St. Louis is replete with history when it comes to its queer community. In the months prior to the June 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village—widely hailed as one of the catalysts for the modern LGBT rights movement—the seeds were already being sewn for The Gateway City’s first LGBT rights organization, The Mandrake Society.
The late 1960s saw a culmination of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the counterculture and sexual liberation. The ground was ripe for the gay community across the country to not just quietly demonstrate, but embrace visibility and demand equality.
According to famed sociologist Laud Humphreys’ 1972 book, Out of the Closets: The Sociology of Homosexual Liberation, Mandrake got its start in April 1969 when eight people met at an apartment in the Central West End.
Humphreys’ writes that by the autumn of that year, the group of college students, gay and lesbian activists and straight allies had held a handful of organizational meetings and a picnic. Mandrake’s constitution was based on Cincinnati’s chapter of the Mattachine Society, a national homophile organization founded in 1950 by teacher and artist Harry Hay.
Mandrake’s purposes were defines as:
To equalize the status and position of the homosexual with the status and position of the heterosexual by achieving equality under the law,
equality of opportunity, and equality in the society of his fellow man, and be eliminating adverse prejudice, both private and official;
To secure for the homosexual the right, at a human being, to develop and achieve this full potential and dignity, and the right as a citizen, to make his maximum contribution to the society in which he lives;
To inform and enlighten the public about homosexuals and homosexuality;
To assist, protect, and counsel the homosexual in need.
But despite limited outreach at the bars, the St. Louis LGBT community remained largely unaware of the new homophile Gateway City group until late October.
“In 1969 Halloween was on a Friday,” explained a former Mandrake member who requested anonymity. “My lover was into drag so he went out to the bars and I stayed home and watched Frankenstein. And sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. one of our friends called and said, Michael’s been arrested and that he’s down at Central Station. So I went down there and it turns out they’d raided the bars and they’d arrested nine drag queens for cross-dressing.”
Indeed, the men were arrested outside of a local gay bar during a police raid—a common occurrence for LGBT establishments in the 1950s and 1960s. For in addition to it being illegal for persons of the same sex to dance together or engage in public displays of affection, the law prohibiting dressing in drag or “masquerading” would remain on the books until St. Louis entertainer Michelle McCausland and a local transwoman successfully challenged the city statute in 1986.
“I was waiting around the station to find out how to post bail to get him out and people started filtering in for these other eight drag queens,” the Mandrake Member recalled of how he first became involved with the organization.
“A bunch of college students came in and pretty soon we had a couple hundred people in the foyer of the police station,” he continued. “And of course you get that many half-inebriated gay people together and voices started getting raised and demands being made, that sort of thing. So one of the police said bail would be about 50-bucks a piece, or something like that. And of course gay people didn’t have any money—these were all bar queens who’d spent all their money already.”
The crowd had gathered because, according to Humphreys, Mandrake members were alerted via the phone chain they had established for just such emergencies. A collection was taken up and bail was posted but the unlucky nine would not be released until 9 a.m.
The Mandrake member’s recollection differs slightly from Humphrey’s account. While he admits that there were some organizational meetings between college students and gay activists, he maintains that the Halloween night arrests were the catalyst for the formation of Mandrake, named for the libido boosting Mandrake Root.
“From that this core group of people decided we should have an organization and fight the law,” he said. “So we met at Trinity Episcopal Church on Euclid and Washington and formed The Mandrake Society.”
“Now I joined it because I wanted to get into activist activities,” he explained. “A lot of people joined it wanting a social organization. And for almost a year it was a constant battle and I think the social group won out.”
History will record that The Mandrake Society didn’t do much in way of political action, but their place in St. Louis history as the first LGBT rights organization is secure. They published the first St. Louis
LGBT publication called Mandrake from 1970-1972 which featured bar ads, editorial, opinion pieces and “whatever national news could be plagiarized from The Advocate.” They also had at least one high profile meeting with the St. Louis Board of Alderman regarding the cross dressing law.
“Red Villa was the most prominent of all the Board of Aldermen,” explained the Mandrake member. “But he was an old fashioned, cigar-smoking
Still The Mandrake Society is best remembered for the wildly popular Mandrake Ball, their annual fundraiser held each Halloween. Held at various downtown Hotel banquet rooms from 1970-1974 the event was part masquerade dance party and part drag ball. The evening culminated with the crowning of Miss Mandrake—Empress of the Midwest and her court.
Contestants paraded in a walk on gown and costume portion of the contest. Many prominent female impersonators of their day won the crown, including Mame (1970), Erica (1971), Denise de Montrand (1972) and Shalimar (1973).
“After 1973 I got out of Mandrake and went into MCC,” concluded the Mandrake member “As far as I know Mandrake sort of drifted away at that point. It was only like a three or four year organization and that’s all they really did was The Mandrake Ball and the monthly publication.”
True, the organization could have done more, but the seeds of visibility and political action had been sewn. Mandrake laid the foundation for organizations such as the Mid Continent Life Services Corporation, which founded the Hotline and the city’s first LGBT Community Center. It paved the way for PROMO—which continues to fight for LGBT equality to this day. Indeed, The Mandrake Society may not have done much—but it was a necessary start.
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