Interview: Founder of LGBT History Project Talks 'A History of Queer' at PHD Gallery

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Steven Brawley began collecting LGBT memorabilia in 2007 as a way to “capture the stories of the LGBT elders.” The effort quickly became the St. Louis LGBT History Project, and the collection, which originally consisted of mostly papers, has now grown to include a range of physical objects from Pride buttons to drag queen dresses. Many items from the collection are featured in “The History of Queer,” the current exhibit at PHD gallery on Cherokee Street, and it might be the last time the public has the opportunity to see the items for some time. Following the exhibit, the artifacts will go into storage at the Missouri History Museum, possibly for years before again seeing the light of day.

Gypsy Lee and feather mannequin.  Courtesy of LGBT History Project

Gypsy Lee and feather mannequin.
Courtesy of LGBT History Project

The LGBT History Project will have a presence in the “250 in 250” exhibit at the Missouri History Museum—which celebrates St. Louis’ 250th Anniversary. But the project won’t just be represented by these items. Instead, the LGBT History Project will be represented in the “Voices from the Past” audio section in an oral retelling of St. Louis’ version of Stonewall, where nine men were arrested in 1969 for violation of “masquerade laws” by dressing in drag. The community rallied around the men to get them released from jail.

Lesbian clock  Courtesy of LGBT History Project

Lesbian clock
Courtesy of LGBT History Project

ALIVE caught up with Brawley to find out about the founding of the LGBT History Project, what the “History of Queer” exhibit is all about, and Cher-inspired Indian drag queen costumes.

ALIVE: When and why did you begin the LGBT History Project?

Steven Brawley: It started in 2007 as an effort to capture the stories of the LGBT elders that were dying off. Over the years I would meet folks and they would tell me a story. And I thought I should write that down or tape record that, and the next thing you’d know is they would be gone. After doing that for a couple of years, I decided I needed to get serious about this. So in 2007 I started a blog about the history of LGBT in St. Louis and it’s evolved greatly from there.

ALIVE: What will people see at the exhibit?

SB: They will see a very well-rounded view of LGBT past with focus on social activities, political action, activism, religion and literary works. The goal of the exhibit is to provide a look at life at a 180-degree angle; a real thoughtful look at what life may have been like —whether they lived in the shadows quietly or they were activists who were much more vocal about being gay—when it wasn’t acceptable to be gay publicly back in the 50s and moving forward into the 70s.

Lady Charles and dress Courtesy of LGBT History Project

Lady Charles and dress
Courtesy of LGBT History Project

ALIVE: What sort of physical items will be on display?

SB: We have a really cool collection. We’ve been collecting things over the years. We used to collect papers like flyers and things. But now we have buttons from all the Pride festivals. We have drag queen outfits; we have leather vests, books written by LBGT authors, and we have a same-sex union announcement from 1974. Then there’s bar matchbooks, photos from sports teams and photos from the Gay Men’s Chorus. We have a great bar clock. Each of the things has a huge story in and of itself. It’s a look into these little vignettes of what life was like.

ALIVE: You obviously understood the need to begin collecting these items. Did you have any sense that the collection would be shown as art?

SB: Yes we did. The issue became clear after we started as far back as 2007. People would say, you know, I’ve got this stuff at home and I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t want to throw it away, and if I pass on my family will probably throw it away or it will go into a garage sale. That’s why we’ve partnered with various organizations such as the State Historical Society of Missouri—which is a fancy name for the UMSL archives—and now we are partnering with the Missouri History Museum. That partnership is just emerging. So as we started collecting actual things, we knew we had to find a home. We’ve been working with the UMSL archives for several years, and now with the History Museum, which can handle 3-D object better than a library can. We knew we had to find a place to put dresses and buttons and large-scale items that you can touch and feel.

Blue Max Vest Courtesy LGBT History Project

Blue Max Vest
Courtesy LGBT History Project

ALIVE: Now that you’ve had a chance to put together some of your collection in the art context, how do you feel it worked out?

SB: The show at PHD gallery is a natural fit, combining the history with art. If you look at some of the items, like a Cher-inspired Indian drag queen outfit, it’s a piece of art. It’s got feathers and beads and it’s intricately put together. In and of itself, it could stand in any sort of art museum, yet it has several layers of interest, whether it’s costume or drag queen history or history of fashion. When you see these items assembled, it is an art collection. It just happens to be an art collection that has a ton of history behind it.

ALIVE: Do you have a favorite item?

SB: That’s a tough one. One that stands out is the 1974 wedding announcement. I find it very touching. To actually have it and be able to hold, these announcements that went out celebrating the union of these two women—there’s a lot of emotion in that piece. There’s activism, there’s politics, there’s religion—you name it—all wrapped up in this piece of paper.

ALIVE: What is the most controversial item?

SB: I guess that would depend on whether you’re male or female. One interesting piece is a Forest Park Cruising map. It’s very interesting. It’s like, wow, a map that showed you how to cruise Forest Park. That was from 1975 from one of the local bar magazines.

“A History of Queer” runs through March 1, 2014. For more information, visit the PHD Gallery website.

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