St. Louis ICON – Individual
Every community has their pillars, their wise sage - someone who has seen it all, done it all, and passes their wisdom onto the next generation. St. Louis’ LGBT community has that and more in Will Roth. The 65-year-old grew up in St. Louis in a Catholic family, working within his family’s business. Will graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 1972, and has worked in various positions in St. Louis and Florida. Since coming out in the early ‘80s, Will has been in the fight for equal rights tenfold.
“I feel it’s important to get involved,” Roth said. “When I retired in ’06, I had the time to get involved, and so I did. I got involved in whatever organizations or events or whatever that was important to our community.”
Will’s record of involvement is nothing short of exemplary - something that will be remembered for generations. He has been on the boards of the Gateway Stonewall Democrats, Pride St. Louis and the Primetimers. He is on the Governor’s Council of PROMO, a member of the Federal Club and Dinner Committee for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and been involved with various protests, including the protest of the Westboro Baptist Church at the 2010 Lady Gaga concert at the Scottrade Center. He was also involved with unions, notably the United Food and Commercial Workers and participated in the 2003 strike against the St. Louis Food Employers’ Council.
As an elder of the LGBT community, Will was witness to the formation of the equal rights movement in the 70s and 80s when he came out. He spoke about the improvement of life for those with HIV and AIDS.
“I think medical science has made dramatic advancements in AIDS therapy,” he said. “I was active sexually when the AIDS epidemic started. I’ve lost friends to AIDS, and there wasn’t much lay people could do except to educate others about protection and so. It was mainly the medical advancements made by the medical community. People are living longer - it used to be in the beginning if you had AIDS you had a death sentence. Now people are living with AIDS for 20 years through the miracle of modern medicine.”
Will’s service to the LGBT community goes beyond St. Louis - he has been involved on the campaigns of Missouri governor Jay Nixon, senator Claire McCaskill and state treasurer Clint Zwiefel.
“It’s important to have somebody who has been directly involved with them,” he said. “They know me by name, and they know that I have helped them in their efforts to get and stay elected.”
The involvement from these campaigns led to one of Will’s best gifts to the community at the HRC St. Louis Gala - the inclusion of Gov. Nixon as featured speaker at the HRC Gala’s 20th anniversary dinner this past September.
“I said, “I’m gonna try.” It took me six months of work to do it, but I did it,” Will recalled. “One of the reasons why is because I knew the governor and knew people close to the governor that could help with the effort. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Politics is possibly one of Will’s greatest joys, where he believes progress will come for equal rights and he has nothing but kind words for President Obama’s record toward the national LGBT community.
“[He] has been absolutely terrific, we have almost unfettered access to him,” he said. “He has been the most remarkable president we’ve had, bar none, no other president in the history of this country has done as much as Barack Obama.”
“I think we’ll get rid of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), if not through legislation, through the courts. The re-election of President Obama means that within the next four years - two vacancies on the Supreme Court and it’s important we get equality-minded people nominated to the court,” he said. “I think that probably the safe schools initiative is going to pass in the next five years.”
With changing times, one thing Will would like to see is more interaction between LGBT youth and LGBT elders.
“That’s how you learn. Back when in your late teens/early 20s you think you know it all, but you don’t,” he said. “There’s a lot of things you can learn from your elders because, first of all, we’ve been there before, we’ve experienced a lot of these things. We can steer you in the right direction or at least give you an idea of what kind of pitfalls they’ll encounter. It’s like any other generational experience - young people learning from the older.”
And what Will wants to be remembered for most is the accumulation of his service to the LGBT community.
“If there’s anything I want to be remembered by - it’s that I did my share for the community, and for equality in particular.”
St. Louis ICON – Community Organization
THE ST. LOUIS LGBT HISTORY PROJECT
It all started with a blog. In 2008, Steve Brawley started writing about LGBT history in St. Louis, as a first attempt to see who else was looking for ways to document local LGBT history, and over the first year, things began to take shape.
“People started trickling in with ‘Did you know this’ or ‘Have you heard about that’ and then folks started contacting me saying, ‘How can we help’ - through that we started attracting attention,” Brawley said. “Things started rolling to make it more formal, from more of an idea to a full functioning project.”
Three years later, Brawley has founded and established the St. Louis LGBT History Project, along with primary researchers Vital VOICE executive editor Colin Murphy and graduate student Ian Darnell. Brawley says that St. Louis has a rich LGBT history like other major urban cities that deserves to be told.
“You have to imagine because of that size and scope there had to be thousands of LGBT people, who came to St. Louis, whether it was from a rural area or another city,” he said. “Because of the size and scope of the city you can blend in. There was this size and scope but it was a silent history - it just wasn’t documented. It’s now we’re really starting to get information coming in from sources that are around.”
Brawley points to the 1950s and 60s as something tangible because that is where the LGBT History Project is getting some real gems of history - notably from the 1969 Halloween arrest of nine men in drag.
“That is our Stonewall. Out of that there was a pinnacle - there’s activism, there’s protests, there’s drag shows,” Brawley explained. “Out of that one event we’re able to sort of see what was happening in St. Louis that was mirroring New York. By that one event we can hear about all these different activities - what the police were doing, what activists were doing, what researchers at WashU were doing. All these things come into play. It’s really a good 180 degree look at what it was like to be an LGBT citizen in St. Louis in the late 60s and how does it impact the 70s.”
The other big history point that Brawley cites is the first pride parade in 1980 - which wasn’t the easy task to get approved as it is now in 2012.
One of the main goals of the LGBT History project is to look at LGBT life in a well-rounded way - a task that Brawley is adamant to get from all facets of the LGBT community.
“It’s not just about the bar life, not just about drag shows, it’s what it was like for everyday folks to live in a very social step forward,” he said. “Others remained in the shadows. The real battle is getting both sides of the story – the ones that went out and protested and held signs and didn’t care who knew – and the folks supportive behind the scenes or who didn’t want their picture in the paper, both sides of that help to tell our story.”
The LGBT History Project continues to thrive and saw great success at this year’s PrideFest in Tower Grove Park, a moment that Brawley is very proud of.
“We had thousands of people come through,” he recalled. “What really touched us was you had folks we had photos of and people would come up and say, ‘That’s me!’ - they were able to be a part of the History Project, they are the history. The biggest part was the younger folks who were really engaged in the project. You had very young folks who would stop and absorb and ask questions. You have a young person standing next to one of our elders - they’re telling each other the story. It’s that connection and one of the main goals is to have that intergenerational mentoring.”
In the future, Brawley hopes to bring parts of the project to the community through traveling displays - but that begins with fundraising. The St. Louis LGBT History Project is a program of The LGBT Center of St. Louis.
“What’s great about those is that people bring in buttons, t-shirts, books - whatever they have,” he said. “Then it becomes a mixture - people all show up and they start telling stories. Every treasure drive we’ve had is not only a great deal for actual physical items, we end up with some other little nuggets or two people will connect that haven’t seen each other in years.”
Brawley hopes that the structure the Project has created will help to sustain it for years to come. He created the Project because it needed to be done.
“When I got into researching what was being done in other cities, I was like, ‘Wow – St. Louis has got at least this or even more history than some very well organized projects in other cities,’” he said. “Now we’re doing it in a smart, thoughtful way that will be sustainable. Every day something trickles in, and we feel there’s some big ‘aha-s’ to come. We don’t know when it is and that’s sort of exciting, waiting for the next ‘aha!’ It’s like every day is Christmas!”
The Project will be hosting St. Louis LGBT History Treasure Drive III at The LGBT Center of St. Louis (4337 Manchester ) on Saturday, Feb. 23 from 1-4 p.m. Rustle through those junk drawers, attics and proverbial closets for local LGBT publications, posters, programs, bar matches, pictures and sundry queer items from back in the day.
By MATT JAMIESON – STAFF WRITER
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