NewsThe SouthSider

Original LGBTQIA events are vivid in participants’ memories

ST. LOUIS – Back in 1973, Dan White didn’t like it when a friend told him he wanted to hold a “Gay Parade.“

“Chuck, are you forgetting this is St. Louis? They will kill us,” he told his friend. 

More to the point, White was a local radio broadcaster and feared that being seen at such events could cost him his job. 

“My career would be over before it really began,” White wrote in a retrospective of those days.

Forty-eight years later, members of the area’s LGBTQIA community generally are less fearful about joining in to an event such as PrideFest.

But people such as Steven Brawley make sure that nobody forgets what those days were like. He’s the founder of the LGBT History Project in St. Louis. 

A Kirkwood resident, Brawley has chronicled numerous aspects of local LGBTQIA history, including the public gatherings that arose from the Stonewall Uprising in June 1969. Many believe that event, which began when New York City police raided a gay club called the Stonewall Inn, was the start of the movement for gay rights in the United States and the world.

A flyer for the 1980 Pride celebration.
Photo courtesy St. Louis LGBT History Project

Among those events was the Celebration of 1980, St. Louis Lesbian and Gay Pride.  The next year’s Celebration 81 was the start of the annual PrideFest celebration in St. Louis.

After canceling this year’s PrideFest, PrideSTL announced on Sunday that a modified version of it would be held Aug. 27-29 at Ballpark Village.

Brawley wasn’t involved in PrideFest until the end of the 1980s, but he remembers how different it was. 

“Being out was just not the same as it is today,” Brawley said. “People were afraid of being fired from their jobs, being harassed or beaten up.”

“Some people wore face makeup or covered their faces with masks,” Brawley said. “Some people were very out and not afraid. But there were a lot of people who were afraid of being seen on TV.”

Brandon Reid, president of PrideSTL, which sponsors PrideFest, said it was important to have people around who remembered the early days of the festival.

“Having a historical context will help us to make better decisions moving forward,” he said. 

Sandy Birenbaum had some different concerns when she served on a committee for an LGBTQIA event in the early 1980s. 

“I was trying to be proud of who we were, but yet I was still closeted,” Birenbaum explained. 

“I would want to be seen, but I wouldn’t want to be seen,” she said. “When I saw a camera, I would want to turn my head away.”

She came out to her employer when she gave a TV interview about her sexual orientation about 1983 or 1984.  But she didn’t come out to co-workers.  

“They advised that I probably should not do the interview, but I told them I was going to do it,” Birenbaum said. 

She wasn’t concerned about violence, but she did worry about being brushed aside and for her job. 

Looking back at the original events, Birenbaum said they had consisted of a parade and a picnic. The mayor issued a proclamation.

Today, Birenbaum has a mixed view of PrideFest: “They are bigger and commercial.”

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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