story and images by Vincent Astor
As the years pass people, quite naturally, are occupied with their own time and place. Particularly for those in our community today, for whom much history has either been forgotten or erased, acknowledging our pioneers is crucial to our collective preservation. It took many years before the word “homosexual” was replaced by “gay” or “lesbian” in mainstream media. The stories of our struggles, even as recent as the twentieth century, tend to fall into the “OK, Boomer” category of obsolescence to younger people. OUTMemphis has an ongoing creative effort which combats this by uplifting the legacies of Memphis’ LGBTQ+ trailblazers.
The Roll of Honor, photographs displayed at the Cooper St. location of OUTMemphis, is such a project. It is the combined brainchild of former Executive Director Will Batts and community historian Vincent Astor. The first plaques were assembled for the 25th anniversary and displayed at the celebration.
When OUTMemphis acquired its first property at 892 South Cooper St. a group of individuals who spearheaded that effort were dubbed “Benefactors.” Their portraits were hung in the largest room which was named “Benefactor Hall.” For convenience’s sake, these portraits were later combined onto a plaque that still hangs in that room.
The format of that plaque was used to honor and remember many of Memphis’ LGBTQ+ pioneers who were felt to be critical and important to the development of the community we now have. Each person made a unique commitment and had a positive impact.
The Benefactors were honored on the prototype plaque and therefore the first on the long list.The Roll of Honor includes people from many areas of influence—founders of institutions and organizations, bar owners, persons who set examples, and persons of unique personal qualities. This ongoing list of change- makers spans the spectrums of race and sexuality, celebrating the rich diversity that characterizes Memphis’ LGBTQ+ community.
This list was never meant to be finite. In fact, OUTMemphis has committed to add to it and continues to honor those of more recent times. The recipients of the Focus Magazine awards are represented as well in a different format.
Stephanie Reyes, Deputy Director of OUTMemphis, is coordinating this project. “New honorees were added on the OUTMemphis website in 2019. A committee was assembled with nominees coming from the community. We will add to it every five years but may add honorees any time. We want to include people not necessarily involved with OUTMemphis. We want to include many people active in the community. People will need to have committed to longevity of service. Allies can now also be included. These individuals made long-lasting contributions. However, the committee did vote on the individuals who had the greatest impact.” Nearly 100 individuals were nominated and 25 were added. “The present webpage will be updated and much more user- friendly. I really think that preserving certain artifacts is very important for younger people. I’m very positive about knowing our history.”
Six people who published local periodicals (Gaiety, Gaze, Triangle Journal News, Family and Friends) are included. Religious organizations are represented as are social organizations. Service organizations such as Pride, Friends for Life, and the Krewes of Aphrodite and Pegasus are represented. While photos of certain individuals and organizations could not be located, their names are still enshrined on the plaques, securing them a place in our community’s public memory. Actors, activists, fundraisers, and corporate organizers are among the honored. The longevity of an individual and/or institution’s community service was also taken into account. One plaque is composed entirely of memorable drag entertainers who did their part during their careers to raise money, awareness, and pride—and also entertain.
At its inception, suggestions came from many sources, and an agreement was reached as to the importance of those so honored. While some of the original honorees are deceased, many are still with us today. A key to these photos and names is kept at the reception desk for those interested. There, one can find a short description of the importance of those on the list.
A complete list and photos of the plaques appear online. Close to 150 individuals and organizations appear in the Roll of Honor so publishing them all here would not do any of them justice. Let it only be said that they are remembered.