years from now,” says Baker.

Much of the recorded history of Springfield’s LGBT community is very recent and as with most community histories will continue to be written and shaped by historians.

“More importantly, I would say, it has less to with the past than it does to do with the future, we’re not done yet,” Baggett says.

Not long after I interviewed her for this story, Holly Baggett won the 2013 MCH Award for Best Article on Missouri History from The State Historical Society of Missouri for her article in Springfield’s Urban Histories.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.

Photo credit: Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives, Meyer Library Special Collections Photo credit: Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives, Meyer Library Special Collections Photo credit: Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives, Meyer Library Special Collections Jean Dixon with SMSU President Gordon. Photo credit: Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives, Meyer Library Special Collections The Normal Heart. Photo credit: Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives, Meyer Library Special Collections Photo credit: Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives, Meyer Library Special Collections Student supporting The Normal Heart Production. Photo credit: Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives, Meyer Library Special Collections