Gay Old Times: It's LGBT history to us. To them, it was life.

Gay Old Times: It's LGBT history to us. To them, it was life.
This Jack Beal photo, archived on Steven Brawley's blog, shows the 1970s-'80s comedy drag trio Sex, Inc.

History can accumulate when we're not looking: a pack of matches from a bar that closed decades ago, sheet music from the cheeky songs we sang, the seemingly "boring" paperwork that implies so much more than it actually states.

Steven Brawley thinks so, anyway.

Brawley, 45, is a history buff and a blogger — and his blogs, not surprisingly, incorporate both his love for the past and his identity as a gay man in St. Louis. He's been detailing his obsession with Jackie O at for years.

Steven Brawley wants to preserve history, one bar matchbook at a time.
Jennifer Silverberg
Steven Brawley wants to preserve history, one bar matchbook at a time.
Richard Trennepohl, above, recalls partying and Pride events.
Jennifer Silverberg
Richard Trennepohl, above, recalls partying and Pride events.

And Brawley's one-year-old blog,, is the Internet repository of his latest passion: documenting the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender life in St. Louis. He's gathering artifacts and mementos from the people who lived it, publishing online a history that mostly happened outside the books.

"Scrapbooks, postcards, anything. We're looking to document daily life," he says. "What was life like? Where would you go to socialize? Where did you go? Wink, wink, special knock?"

We've come a long way from the days when cross-dressers could be arrested in St. Louis, as many were under a municipal ordinance enacted in 1864 and not repealed until 1986.

Or be targeted in one of the 1960s undercover operations meant to catch men engaging in anonymous "tea room" sex.

Or find your name, address and occupation published in both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the (now departed) St. Louis Globe-Democrat after a sting in Shaw Park — as happened to some gay men as recently as 1984.

These days, gays and lesbians enjoy increased acceptance in mainstream culture. In Illinois, same-sex couples have the right to marry. And while that's still not true on the Missouri side of the river, the St. Louis Pride celebration — which kicks off this weekend — is widely regarded as the largest in the Midwest. Last year's event drew 80,000 attendees.

"A lot of younger folks feel privileged," Brawley says, even as "there were these struggles to allow them to live a different life."

If that's forgotten, he believes, something crucial is lost.

Brawley's blog isn't the first attempt to preserve St. Louis' queer legacy. The State Historical Society Research Center-St. Louis, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has maintained archives of all sorts of Missouri history, from the suffragette movement to the construction of the Gateway Arch to, yes, the culture (and persecution) of the city's gays and lesbians.

Curated by genial history nerd William "Zelli" Fischetti, the UMSL archive is a hidden gem. The boxes and folders are filled with memorabilia stretching back to the '60s. Find early informational pamphlets on a mysterious, scary disease that came to be known as AIDS. Browse lesbian magazines with car-maintenance tips so liberated women could maintain their vehicles without the help of any man. Check out pins and T-shirts from year after year of Pride events.

But while the UMSL archives of lesbian and gay history are fascinating and comprehensive, they're not terribly accessible, tucked away as they are on the bottom floor of a campus library. And because none of the materials can be checked out, it's an effort to absorb it all.

Enter Brawley. Along with Colin Murphy, senior writer at the Vital Voice, St. Louis' gay magazine, he's been working both to digitize the UMSL archives and collect more items, too. "We wanted to make as much of our stuff digitally available so people can look at it on their home computers," Murphy says.

On his blog, Brawley has been attempting to put together a comprehensive timeline of local LGBT history. Through parties known as Treasure Drives, he's been collecting whatever he can from local members of the community, documenting it and then turning it over to the UMSL archive. He's also recording oral histories for preservation.

Some history has already been lost. "When elder folks died, their families threw it out, some innocently, some not," Brawley says. "Some families destroyed it because they were ashamed."

But since Brawley started researching lesbian and gay history three years ago and launched a Web presence one year ago, the St. Louis LGBT History Project has found great success.

To date, two Treasure Drives have yielded photos of Halloween parties, bar ads and snapshots from drag shows from as far back as the 1930s. And Brawley's timeline now goes back to 1804, when a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition observed that among the Minataree tribe, boys who presented as girls were tolerated and accepted.

Inspired by Brawley's work, Riverfront Times sought out people who've contributed to the project and the city's sometimes hidden, but always thriving, gay culture. Movers, shakers and ruckus-makers alike had a few tales to tell.

Today, it's history. But at the time, it was, simply, life.

Margaret Johnson
At 70, Margaret Johnson has a lifetime of lesbian, feminist activism to look back on. She made history earlier this month — and the Daily RFT — for being among the very first couples in University City to take advantage of its new domestic-partnership registry.

As recently as eight years ago, though, one of Johnson's aunts encouraged her to fight the other "single" ladies for her niece's wedding bouquet — even though Johnson and her partner had been together for more than a decade.

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