By Ian Darnell
September 10, 2015: In August, the St. Louis LGBT History Project obtained historical records that officially document police raids on local gay bars. More than sixty years old, these previously unstudied sources offer a fascinating glimpse of gay nightlife in the 1950s. The records also shed light on the changing relationship between queer people and St. Louis's police.
It's not news that in decades past the police sometimes raided St. Louis's lesbian and gay bars. Older members of the local LGBT community have long told stories about these incidents. Up until now, however, the Project had been unable to locate any written records of these raids. Uncovering these documents was the result of many hours of detective work in several local archival collections, culminating with a Sunshine Law request to the Records Division of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
The records consist of three related police reports dated August 27, 1954. They detail a series of coordinated and apparently simultaneous raids conducted around midnight on three downtown bars. Two of these bars, the Entre Nous and Uncle John's, were located across the street from one another on the 600 block of Pine Street (parking garages now occupy the sites of both bars). The third bar, Al's, was located nearby at 115 North 9th Street (now on the site of AT&T Center skyscraper). We know that several other lesbian and gay bars were in operation in the St. Louis area at the time, but these do not seem to have been raided that night.
About one dozen law enforcement officials participated. The reports indicate that the police raided the bars because they "had received numerous complaints that homosexuals were frequenting [them]." It was against state liquor regulations for bar owners to allow "immoral persons to loiter on the premises" of their establishments. This provision effectively made it illegal to run a lesbian or gay bar. At the time, it was also illegal to have sex with a person of the same sex or to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex.
According to the reports, twenty-one people were arrested and taken to the district police station for questioning. These included the bartender at Al's and a man who played piano for customers at Uncle John's. In the reports, everyone who was arrested is listed as male. However, it is possible that some of the people arrested during the raids might not have been male, but instead were what we would think of today as trans women or genderqueers. We do know that some of the bars' customers wore makeup and had long, bleached-blond hair.
July 8, 2015: The Project thanks Dan Byington and Allen Irby for some great donations. Dan, former owner of The Drake, donated a wonderful jacket promoting the Complex. Allen, past President of Metro East Pride, provided a collection of items commemorating recent Metro East Pride events. You have something in your closet to donate? Let us know. Always on the hunt for great T-shirts and other items.
June 9, 2015: The St. Louis LGBT History Project will present a new exhibit at this year's St. Louis PrideFest set for June 27-28 in downtown St. Louis. This year, the Project will highlight the historic contributions and achievements of St. Louis' lesbian community.
From activists to artists to business leaders, the display will feature some newly uncovered images and documents. Special thanks to Lilly's Music and Social House for providing volunteers to assist in staffing the exhibit.
The Project's tent will be located near SAGE - behind the "viewing stands" near the wine garden (N. 15th Street and Chestnut Street). The Project thanks Pride St. Louis, Inc., for its ongoing support of the Project's annual PrideFest exhibit.
May 20, 2015: The Project thanks Audrey Miles for donating an amazing collection of St. Louis PFLAG items. Audrey and her late husband Tom served in leadership roles for PFLAG both locally and natiionally for many years. The items include photographs, brochures, news clippings, and local and national periodicals. Audrey was downsizing and a fellow PFLAG member suggested she donate the items to the Project - thus saving these materials from being lost forever. A close call. The Project hears way too many stories of history being thrown in dumpsters. Please join Audrey in donating your historic materials to the Project for long term preservation.