Entertainer and Activist Returns to Town
October 28, 2011
by Bradley Osborn
Many readers might remember Mickey Ray from his nightclub act at the Jewel Box Lounge or his work with Good Samaritan Project (GSP). In October, Ray was in town in time for the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America’s (GLAMA) Trolley Tours. He also spoke at an OutFest symposium, recounting his years in Kansas City.
Activist Drew Shafer, a key figure in Kansas City’s early gay civil rights movement, was Ray’s partner, and the occasion for Ray’s recent visit was the 45th anniversary of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, which convened in Kansas City in 1966.
"Mickey Ray" is the pseudonym of Michael A. Pfleger, and he now resides in Binghamton, N.Y. He told the audience at the OutFest history symposium that pseudonyms were common among early gay activists and entertainers.
In his early years, he said, he was a poor, skinny, cross-eyed kid from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, who was raised in his grandmother’s Long Island home.
In 1964, Ray gave the Army a try, but he was discharged due to his eyesight. He moved to Utica, N.Y., but in 1967, he left town after a run-in with some anti-gay bashers. He ended up in Chicago just before the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Ominous news about this event sent him packing again, this time to Kansas City.
After he arrived, Ray attended a meeting at a local church, which led him to Phoenix House, a three-story home that was the residence of Drew Shafer, as well as the headquarters of the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom, the grassroots civil rights group founded by Shafer in 1966.
Shafer had wanted to charter a local group rather than be controlled by an outside organization. "Pinky," as Shafer was known, had a naturally persuasive voice, according to Ray. He was a talented organizer and his parents, Phyllis and Bob, were very supportive. Phyllis became a renowned PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) mom in her own right.
By his own admission, Mickey Ray was a cynical opportunist when he first met the Shafers, but over time and trials of substance and distance, Ray was changed by the genuine goodness he found in Drew Shafer and his cause; he fell in love with him.
The two men spent many years working locally for civil rights, and in 1984 they settled down into a place of their own. In 1986, Ray decided to volunteer for GSP and, as per the policy for volunteers, he was to be tested for HIV; Shafer decided to go along with him for testing.
The results and their consequences were profoundly devastating: Ray’s test was negative, but Shafer’s was positive. In those days, HIV/AIDS treatment was unsophisticated; the disease was new and stigmatizing. Shafer soon became ill.
For all of Shafer’s skills, accomplishments and activism, he could not overcome the pernicious virus. On his last day on Earth, he was mostly concerned for Ray’s future.
Shafer passed away in 1989, but his legacy still serves us today. We have him, among others, to thank for the rights we have secured thus far. Today’s activists look to Shafer and Ray as they continue to fight.
For more information about Mickey Ray, Drew Shafer, the Phoenix Society and the early days of Kansas City’s LGBT activism, go to mickeyray.com.
Sales of Book About KC’s Gay History to Benefit Archive
David W. Jackson, director of archives and education for the Jackson County Historical Society, has written a new book: Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s Gay and Lesbian History. It documents Kansas City’s LGBT history in almanac format, and it’s available at
amazon.com (ISBN: 0970430841). Proceeds benefit GLAMA.
For more information about GLAMA and its collections, go to glama.us.