Steven Louis Brawley still remembers the first year that St. Louis PrideFest officially moved downtown, and the man who came to him crying. It was a momentous occasion for the LGBTQIA+ community in Central Missouri, and it marked the beginning of a new era of acceptance and visibility. Since then, young people have approached Steven Oxford, the first openly lesbian member of the Missouri state legislature, and let him know that they are planning to run for office because of the barriers he has broken down.
An exhibition highlighting the history of LGBT rights in Central Missouri features 11 clips of Oxford sharing his experience coming out of the closet while at the seminar, how the lives of LGBTQIA+ people have evolved, and what their participation in lesbian and gay activism was like as a student at Southern Illinois Carbondale University in the 1980s. Oxford's story is accompanied by that of other important figures, such as Sharon Love, a black trans woman who has been a leader in defending the trans community in St. Louis, and Dr. David Prelutsky, a doctor who was at the forefront of treating people with HIV in St.
Louis. There is also 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. The history of LGBT rights in Central Missouri goes back much further than PrideFest. On December 15, 1950, the Hoey committee released a report concluding that homosexuals were unfit for employment in the Federal Government and constituted a security risk in positions of public trust.
This was part of a larger Red Scare during which thousands of gay employees were fired or forced to quit the federal workforce because of their sexuality. This wave of repression was also linked to anti-communism and fueled by the power of congressional research. The purge followed an era in which gay people were increasingly meeting and forming communities in urban areas of the United States. During World War II, many men and women left the restrictions of rural or small-town life for the first time. After the war, young people arrived in cities, where density and anonymity made the search for same-sex relationships more possible than ever. By the late 1940s, even the general public was becoming more aware of homosexuality due to Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948. However, this publicity did not make homosexuality more acceptable, in part because virtually no gay person was open about their sexuality.
In addition, the country was mired in a more widespread panic over sexual crimes, triggered by a few highly publicized cases. In this context, increased public awareness of homosexuality coincided with growing unrest and, in many parts of the country, with an increase in official repression. This was undoubtedly true in Washington DC where Senator Joseph McCarthy's rhetoric explicitly associated communists and gays, turning the slow ardor of repression into a firestorm. On February 9th 1950 McCarthy gave his now famous speech claiming to have a list of 205 known communists who worked in the State Department. On February 20th McCarthy spoke at length in the Senate offering more details about some of these people this time characterizing them more broadly as unsafe risks. Two cases concerned homosexuality. A little more than a week later Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Peurifoy testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee revealing that 91 homosexual employees had been dismissed as security risks due to stricter security controls established by The State Department. Political rhetoric increasingly linked communists and homosexuals as both were thought to be morally weak or psychologically disturbed; both were viewed as atheists; both supposedly undermined traditional family values; both were supposed to recruit; and both were shady figures with secret subcultures. The fear of lavender lasted much longer than The Red Scare and directly affected many more lives but it has taken much longer to gain a foothold in public consciousness.
Today LGBT rights are slowly but surely gaining ground throughout Central Missouri thanks to pioneers like Steven Oxford who have broken down barriers and paved the way for future generations.