New timeline catalogs Memphis' LGBTQ history

Memphis’ Guild Theater held the first ever openly gay event in Memphis history, Miss Gay Memphis, on October 31, 1969. Halloween night was chosen so that there would be no arrests for then-illegal cross-dressing.

The organizer and owner of the theater was the late Bill Kendall. His theater was known for showing arthouse films, which included LGBT films, European films and what Shelby County considered illegal smut.

Charged with showing pornographic films under the state’s 106-year-old obscenity laws, Kendall took his case to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In 1974, the court ruled the laws unconstitutional.

A program for the 1969 Miss Gay Memphis Pageant, Memphis' first public pride celebration.The piece of Memphis history is only one small part of the untold story OUTMemphis is bringing to the light with its online Mid-South LGBTQ history timeline. It can be viewed here.

Primarily focused on Memphis history, the local events, told through newspapers, magazines, photos and videos, are placed in the context of landmark national milestones like the founding of the Mattachine Society, the Stonewall riots and both the signing and repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

“Our history is much richer than people think,” said OUTMemphis executive director Will Batts.

“It didn’t start with Stonewall; there is so much more. So, we needed to share it. It’s important for people to know this is a movement; it’s not just a passing thing. We’ve been around a long time and we’re everywhere. There are so many ways that we’ve influenced culture in this city.”

Supporting the timeline’s creation are longtime and new Memphians, such as Rhodes College historical archive interns Cameron Sandlin and Brad Bierdz.

Memphian Vincent Astor provided much of the foundational material. He has collected LGBTQ artifacts since 1975, and his collection currently resides at the Memphis-Shelby County Room at the main library.  

Because of OUTMemphis’ unique and public profile among the LGBTQ community in Memphis, people have donated items to the Midtown nonprofit for years. Batts said they have closets and file cabinets full of clothes, publications and at least 20,000 photos.

"Gay Day in the Park" in Memphis 1976.

While all the printed materials have been scanned and uploaded thanks to Rhodes College’s Crossroads to Freedom archive, discussions are ongoing about what to do with their physical counterparts.

Batts acknowledges that their collection is a small subset of the larger Memphis LGBTQ history that mostly represents white Memphians.  They plan to flesh out the timeline by recruiting Anthony Hardaway of Friends for Life to contribute to the timeline, who has saved artifacts of the African-American gay experience in Memphis.

“People have been putting themselves on the front line for a long time and it’s important for us to know that. We’re part of a larger movement and cultural shift in how we view gender and sex and people in general.

We’re not alone. There are people in all walks of life and different stations who are LGBT and we should embrace that history,” said Batts.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer living in Memphis since 2008. They have also contributed writing and research for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, VICE News, and Choose901.