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ACLU-MO History Spotlight: LGBTQ+ Equity

LGBTQ+ Equity

In 1972, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri’s new executive director, Joyce Armstrong, prioritized building relationships with local gay and lesbian groups. She spoke to the Mandrake Society, St. Louis’ first gay rights or “homophile” organization, and coordinated with leaders at the gay- and lesbian-focused Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).

Typed letter from Christopher Morgan of the Mandrake Society writing to the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, 1972. The letter reads: Dear Sirs, Noticed your article in your January issue about the test of the Masquerading law in St. Louis by Leonard Kaplan. Our group would be very interested in following this case and others like as we are a Homophile Organization. We are presently attempting to start a legal reform movement within the state in referece to laws dealing directly with homosexuality. woul greatly appreciate any assistance and or advice you might give us. Best wishes for a successful court date. Sincerely,  Christopher Morgan.
Christopher Morgan of the Mandrake Society writes to the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, 1972. From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355) series 3, box 36, sexual privacy – homosexuality, 1971-79.

Soon, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri (as it was then called) began researching specific instances of discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer people in community. Two of the largest cases were ending laws against cross-dressing in St. Louis city, and ensuring gay students could have the opportunity to organize at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Typed letter from Galen Moon of MMC to Joyce Armstrong, 1975. The letter is five paragraphs long and informs Ms. Armstrong that they have a base of operation, a church and activity home at 5108 Waterman Ave. With this base, Moon would like to continue their individual membership in ACLU and has included a $50 check towards this membership. The letter goes on to make a personal request for Ms. Armstrong to participate in a Rap Group Committee session. The group is interested in garnering Ms. Armstrong's attendance because "attendance is predominately male right now and they feel that females will begin taking more interest if the programs and topics are oriented in that direction part of the time."
Galen Moon of MCC writes to Joyce Armstrong, 1975. From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355) series 3, box 36, sexual privacy – homosexuality, 1971-79.

Cross-Dressing Ordinance

Since 1843, St. Louis city law classified someone appearing “in a dress not belonging to their sex” as a misdemeanor. By the 20th century, police routinely used this “masquerading” law to harass gender-nonconforming people.

Cover of the Riverfront Times newspaper from March 1985. The headline reads: "All Dressed Up with No Place to Go." From the ACLU-MO Records wua00355) series 3, box 9.
“All dressed up with No Place to Go” reads the headline of the Riverfront Times in 1985. From the ACLU-MO Records wua00355) series 3, box 9

Actions, 1972–1986

The ACLU took Goldstein Johnson’s case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Johnson, a young African American, was arrested several times for wearing wigs, shoes with heels, “a long suede bag and a three quarter length fur coat.” Tragically, the case was dismissed when Johnson was shot dead outside a bar in 1972.

A second case was built in the 1980s, when the ACLU helped three more individuals file suit: Michael Shreves, charged for drag performances at Uncle Marvin’s bar, and two others who remained anonymous (“D.D.” and “D.C.”), arrested wearing women’s clothing in public, although their official IDs stated male.

The ACLU showed that the law was not enforced regularly or evenly. Performances such as Torch Song Trilogy at the Muny or a concert by Prince at the Arena clearly violated this law, but faced no charges. Popular events like the annual Central West End Halloween party included many men wearing dresses—the St. Louis mayor was even pictured in the newspaper posing with several men dressed as The Supremes. Instead, the law was used by police to harass the behavior and actions of people who did not conform to expected gender norms while in public.

The “masquerading” law was finally ruled unconstitutional in 1986.

List of performances and theater program from The Muny given as evidence showing that the cross-dressing ordinance was selectively applied and used for harassment of people who did not conform to expected gender norms while in public.
Evidence presented showing that the law was selectively applied and used for harassment of people who did not conform to expected gender norms while in public.
From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), series 3, box 9

‘Gay Lib’ Student Group

In 1971, students at the University of Missouri-Columbia formed a club to discuss gay and lesbian life. They asked for recognition as an official campus group. After three years of rejection by the university, the students sought help from the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.

Court documents and newspaper clipping; select the image for a PDF of the documents.
[CLICK image for a PDF of the documents]
Court documents and “High Court Upholds Gay Lib Ruling” Columbia, Missouri, newspaper article.
From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355) series 3, box 18

Actions, 1974–1979

On March 29, 1974, Gay Lib v. University of Missouri was filed in US District Court. In 1977, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the students, stating “it was a violation of the members’ rights to freedom of speech and association and equal protection under the law.” The Supreme Court declined the university’s request for further appeal.

Contemporary Efforts

The ACLU of Missouri continues to “ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people can live openly without discrimination and enjoy equal rights, personal autonomy, and freedom of expression and association.” A key court case, Barrier v. Vasterling, was won in October 2014, ensuring that same-sex marriages from other states would be recognized in Missouri. In 2018, the ACLU Transgender Education and Advocacy Program was launched in Missouri.

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ACLU-MO @ 100

This post is part of a series in recognition of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri’s centennial year (1920-2020).

If you have a question about this post or other topics related to St. Louis history, I can be reached at mrectenwald@wustl.edu or on Twitter: @mrectenwald.