The University of Missouri – Kansas City has taken big steps in recent years to be more welcoming to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and sexually-questioning students and staff.
Like a lot of universities, the school now considers diversity and inclusion to be a mission, right alongside educating students. But there hasn't always been an attitude of acceptance at UMKC.
Students at the university fought hard for LGBT rights, and the resulting legal victory influenced campuses around the country.
Welcome to UMKC, 2013
On the second day of classes this fall, a pair of drag queens lead karaoke for a group of UMKC students in the student union. They take turns at the mic, singing along with party songs or slow jams while the audience cheers. One audience favorite grinds his hips while serenading a laughing young woman.
It’s a welcome activity sponsored by the student activities group called LGBTQIA.
"That's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and ally — the 'q' can also stand for questioning and the 'a' can also stand for asexual," says Jonathan Pryor, programs and services coordinator for the LGBTQIA, which is celebrating its tenth year.
The group sponsors lots of on-campus activities, but they are just the start of what UMKC has done for the LGBT community in recent years.
Same-sex partner benefits for staff and faculty, gender neutral bathrooms, a full-time programs coordinator and three different scholarships.
Campus Pride, which rates universities on gay-friendliness, gives UMKC 4.5 of 5 stars. The programs are
also attracting the attention of students, like Kalaa Wilkerson.
"That is one of the reasons why I came to campus, was for the organization," she says.
But wait. How did all this happen at UMKC?
After all, it’s small state school in part of the country that’s not known to be especially socially progressive. Changing cultural attitudes probably have a lot to do with the gay-friendly policies, but long before Anderson Cooper or Will and Grace or NBA player Jason Collins, it took a fight to get a gay and lesbian group on campus.
The Struggle For Recognition
The school’s hidden gay history has long fascinated faculty and alumni like film professor Tom Poe, librarian Stuart Hinds and Ross Freese, who leads gay and lesbian history tours.
They recall the story, which started in 1971.
"There was a student group that ended up calling themselves 'The Gay People's Union," says Poe. "They were claiming that they wanted to be like a study group that could have speakers come in that could simply discuss issues around gay rights."
"They wanted to be able to use facilities on campus and get campus funding, like you know, other student groups," says Freese.
Poe says they asked to have their group recognized as an official student group at UMKC.
"And the administration said 'no way,'" says Poe.
Actually, the language from the University was a little stronger than that. In 1973, the University of Missouri Board of Curators rejected both the Gay People’s Union and a similar group at MU called Gay Lib. It said that recognizing these groups would lead to increased violations of the state’s sodomy laws.
Stuart Hinds of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid America explains the resolution passed by the Board.
"Officials found that were Gay Lib to be recognized formally that would 'expand an abnormal way of life; turn latent homosexuals into overt ones, and enable the sick and abnormal to counsel others who are similarly ill and abnormal'" says Hinds.
They also used language calling the students criminals and mentally ill.
The activities that they were undertaking were considered socially repugnant, says Hinds.
"Recognition would deem homosexuality as normal behavior rather than causing homosexuals to seek medical treatment for the medical illness of homosexuality," he says.
That same year, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association actually declassified homosexuality as a mental illness.
"So the two student groups went together and sued the whole University of Missouri system," says film professor Tom Poe.
The premise: denial of their rights to freedom of assembly and free speech guaranteed by the Constitution.
"The gay groups lost in all those early battles," says Freese. "But they took it on up to the federal court of appeals, I think it was the eighth district, and loe-and-behold they won."
The Federal 8th District Court of Appeals ruled the University of Missouri had to allow gay and lesbian UMKC and MU-Columbia their supporters to meet in the campus union. The decision also required the universities to provide funding.
The court issued its ruling on Gay Lib vs University of Missouri in 1977. But that wasn’t quite the end of the legal battle.
The university decides to take it to the Supreme Court in 1977," says Hinds. "But, ultimately they decided not to formally hear the case. The university, again, repetitions the Supreme Court, and once again they are turned down in April of the following year."
And because of that lawsuit, says Freese, gay groups around the country in institutions of higher learning could be recognized, legally recognized as legitimate student groups.
"And it is all because of the gay group at Mizzou and the gay group here at UMKC," he says.
It was not the first federal case over gay student groups, but it was an influential one. The case was cited in later decisions that allowed gay student groups in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
At UMKC, the Gay People’s Union finally became an official student group. But then something surprising happened. By the 1980s, after spending most of a decade trying to get recognized, the LGBT group at UMKC disappeared. Because no one stepped up to lead, there was no gay or lesbian group on campus for about 10 years.
A New Future
Finally in 1990, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance was formed, that was followed by the Queer Alliance and the
Pride Alliance, which is still around today.
UMKC formed the LGBTQIA seperatly as part of student affairs in 2003.
A couple of days after the karaoke, the LGBTQIA held its welcome ice cream social in the quad. Hundreds of students turned out to show support, or at least get free ice cream. It is an attempt to take on what Tom Poe believes is the groups biggest new challenge — making sure LGBT is for everyone.
"I do think the one thing that still happens, is that all these centers — it could be true of the Women's Center, or the African-American House, is that while necessary, they do kind of segregate," says Poe.
"I find that sometimes in curriculum. If you have a class on say, LGBT representations in media, well that could be of interest to gay students, but if I am a straight student why would I take that class?"
Poe says it is going to be important to keep the centers and services, but also to integrate those services and topics into the wider campus community.
UMKC is still expanding services for LGBT faculty, staff and students. Jonathan Pryor says the university is now exploring a preferred name policy for transgender students and gender-neutral housing.