Last week, a traveling exhibit documenting the history of the LGBTQ rights movement in Kansas City was removed from the Missouri State Capitol less than three days after it first debuted. However, questions continue to abound concerning whether the exhibit’s removal was an effort to correct a procedural oversight or an attempt to placate Republican legislators and activists who balked at its content.
The exhibit, “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights,” which was created by historians at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, debuted last Monday at the Capitol building’s Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City. The exhibit had previously been on display at various locations around Kansas City, and was scheduled to remain in the Capitol building’s Missouri State Museum for four months until the end of December.
For the short while when the display was up, visitors to the Capitol could walk among the exhibit’s banners and learn about the history of Kansas City’s LGBTQ community, including how early day LGBTQ rights activists had organized themselves, both politically and personally, to ensure their community could survive and thrive during times when homosexual behavior was criminalized and LGBTQ were largely ostracized from the larger society.
However, in less than 72 hours, museum officials had dismantled the exhibit after social conservatives claimed that the display’s presence in the Capitol violated state law.
Kelli Jones, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Parson (R), said the exhibit was removed because officials with Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which runs the museum, had inadvertently violated a state law requiring them to coordinate with the state’s Board of Public Buildings, a three-member panel that includes the governor, the lieutenant governor and the attorney general — all Republicans.
Jones said the governor was not aware of the exhibit, but became aware of it after receiving “several complaints” about it.
According to the Kansas City Star, the Board of Public Buildings last met in July, but minutes from meetings dating back to 2015 show the board never discussed the content of state museum exhibits. Additionally, according to The New York Times, John Cunning, a former director of the Missouri State Museum, noted that he had never once had to seek out permission from the Board of Public Buildings before putting up any display during his 24 years overseeing the museum.
In a statement on Friday, Dru Buntin, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, told the Times the exhibit was being relocated to the Lohman Building at the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site, where the Missouri State Museum has another location. The Missouri State Capitol Commission will coordinate the exhibit at the new location, rather than the Board of Public Buildings, he added.
“We apologize for the way this unfolded,” Buntin wrote. “We agree the history of all Missourians is an important story that needs to be told.”
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The exhibit’s removal attracted the attention of openly gay State Sen. Greg Razer (D-Kansas City), who was also skeptical of the governor’s reasoning, calling it a “convenient excuse,” noting that various exhibits rotate in and out of the museum on a regular basis.
“To have this exhibit ripped down and shoved in a closet is offensive,” Razer said. He added that he’s concerned about the message that removing the exhibit sends to youth who identify as LGBTQ.
“I want [youth] to know that this is a beautiful, vibrant, accepting community that wants you here,” he said. “Stunts like this don’t help.”
Instead, Razer placed the blame at the feet of Republican legislators who had complained about the exhibit, accusing them of trying to “literally put my history back in the closet.”
Before the exhibit was taken down, at least two Republicans and a legislative assistant who works for a GOP lawmaker had complained about its content.
On Tuesday, Uriah Stark, a legislative assistant to Rep. Mitch Boggs (R-LaRussell), posted a complaint to Facebook, accusing the “taxpayer-funded” museum of “pushing the LGBT agenda.”
“These are literally in-your-face banners that you can’t walk through the museum without seeing… and they’re scheduled to be there through December,” Stark wrote. “I’m so sick of always having to react to this stuff. It should never have happened. And they KNEW it would get a reaction, they just like pushing it.”
On Wednesday night, after the exhibit had been removed, he celebrated in a post crediting Reps. Ann Kelley (R-Lamar), the secretary of the House Republican Caucus, and Brian Seitz (R-Branson) for their efforts to ban the exhibit from the Capitol grounds.
“Thanks to the efforts of several of our great elected officials, the exhibit has been removed from the Missouri State Museum! To God be the glory! Shoutout to Rep. Ann Kelley and Rep. Brian Seitz for taking the bull by the horns! I also spoke with multiple other elected officials who were ready and willing to take action, thank you all for standing for traditional family values!” Stark wrote.
See also: Missouri lawmakers refuse to remove defunct language banning gay marriage from state law
Seitz told the Star that he made one phone call asking to speak with the museum curator but had not heard back. He said he had seen pictures of the exhibit and questioned the motivation behind putting it in the museum inside the Capitol, and the message the display was trying to send.
“We have to look at everything in the capitol as possibly having an agenda,” Seitz said. “Did that exhibit have a specific agenda or was it simply an informational piece?”
Razer, who has unsuccessfully pushed for the legislature to pass a law protecting LGBTQ people from various forms of discrimination, said that the exhibit’s removal is proof that discrimination is alive in Jefferson City, and that conservatives are all too willing to “cancel” or censor unpopular ideas, expressions, works of art, or, in this case, historical exhibits that don’t conform to their preferred worldview.
“The story that that exhibit told is the story of how I get to stand on the Senate floor in the first place. Thirty years ago there wouldn’t be an openly gay man in the state Senate,” Razer told the Star.
“I think it is the epitome of cancel culture that they just want to cancel my history,” he added. “I think it shows a degree of bigotry and I don’t use that word lightly.”
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