Greg Smith can count on two fingers the number of times he’s dressed in drag. The first proved a fateful occasion as he ventured out with friends on October 31, 1969 to hit the strip of gay bars along Olive at Grand. The night would end with the arrest of Smith and eight others under St. Louis’ then Masquerading Law and become a rallying cry within the community to organize for LGBT equality.
Known as “St. Louis’ Stonewall” – the Halloween 1969 arrests were 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.
“We were coming out of The Onyx Room and going over to The Golden Gate and they [the police] just grabbed us,” recalls Smith, who owns Coiffures by Shawn in the CWE. “They didn’t even say why – boom – just put us in the paddy wagon and down to the police station on Clark Street.
Smith was aware you could be arrested for dressing in drag – but was assured by friends that they’d be fine, especially on Halloween.
“I was going out with people who had already done this a lot – and what I was told that night was as long you had on men’s underwear they could not
“It was Halloween and I mean I looked just like a hooker,” Smith continues. “That’s what it reminded us of when they got us – we were all in the back of the paddy wagon and it didn’t scare me at all. I was just really playing it up – even at the police station.”
The nine men were taken to the downtown police station where they were processed, fingerprinted and had mug shots taken. Meanwhile – the fledgling Mandrake Society – a group of LGBT and allied activists who had started to organize in April 1969 heard the news and immediately activated their phone tree to collect bail and secure an attorney. Within hours the foyer of Central Station was filling with angry supporters.
“I didn’t know that a group of people had got an attorney to come down and get us out because I had called my parents,” says Smith. “These people [the police] were starting to get serious with us. We’re in there singing Let us—Entertain You… and these prisoners have got their tin cans and are banging them and this guard comes in and growls, “I’m gonna tell you right now – if you don’t shut up I’m gonna knock the hell out of you.” And that’s when I said to my friend, “I think they’re serious about this.”
Smith, who was 20 at the time, was the first to be bailed out. His parents made the drive from Webster Groves and had to put up their house to secure bail.
“They’re doing all of the final processing to get me out and one of the officers says, “you’ll want to take that wig off and wipe that shit off your face,” Smith recalls. “I said, “I will not – I’ll go out the way I came in!” So I got this brush out and teased up that wig and put on some more lipstick and put on my mother’s diamond earrings. Then they threw open this door—and there she was.”
His parents were not amused and rushed him into the car outside. Smith had come out to his parents earlier, for the most part, but admits – it was a long next few days.
A few months later the nine men were reunited when the Mandrake appointed attorney represented them in court.
“Our lawyer was really good,” Smith offers. “You know the V.P. Fair Parade in those days – the rich guys dressed up like women on all the floats. And so when our lawyer went in front of the judge he said, “I’ll have every Santa Claus in the city and every man on that float thrown in jail for masquerading.” And the judge threw it out!”
Smith is honored to have played a small part in St. Louis LGBT History. The arrests proved the catalyst for The Mandrake Society stepping up to become the first LGBT equality organization in St. Louis. Their focus, while short lived, was the decriminalization of homosexuality and the legendary “Mandrake Ball” Halloween costume galas proved a hot ticket through 1974.
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