Ross Freese slows his car to a crawl and drops his voice as if he's about to tell a secret. He throws a glance over his left shoulder, advising his passengers to survey a brick home at the corner of Harrison and 44th Street.
The two-story structure isn't anything special. It blends with the rest of the modest homes in this Hyde Park neighborhood.
"Just take a look as we drive by," Freese says. "We'll get back to that."
There's hidden history at this location, but he isn't ready to tell just yet.
Freese, an IT specialist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, speaks with Shakespearean pomp. For many years, he worked for the Missouri Repertory Theatre. Now he digs for drama in Kansas City's gay and lesbian history. Last year, on Coming Out Day, his gay-history tour packed school buses.
"There's a ton of gay history in Kansas City that is pertinent locally and nationally," he says. "And unless we start shining a light on it and preserving it, it's going to be forgotten."
One of the first stops on the tour, not far north of UMKC, is Hyde Park. Of course, that's not what Freese calls it. "We're in lesbian town," he says with a flourish. Women settled here in the 1970s, he explains, because houses were cheap. "They developed skills to support each other — carpentry, plumbing, landscaping — and really started their own community."
A few streets east, he points out another house, deep-blue with white trim. He sighs with relief to see that it's still standing. It served as one of the first LGBT community centers in the 1970s, he says. But it also serves as a different kind of reminder. A few weeks ago, he spotted a Dumpster on the front lawn. He feared demolition of the little-known landmark. "That is one of the challenges," Freese says. "Our built history is centered largely in the early urban core. With redevelopment, some of our built environment is going away."
As he turns onto Troost, Freese describes other points of interest that are long gone. He points to an empty lot between an art gallery and a weathered home. There stood a bar called the Colony, an early LGBT watering hole. "They had an ad in the phone book in 1961 that said 'The GAYest bar in Kansas City,'" he says, emphasizing the capitalization. "So the nomenclature was out there — and they weren't afraid to advertise it."
He turns right on Linwood, and gestures to a beige industrial building. "A very significant, now-gone structure was the home of Phoenix Society, one of the earliest efforts to raise the visibility of the LGBT community," he says. "The Phoenix newsletter is an integral linchpin of my personal preservation efforts."
Delving into Kansas City's gay past is tricky. So far, Freese has unearthed just one copy of a Phoenix Society newsletter, which was published from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. "This is just hearsay," he says, "but I'm told somebody here in town has almost all the copies but is hesitant to release them."
Freese knows that there are key pieces of Kansas City's gay past stuffed into boxes, abandoned in attics. For years, no institution was interested in collecting such artifacts. That's finally changing.
Which reminds Freese to mention Jeannette Howard Foster.
Foster was a lesbian librarian who, in the 1940s, started cataloging instances of romance between women. The research became a self-published book titled Sex Variant Women in Literature. "She's now considered one of the foremothers of lesbian literary research," Freese says.
"Remember that house over on Harrison?" he says, alluding to the mysterious first stop on the tour. "Well, for about a year, Jeannette Howard Foster — that crazy, sex-variant librarian — lived there."