October 19, 2014: “A PARADE? Chuck darling, are you out of your mind?” Chuck Charleston was at it again! His infectious enthusiasm sparkled from his eyes as he laid out his crazy idea. He wanted to set up a parade. We would gather at noon in front of the Red Bull. Then drive across Eads Bridge, down Market street and end up at “the cannon” in Forest Park. “Chuck are you forgetting this is Saint Louis? They will kill us," I protested.
“Oh Miss Little, they are having parades all over the country now. “Its been four years since that riot in New York. “It is time we made some noise!” “Yes honey, I knew about Stonewall. “Did you forget I report news on radio? “I reported on that the night it happened.” I had just graduated from Lindenwood College. My nick name there was “Chicken Little”. Chuck thought this was hilarious! He promptly explained to me what the term “Chicken” implied in the gay culture. Ever since, he always referred to me as “Miss Little”.
“Oh girlfriend, we all know of Miss Little's oral talents," said Chuck. "Now then, do you have a convertible? “We need a bunch of convertibles for the drag queens to ride in. “Can't you just see Miss Donna Drag, waving to the crowds like the Queen of England?” He raised his right hand and twisted his wrist around in a great copy the Royal wave.
Well by this time I knew I was hooked. I would take part, but damn, what was I getting into? Chuck had a way of drawing you into his plans. As I write this, I am unsure if it was 1973 or 1974. (According to Phyllis Kitchen it was May/June 1973). This was crazy! I could lose my job and never work in radio again. My career would be over before it really began.
Lets see, I could borrow my grandmother's 1963 Studebaker. It wasn't a convertible but it would be an interesting car for a parade. It also could not be traced to me like my own car would. On the way home from the bar, my friend Jim (who would gain fame as Miss Eddie Gregory) was all for it. It would give her a chance to dress in drag. Then maybe Donna Drag would let her preform there at the Red Bull!
The thought of doing this was exciting! There is always a certain thrill to danger. Can't remember anyone thinking that we were creating history. It was more like seeing what we could get by with!
Officially this would be “The Red Bull Presents: Mardi Gras North”. Less confrontational than painting signs proclaiming Gay Power! That morning we lined up our cars on Missouri Ave in front of the bar. It was clear and bright as the drivers attached streamers of crape paper with masking tape to their cars. Chuck had his red and white 1957 Thunderbird at the front of the line.
The drag queens were inside the bar getting all pretty, (and having more than a few drinks). I can't remember how many cars started our jaunt to the cannon in Forest Park. I wore a large flowing neon colored boa, dark glasses and a hard hat! We all were honking and waving at the unsuspecting people along the way.
We had no permit – could not have gotten one anyway. This was still a time when shoppers would be on the sidewalks in downtown St. Louis. A few would wave back just from habit I guess.
As we approached the circle drive of “the canon”, a very real fear struck. I could catch glimpses of a mob around the corner. They were on to us. Visions of being attacked by a large group of angry people instantly played in my imagination. It had been less than ten years since I had to run from an angry mob led by Black Panthers back in Indianapolis. I knew the drill. This could be serious. I remember telling Miss Eddie: “Hold on, this is going to get ugly, lock your door. “At the first sign of trouble, I'm going to make this old Studebaker fly. “Duck down and stay safe.”
However, as we drew closer a huge cheering greeted us. My chin must have fallen. This crowd was all gay! It seemed to me that there must have been thousands! I doubt that now, but that was my impression. I had never seen so many gay people, outdoors in the daylight! Even today I can hardly describe the impact it had. We were the “twilight people” who only came out at night after the sun went down!
Allow me to set the stage for the reader today. Many forget what threats LGBT people had to live under at the time. We got our “gay news” mostly by word of mouth. The few that could afford losing everything subscribed to “The Advocate Magazine”. Yes the U.S. Post Office did kept tract of such perverts. Of course that list was passed on to the FBI.
Just identifying as LGBT was illegal. The police could and would rough you up when they felt like it. You could get arrested for holding hands, for guys to wear a dress, for looking the wrong way in the rest rooms when taking your “relief”. What was legal, Ipso facto, was killing a “pervert”. As part of “Corpus Juris Secundum” (the second body of the law) the premiss of “Homosexual Panic” was a viable defense to murder. It outlined that just being confronted with a disgusting thing like a homosexual, would cause a temporary insanity. Thus the killing, while unfortunate, was to be expected!
From today's safety, it is easy to say we were just being paranoid, or timid, or at best, not very effectual in bringing change. We lived with a gun to our head. We faced not only the loss of our jobs but the possibility of never finding work in our field again. We faced being evicted over rumors of what went on in our bedrooms between consenting adults.
Our progress was slow, but things were changing. “Gay history” hardly existed. We might hear a boring story told by some old queen. We did have local gay newspapers: No Bad News or The Gay News Telegraph. We could find out what was going to happen, but very little about our own history.
It had only been four years since the founding of the Mandrake Society and St. Louis' own gay rights event “The 1969 Halloween Arrests”. But look at us now! We just held a parade. We were starting to come together to be a “people” a “tribe” and we liked being in the sunlight.
Footnote: Other organizers of this early parade were Betty Chapnick, Jerry Edwards, and Phyllis Kitchen. Dan is a frequent contributor of information to the Project and a food historian as well.