50 Years Ago, A Kansas City Meeting Laid The Groundwork For The Gay Rights Movement

Feb 25, 2016

Was the State Hotel at 12th Street and Wyandotte the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement?
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

The now-infamous Stonewall Riots in 1969 -- when gay people fought back against a police raid on a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York --  is widely viewed as a major turning point in United States gay history, a moment that defined and established the gay and lesbian rights movement as we know it today.

But the real foundational moment may have been a quiet meeting here in Kansas City. It flew under most people's radar at the time, and remains a relatively unknown historical event even today.

Three years before Stonewall -- in 1966 --  the first meeting of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, or NACHO (don't pronounce it like the chip dish smothered in cheese; it's pronounced NAY-KOE) took place at the State Hotel on 12th and Wyandotte. 

"It was the first ever gathering of gay and lesbian civil rights leaders from different organizations across the country," says Stuart Hinds, assistant dean of Special Collections at UMKC's Miller Nichols Library and curator of GLAMA, the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America.

The 40 people in attendance would eventually become the pillars of the early gay and lesbian rights movement.

The idea was to agree on a cohesive agenda. Representing a small but growing number of gay rights organizations on the east and west coasts, attendees chose Kansas City as an ideal place to meet in the middle. Coming together geographically turned out to be much simpler than doing the same philosophically.

"This was the first time they'd ever gotten together in person and of course at this point, correspondence is largely by letter or telegram, so they'd never really had the opportunity to get the sense of what these other folks were like," Hinds says. 

The meeting minutes reveal a rift between a radical East Coast contingency, and a more conservative West Coast approach.

"Some of the issues the more militant wing were looking at were things like homosexuals are just the same as heterosexuals, homosexuals aren't sick, homosexuals aren't perverted. And the conservative folks really didn't want that language in this original documentation of this umbrella organization," Hinds says. "They felt they needed to secure the permission of leaders of authority, people in the church, in the psychiatric community, in the government. Once they got that acceptance, other acceptance would follow."

The group ultimately focused on the right to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. That year, on Armed Forces Day, each of the organizations held a conference. 

Although this may seem like a victory for the more conservative camp at the meeting, the next few years would prove pivotal; the then-radical view that the humanity of gay and lesbian Americans should be part of the movement gained momentum as the 1960s progressed.

"The more militant folks tend to get the upper hand and they are aided by a generational shift," according to Hines. "Most of the conservative folks were older, and you start to see the presence of young students in these organizations pushing that same militant agenda that results in Stonewall."

A series of events commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the NACHO meeting is planned for October of this year and will include major national guest speakers.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard, a daily talk show. You can reach her on Twitter @GinaKCUR