Brenda Grissom and Dixie Ruliffson were active Metro East LGBT advocates. (Grissom died on March 8, 2011 and Ruliffson in July 2007). The longtime partners were together in life and in business for over 30-years and founding members of the Metropolitan Community Church in St. Louis. In the early 1980s they bought and opened The Old Cow Street Inn in Belleville to serve the area’s growing LGBT community. The popular watering hole was soon named The Char Pei Lounge (after their beloved pets) and operated as part nightclub and part community center until its shuttering in 2000. The duo also headed the late night entertainment complex, Char Pei’s City Center in East St. Louis in the 1990s and was the proprietor of The Polish Shop auto detail in Belleville. Charitable and colorful, “the ladies” were omnipresent in their community and impacted a generation of LGBTers.


This year’s recipient of the Brenda Grissom and Dixie Ruliffson Community Service Award are Rick Hembree and Harold Schwartz. The Belleville couple have been together for 27-years and since 1998 have owned and operated Club Escapade on Main. St.  They are tireless supporters of MEPSI and have hosted myriad Pride fundraisers throughout the year. Hembree and Schwartz are strong believers that community is family and that philosophy can be seen at their establishment throughout the week or at the many charitable events they’ve hosted to raise money for AIDS, breast cancer or a community member in need.


“When we decided we would give this award it was an easy decision for us to pick the inaugural recipients,” said MEPSI President, Sarah Baldwin. “Rick and Harold were pivotal in getting the first Pride off the ground and have continued to be instrumental every year in the success of the festival.”


“They are role models within the LGBT community,” Baldwin continued. “Not only with Pride, but in running the only gay bar in Belleville—their positive influence and contributions to the LGBT community are ones that will not be forgotten.”


MEPSI is equally pleased to announce that Sonny Pitts is the recipient of the first annual MEPSI Spirit Award given to a community member who exemplifies the spirit and philosophy of the organization.


Pitts has been active in the Metro East LGBT community since the early 1970s. Now retired, the popular bartender worked at Char Pei Lounge, City Center and for many years, Club Escapade.  With his quiet dignity and an ageless grace, a greater champion for our community you will never find. Whether emceeing a fundraiser, heading an auction or simply “being there” with his southern charm and sage advice, Pitts continues to exemplify the MEPSI spirit.


“Sonny is more than a friend—he’s been like a father to many of us,” explained Baldwin. “His love and dedication to our community can be seen in the hundreds who love him in return. We can’t think of a more deserving individual to honor with our first Spirit Award.”