The nickname came up for the first time this past summer.
When I heard of my friend Ed’s passing, in addition to being saddened by the loss of a special person, I was immediately concerned about his personal collection of local LGBTQIA+ history. What would happen to it? I got nervous.
While I was researching my book Gay and Lesbian St. Louis, Ed was very generous in letting me use several of his rare personal photographs documenting local LGBTQIA+ history. During my many visits to his home, I was enthralled by his stories of cruising Forest Park, road trips to California and his significant role in local leather and Mardi Gras history.
And so last fall, I was relieved to learn there would be an estate sale of Ed’s items. At the event, I was fortunate enough to acquire many of his photographs, artwork and articles of clothing. It was after that sale that a friend jokingly referred to me as a “hearse chaser” — as in a preservation-focused ambulance chaser.
How did all of this begin? After founding the St. Louis LGBT History Project — my project to preserve and promote the diverse and dynamic history of the LGBTQIA+ community — in 2007, I began to hear sad stories of community elders passing away and their personal belongings being thrown out. This included their photos, letters, clothing and other personal artifacts. Often family members were embarrassed or ashamed because their loved ones were part of the LGBTQIA+ community, whether they lived openly or were closeted.
As my work became more well known, I started to receive calls about people’s passings and their items being in danger of being trashed. Sometimes people would leave things on porches for me to pick up, sometimes I would be invited to come into the residence and look around. At other times, there would be estate sales, and I would be invited to come early and see what they had. Sometimes people donated items; other times I bought them.
No matter the circumstances, it became a personal passion to ensure that the life objects of the LGBTQIA+ community were preserved and not forever lost.
One day at work, a colleague approached me and said that a member of her church was the executor of his next-door neighbor’s estate, who happened to be gay. She connected us, and I met him at his neighbor’s house. It was a beautiful three-story townhome in Old North St. Louis. He explained his neighbor had recently passed away and he was beginning to sort through the house. He was personal friends of both the man and his late partner. He thought there might be items of significance but was not sure.
Upon entering the house, it was sadly like a scene from the show Hoarders. All three floors were filled with beautiful antiques and household items. It was a time capsule of their lives. I spent several days going through the house and discovered the most amazing items — birth certificates, military-discharge records, love letters and cards, even hip 1970s outfits. The man had worked at Washington University for many years. So I contacted my partners at the university and informed them of the treasure trove. Today, the university has archived and preserved this collection.
Another time, someone found me on social media and explained that his mother was going into a nursing home. The mother and her husband had been involved in the local leadership of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays over the years. When I arrived, there were 10 or so boxes filled with their personal files. I cannot imagine these documents being thrown out. More history saved.
When a well-known community member died, his family took what they wanted from the apartment, and the estate-sale manager told me I could have anything that was left. It was sad to see so much of his life in plastic tubs. Again, a person’s life journey partially preserved.
On a happier note, I also work with community members who donate items while they’re still alive. Hundreds of T-shirts, buttons, posters, videos, photographs and more, have been donated over the past 10 years. It is great to hear the personal stories that are associated with their objects.
Part of my preservation effort entails finding safe places to archive these amazing treasures, as it’s vital for museums to collect the items of “minority” communities as well as those of the majority. Over the years, I have created formal partnerships with area institutions known internationally for their archival expertise — the Missouri History Museum, the State Historical Society of Missouri at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Washington University and others.
Today, hundreds of items — photographs, videos, clothing, trophies, signage — are now safely preserved in these archives. Many will be included as part of an upcoming Missouri History Museum Gateway to Pride exhibit slated for 2024 that will tell the untold stories of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Not only do people die, but LGBTQIA+ businesses and organizations also close.
When Magnolia’s bar shut down in 2014, the owner contacted me and said he wanted me to come in and see if there were items I would like. Having been a frequent customer of Mag’s over the years, I was sad to see it close but happy to have the opportunity to preserve its history. I filled up several SUV loads of stuff — the bar’s disco ball, trophies, signs, drag gowns and much more. When the LGBT Center ceased operations in 2014 and JJ’s bar closed in 2021, I was again fortunate to help facilitate items being donated to the Missouri History Museum.
I recently had lunch with noted LGBTQIA+ author and historian John D’Emilio. I was telling him stories about my experiences over the years and how the St. Louis community is aggressively working to document local LGBTQIA+ history.
He reminded me how fortunate I am to have such welcoming and energetic partners who share my vision. It has not always been that way. So much history has been discarded. So, when someone calls me a “hearse chaser,” I take it as a compliment. Let me know about the next estate sale. °
Steven Louis Brawley is a historian noted for his research related to LGBTQIA+ and pop-culture topics. He is the founder of the St. Louis LGBT History Project, the author of Gay and Lesbian St. Louis and the executive vice president of Area Resources for Community and Human Services.