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Honoring Womontown: Kansas City’s Intentional Lesbian Community A community of, by and for women is finally getting its historic due 

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Above image credit: The womyn of the newly formed Womontown march in the 1989 Kansas City Pride Parade. (Contributed | Mary Ann Hopper and Drea Nedelsky)
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6 minute read

To the casual observer, the history of the gay rights movement in the U.S. might seem a largely coastal affair with San Francisco’s Castro district officially taking shape around the time of the Summer of Love in 1967 and New York’s Stonewall Inn riots occurring in 1969. 

But these events were presaged by decades of activism, and, to a degree, Kansas City was an epicenter of organizing.  

Decades later, in the 1980s and into the 1990s, Kansas City would become home to the nation’s only urban, lesbian-created community, Womontown, a community that is now, even more decades on, finally receiving acknowledgement in the form of a historic marker.  

Two Women Find Love, Forge Community 

“Well, myself personally, it makes me teary,” says Womontown co-inspirer Drea Nedelsky, who, with her partner Maryann Hopper, effectively birthed the unapologetically out lesbian community that would grow to 14 city blocks in Kansas City’s Longfellow neighborhood. 

“I’m excited. I’m nervous beyond any imagination, and who knew that we would live this long to see it happen.” 

No Longer Secret History

“When I met Drea, all the gay bars and the socializing was pretty much happening in the city then,” Hopper says. “So I would come into the city a lot, but I would go back to my little Shawnee Mission apartment in the evening.”  

Hopper and Nedelsky eventually struck up a relationship, and as Hopper began to spend more time with Nedelsky in her Longfellow neighborhood residence, she wondered if she’d be able to make a home there long term.  

“So then it was like, this is a bit scary for me, and I’m not sure if I want to do this,” Hopper says. 

But the two began to think, “What would make it better?”  

Nedelsky had bought the home she lived in. She had an investment and had made improvements.  

“So, that was my turning point,” Hopper says. “If we can figure out a way to make it better, then I would be willing to stay.” 

For Nedelsky, though, her economic realities are what led her to the neighborhood.  

“I landed in Kansas City. I went to college. I was able to go to Calvary Bible College, which was up there on 39th and Wyoming. And then … when the school decided to discriminate against homosexuals, I lost my money for college, and I had to look around and go, ‘What am I going to do?’”  

Nedelsky transferred to Penn Valley Community College and began working. Eventually, she matriculated to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, graduated and stayed, opting to live “in that area based on my income, which was not very strong. I wasn’t a professional. I hadn’t achieved any great degrees or whatever to put on a resume.” 

Nedelsky says her rents kept going up and her wages didn’t. “So, I just looked around… I went in search of where the gays and lesbians lived that did have some houses or rent was really cheap. And that happened to be over in Longfellow.” 

Nedelsky says she “was able to convince a guy who wanted to get rid of his house before it was totally stripped of every piece of wood in it and before every brick was sold up the street for 10 cents apiece.” At the time, homes in the neighborhood were suffering from vandalism, scavenging and worse. 

Hopper and Nedelsky dug in, and they put out the word, advertising discretely in publications catering to members of the gay and lesbian community. In time, people came, and they rented apartments and bought homes. They invested. The community joined the local neighborhood association. They staved off an attempt by the city and a developer to blight and redevelop the neighborhood. They persisted and made the community they needed and wanted.  

Womontown residents identified one another by hanging purple and yellow tulip flags on their doors. Here, Beverly Powell carries a Womontown flag. In the Womontown documentary, Powell’s partner Sue Moreno celebrates her for being the first African American woman to buy a house in Womontown.
Womontown residents identified one another by hanging purple and yellow tulip flags on their doors. Here, Beverly Powell carries a Womontown flag. In the Womontown documentary, Powell’s partner Sue Moreno celebrates her for being the first African American woman to buy a house in Womontown. (Contributed | Sue Moreno)

And people did need and want such a community.  

“The lesbians bringing in lesbians from all over the United States, that’s how much people wanted that kind of community that they were coming from Hawaii and California, all these other states to come here to Kansas City, Missouri, to buy a cheap house in a shitty neighborhood,” says documentarian Sandy Woodson, the creative force behind the Womontown documentary. 

“But they knew they could own it,” Woodson adds. “They weren’t kicking out the people that were already there. There were drug dealers and some really awful gang-related people there. And eventually those people started being booted out as these lesbians started buying property and kicking them out.” 

The newcomers in some cases bought entire apartment buildings so they could better ensure the safety of the neighborhood. In cases where they couldn’t buy a building, sometimes they were able to manage a property, thus ensuring buildings were more closely watched and better maintained. 

“We formed a landlord-tenant group with ones who were willing to come in and work with us,” Nedelsky says. “I offered to do free property management for those owners in order to say: ‘Lesbians are good tenants. We could put them in, we could change the dynamics if you’re willing to do.’  

“And we made a list. Have decent appliances. Have clean carpet. Spray for bugs. Put up lighting for the criminal element to kind of move on and don’t be passing bad tenants. This really happened a lot. Bad tenants from one building to the next, back to the same building, because the landlords did absolutely no screening of tenants over there.” 

Nedelsky says many of the landlords were “white men who did not live in the area,” but she was able to “forge an alliance with these people.” 

“We were just constant,” Hopper says. “We just went down the list and found out who owned the building and would go knocking on the door and said: ‘This is who I am. This is where I live, and I can manage your building and give you better tenants because I’m tired of the drug dealers and what’s going on in the buildings.’” 

Flyover KC’s Home for Gay Rights  

Hopper and Nedelsky didn’t land on the idea of such a unique and revolutionary community all on their own — the idea was the outgrowth of the history of activism elsewhere. 

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who are to us our mentors, our pioneers, came to Kansas City in the fifties and sixties to help get things going in the queer community. They met with other national gay organizations here,” Nedelsky says.  

“They were marching in California and New York. But once Stonewall happened in ‘69, really, there were gay pride parades everywhere. Kansas City was a very active community in the game,” Hopper adds.  

Martin, Lyon and many other delegates from 15 of the nation’s homophile organizations — regional gay and lesbian associations that formed to combat discrimination and advocate for rights — met in Kansas City in February 1966, selecting the metro for its central location and “vibrant social scene.”  

As noted by historian David W. Jackson in the landmark “Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s LGBTQIA History,” the 1966 gathering was “the first-ever national gathering of lesbian and gay rights activists,” and the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NPCHO) soon formed on its heels.  

Celebrating Womontown  

Even as Womontown was a community founded on an open celebration of the lesbian lifestyle and identity within itself — outside the community, there remained a kind of de facto hush.  

“The times demanded it be under the radar — it was a particularly challenging time,” says UMKC Director of Special Collections Stuart Hinds, a leading historian and preserver of Kansas City’s rich LGBTQ history.  

The Womontown historic marker in the Longfellow Neighborhood of Kansas City.
This historic marker commemorating Womontown will be formally dedicated on Thursday, June 13, 2024, by the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America. (Sandy Woodson | Flatland)

“That was the early ‘90s. So, AIDS is still raging, and that’s the era of post-Reagan and George H. W. Bush and the era of Jesse Helms, and just a real anti-LGBT sentiment that’s very explicit,” he says.  

But Hinds notes those years were a period of significant activism in the community.  

“What tended to draw most of the attention was the push for the ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Hinds says. “That was all over the news. And this Womontown thing just kind of snuck in under the radar. 

“That was the interesting thing about Womontown — it was intentional. It was billed as an intentional women’s community. And so, this is something that they had control over and they chose to participate. And, with that freedom came the opportunity to build that community.” 

Hinds also teaches courses on queer history and associated topics at UMKC, and he notes that the topic of Womontown is one that continues to spark powerful interest in his students. 

“Young women respond to Womontown and the potentialities that it brought — they light up,” Hinds says. 

“It’s been really, really interesting to see that spark in these young people and to see what’s possible, to see what you can do. You can build your own community. You literally build your own community with the right mix of energy and passion and involvement. So we’ll see. I’m really curious to kind of watch and see what happens and see if these young people take it, get out from behind their screens and actually go out and do something with this.” 

The Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America will install a historic marker honoring Womontown on Thursday, June 13, from 4 – 6 p.m. at 27th Terrace and Charlotte Street. Speakers include local political leaders, Womontown founders and past and current Womontown residents. Sass-a-Brass, Kansas City’s only queer street parade brass band, will provide musical entertainment, and food and beverages will be available.  

Flatland contributor Haines Eason is the owner of startup media agency Freelance Kansas.

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