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Kansas City honors Black LGBTQ+ culture in fourth annual 18th and Vine celebration

In World
June 08, 2024

Growing up in Kansas City, Marquez Beasley fell in love with the historic 18th and Vine area. Now, as a singer, host and entertainer, Beasley calls the Jazz District home for many of the events he organizes, including his popular, monthly live-show series, Brunch With Quez.

So when Beasley, a Black gay man, got the notion to develop celebrations recognizing Black queer culture, he looked to make it happen in the area he is most fond of. Beasley had long noticed a lack of representation of people in the LGBTQ+ community in the historic 18th and Vine district, and he wanted to bring Pride to this mecca of Black KC culture.

Four years ago, he joined forces with Tiara Dixon, the owner of Smaxx restaurant, to create Pride on the Vine.

“This all happened because you had this straight woman who wanted to create a space for us,” Beasley said. “Nothing like this had ever been done before, and there has never been a place on 18th and Vine for the LGBT community, so we created one.”

Kansas City’s main KC Pride celebrations happen this weekend. Beasley started celebrating on 18th and Vine streets a week earlier.

The inaugural Pride on the Vine event drew close to 100 people who gathered outside of Smaxx at 1827 Vine St. Over time, Beasley said, the event grew into a yearly gathering dedicated to creating a place of inclusion and safety.

This year’s Pride on the Vine event was the fourth one for Beasley. It was held June 1. Organizers estimate more than 600 people came out to support the Black queer creatives, artists, organizations and vendors who attended.

Kansas City is celebrating Pride this weekend with a parade and Pridefest at the Frank A. Theis Park. The celebrations have been an annual tradition in the city for decades. But Beasley noted that many in the Black LGBTQ community have felt disconnected from the events.

He explained there’s a feeling that most of the celebrations and performers at KC Pride are geared toward the white gay male demographic. This is why the Black queer community has organized their own separate events for a long time.

Beasley, known affectionately as “Quez” around town, has dedicated himself to creating inclusive events and shows where all are welcome. Since he has showcased the best of the Black LGBTQ artists and performers at past events, he wanted a yearly gathering that would bring them together on one stage.

“We wanted to make something we didn’t see at Pride at the historic 18th and Vine area and specifically highlight the talent of the Black LGBTQ artists,” Beasley said. “We have Black LGBTQ dancers, singers, DJs, designers and sometimes they don’t get an opportunity to get highlighted like that.”

As he stepped on stage at Pride on the Vine dressed in retro 1980s sunglasses, matching rainbow shirt and shorts, knee-high socks and a sheer cape, Beasley acknowledged he was not always as comfortable expressing himself.

Beasley, a graduate of Lee’s Summit North High School, knew at a young age that he belonged on the stage. Unsure in the early years of his skills, it took him years to find the confidence to be his true self when he picked up a microphone. He said he didn’t have a support network he needed to help back then.

He embarked on a mission to bring about change and turn Vine Street into a safe space for LGBTQ arts and expression.

“The biggest thing I have learned from these experiences is that I wish I had these events and people around when I was younger,” the 38-year-old KC native said. “When I was a kid there wasn’t people like us to be the voice, stand up and be game changers to go against the odds.”

That’s why it is so important to Beasley that Black culture is infused into the Pride celebrations every year.

The weekend began last Saturday with a special live edition of Brunch with Quez, followed by a drag show that featured Vine Street’s first vogue contest. Voguing is a stylized dance that took off in the late 1980s within the LGBTQ community. It evolved out of the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s.

This year, Beasley wanted to pay homage to voguing, one of the oldest and most well-known examples of Black queer dances, which has been adopted by mainstream culture and popularized by such music artists as Madonna.

The competition featured many skilled dancers competing in a fierce display of talent that voguing is known for. Dancers impressed the judges with routines that included elegant swinging arms, spinning drops to the floor, and snapping kicks. They used their bodies to convey a story of confidence and intensity.

Selah Thompson won the $500 first-place prize. Thompson dances professionally but admittedly had little experience with voguing, besides a few past dance routines, and was surprised to be selected by the judges.

“I think voguing is one of the defining characteristics of the Black LGBTQ community and we have made it very popular so it is very important,” Thompson said. “I felt very lucky because some of the people I was going up against were established in the Ballroom scene.”

It was Thompson’s first time attending Pride at the Vine, and he was happy to see Black LGBTQ people gathered on Vine Street. He attended to participate as a backup dancer in a performance. He said that he will be back next year and will encourage others to come and experience the love.

“There are not many outlets for Black LGBT creatives to come together. I won’t say there are none, but there are not many,” the 28-year-old dancer said. “It was magical. There was this sense of euphoria the whole time I was there.”

The main event of the day was a concert featuring a lineup of mostly Black LGBTQ performers. Beasley said it was one of the largest gatherings of Black queer artists in the district.

Eljay Williams said he felt honored to be in the company of talented performers like Buddy Love and Lyfestyle Ent representing Black Pride.

Though Williams says he is a proud gay man, he doesn’t like the idea of his music being categorized as “gay music” because it is about love in all forms.

“I don’t want to be placed in a box,” said Williams, who performs under the name The Artist ElJay. “I am an artist who loves music, dancing and performing first and foremost. And when you are inviting people into your world, being a gay male is just who I am as a person. I am just me.”

Williams describes his musical style as having a melodic, high-energy, upbeat sound that people can have fun dancing to. He performed on the main stage of KC Pride last year and at Black Pride events in other cities. He says what he sees happening in Kansas City is different. It’s fresh, and he is excited to be part of it.

“Pride on the Vine is a lot more intimate and more opportunity to connect with the audience,” the singer said. “This event shows our growth and where we are as a community, because it causes us to remember the people who paved the way before us and how far we have come.”

Co-host and master of ceremonies for Pride on the Vine this year is Beasley’s longtime collaborator, Shirley Jones, who performs under the name Skittles. Jones has known and worked with Beasley on his shows and events for 10-plus years.

This was her second year as a host. She has seen the impact and community fostered by attendees over the years.

“There was no space or platform down here for the LGBTQ community,” Jones said. “After that first year, the support started pouring in, because this has never been done. And it was embraced as a whole and has become iconic.”

Jones, a lesbian, is proud to be able to be a part of history by helping to create this yearly celebration centered on acceptance and pride.

She expects Pride on the Vine will continue to grow each year.

“We say that children are the future and, for a young person, feeling acceptance is important,” she said. “Knowing there is a place they can come, feel valued, see so many happy faces embracing their people really matters.”

Mayor Quinton Lucas attended the event, showing his solidarity with the Black LGBTQ community.

“The welcoming spirit of Pride is more than a month in Kansas City,” he wrote in a post that day on X. “It’s each day and our way of life. I had a fabulous time celebrating Pride in the Black community today at 18th and Vine.”

For Beasley, this year was confirmation that Pride on the Vine is here to stay.

“Twenty years ago, you would never see gays on Vine, and now we have our mayor giving like a stamp of approval of what we are doing here,” Beasley said. “I am excited for this whole new generation of gay kids who will grow up knowing they have this time and space to go to and be themselves.”

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