St. Louis Celebrates Pride Citywide
St. Louis truly knows how to roll out the rainbow carpet for its annual summertime Pride celebrations. (Yes, “celebrations,” plural.)
We’ve got what’s generally considered one of the region’s largest celebrations of the LGBTQIA community in PrideFest, which takes over our beautiful and photogenic downtown (hello, ‘Gram-friendly Arch!) as well as the smaller and more DIY Tower Grove Pride in the urban wilds of Tower Grove Park. Both take place the last weekend in June.
We also have smaller and more regional celebrations like Metro East PrideFest, which is the early-June kickoff to Pride season; Pride St. Charles the weekend before PrideFest and Tower Grove Pride; and Black Pride St. Louis in August.
Beyond the parties and the parades for this 50th anniversary of Stonewall, though, there’s a thriving LGBTQIA community and a rich history worth getting to know, spread out across the city’s many vibrant neighborhoods. It probably isn’t possible to fit it all into a single weekend, but it might be fun to try.
Neighborhoods to know
For bar-hopping, The Grove neighborhood, centered around Manchester Avenue, is the city’s undisputed crown jewel. Tear up the dance floor at Attitudes Nightclub. The patio at Just John is the place to be on warm summer nights. Rehab Bar & Grill is a laid-back oasis with a full menu. For an artsy, theatrical vibe, head to The Monocle and the Emerald Room for a swanky place to take in a show, play or some risqué burlesque.
Deeper into South City, things get funky and friendly. The South Grand neighborhood—in addition to housing a whole world of ethnic restaurants—is home to spots like punk-rock dive bar CBGB for bands and strong drinks. On nearby Spring Avenue, the Grey Fox Pub hosts drag and cabaret events most nights, after its charmingly low-key happy hour. Bar PM and Hummel’s Pub are a mini-gayborhood in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Carondelet.
For breakfast or brunch the morning (or afternoon!) after, head back to South Grand. Rooster offers intriguing takes on morning fare. Each June, their large egg-shaped sign gets a rainbow makeover, welcoming Pride season with a flourish.
If you want activism alongside your brunch, check out MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse on Arsenal, right across from Tower Grove Park. For a quarter century, it’s been a welcoming spot for queers, community organizers, sober folks, vegetarians, vegans and those who just appreciate a great cup of java. The gender-inclusive restroom has a bulletin board full of queer events citywide.
Bookstores have always made for natural gathering spaces, and while the news about them can sometimes feel dire, St. Louis is home to many thriving ones. Left Bank Books in the Central West End is an absolute institution, queer-owned and independent since 1969. It hosts reading groups for gay men and lesbians as well as readings and big-name authors’ talks.
For a slightly different take on the idea of a bookstore, head back over to South Grand to visit Apotheosis Comics, a comic book shop with drinks, music, comedy shows and more. It’s a warm and welcoming spot for the discerning queer geek, with a tremendous selection of LGBTQIA titles front and center.
Highlights for history buffs
While the St. Louis here and now is full of life, we’re also serious history buffs. There has been continuous Pride activity in St. Louis since 1980, and activism and social life dating back even further. It’s a legacy we’re rightly quite proud of.
The St. Louis LGBT History Project is a staggering digital and physical repository of artifacts of queer struggles, milestones and regular life, lovingly collected and curated by Steven Louis Brawley. Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis is an interactive online map project by Washington University in St. Louis (and many community partners) that lets you virtually meander through time and space. And the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park boasts a small but interesting display on local LGBTQIA history, with bigger exhibitions planned in the years to come.
If you want to take a literal stroll through the past, you can’t do much better than Renegade STL. The tour company operated by self-proclaimed history nerds Amanda Ball Clark and Elizabeth Eikmann offers offbeat tours of the city, including its Queer St. Louis walking tour. (You can join a public one the weekend before Pride, on June 22. Or, with a group of three or more, book your own!)
“We use the lens of queer history, life, entertainment and activism in St. Louis for the past 100-plus years as a backdrop for wandering around downtown,” Eikmann says. “We look at how the city has been shaped by and influenced by queer life or queer individuals throughout history, and how we can see that history through a simple walk in 2019.”
Without a guide like Eikmann, you might never know that the part of Downtown around Busch Stadium used to be the locus of a gay bar scene, with about 10 bars, including one specifically for women—something present-day St. Louis doesn’t have.
“For a lot of queer people, especially in the 20th century, bars were a place of community, a safe space for socialization,” Eikmann says.
Beyond the bars, she says, at the corner of Pine and 11th streets once stood the Hotel Majestic, opened in 1914. It was there (after a name change to the De Soto Hotel) that legendary hairstylist Buddy Walton got his start, before his 1950 move to the Chase Park Plaza salon. Walton dressed the locks of entertainment and political royalty while living in a mansion on Lindell Boulevard openly with his longtime partner Sam Micotto.
The corner of Locust and Fifth was formerly home to the Mercantile Library, the oldest library west of the Mississippi. (It’s currently housed on the campus of University of Missouri St. Louis, and worth a visit all its own.) Queer icon Oscar Wilde visited St. Louis on his 1882 lecture tour and gave his talk at the Mercantile.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about the queer history of St. Louis without mentioning the Central West End—the city’s original gayborhood. Ian Darnell recently defended his doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a focus on sexuality, race and neighborhood change in 20thcentury St. Louis.
“Just strolling around the Central West End, for one thing, might give you some sense of what the neighborhood was like when it was the gayborhood,” he says, adding that to some extent it still is—he and his boyfriend live there in a building with plenty of other queer folks.
“If you know where to look, you can see the spaces where Tennessee Williams grew up and William S. Burroughs grew up,” he says. Peep the family home of playwright Williams at 4633 Westminster Place and the early-boyhood house of beat poet Burroughs at 4664 Pershing Place—neither is open for visitors, but nothing’s stopping you from looking.
The Mandrake Society, Darnell says, was the city’s first serious and successful gay and lesbian political group. It lent clout to the development of our Pride celebrations and came to the successful legal defense of nine young men arrested Halloween 1969 for masquerading, the then-criminal act of appearing in the garb of the opposite sex.
The Society first met in the Central West End, in the still-extant and still-affirming Trinity Episcopal Church. Beyond providing space without bigotry, the church supported the Mandrake Society financially, buying ad space in its newsletter, Darnell says.
While Pride is a party, it’s always worth remembering that it began with a fight. The riots at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 were a response to violent bigotry and hatred against queer folks. It might be a fitting end to your Pride weekend to spend some time in quiet reflection at the Transgender Memorial Garden of St. Louis. It’s a peaceful green space at the corner of Vandeventer and Hunt, just outside The Grove, meant to honor the lost lives of our transgender brothers and sisters.
With so much to see and do, you might just have to extend your tour!
Featured image courtesy of Apotheosis Comics.
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