Lee McDaniel

Some members of the LGBT community in Joplin, Mo. are still unaccounted for in the wake of Sunday’s deadly tornado, according to Lee McDaniel, founder and president of the Joplin Pride Center.

McDaniel said no members of the community have been confirmed to be among the 117 people killed Sunday when the deadliest U.S. tornado of the last 60 years struck Joplin. However, many in the town’s small but tight-knit LGBT community have lost their homes, vehicles and workplaces, and some undoubtedly have lost family members, McDaniel said.

McDaniel said the local MCC congregation, the Spirit of Christ MCC, was holding services when Sunday’s twister struck. Everyone made it to the basement and no one was seriously injured, but the building where the church met was leveled, and members’ vehicles were destroyed.

McDaniel was in Rhode Island on business when the tornado struck, and he said reliable Internet access and cell phone service have allowed him to serve as an information broker for the LGBT community in Joplin, where’s he’s lived for most of his life.

“There are still a few people unaccounted for, and people are still up on Facebook desperately trying to find this person or that person,” McDaniel told Instant Tea from Rhode Island this morning. “The community is waiting with bated breath on the other people, and on our friends and neighbors and co-workers. People are coming together. They’re not asking what color you are or who you sleep with; they’re asking, ‘Are you OK? Do you need anything?'”

McDaniel said the Joplin Pride Center, formerly called the Gay and Lesbian Center, is only about five years old and doesn’t have its own building. He said the Pride Center holds many of its meetings and events at a library and a college in the north part of town, and they weren’t damaged by the tornado.

Also escaping major damage were the town’s two gay bars, which are in an entertainment district near downtown. One of the bars, the Pla-More Lounge, was able to open Monday as a charging location for cell phones and laptops, McDaniel said.

“It was touch and go for most of Sunday night, and all day yesterday,” he said. “Yesterday afternoon there were several people that surfaced that we had been looking for.

“We have two friends of the center who’ve made their homes available for displaced persons,” he added. “The community came together very quickly and we even had a member of an out-of-town support group that made themselves available for any transgender folks who needed any emergency services. We’ve had calls from many of our partner centers and Pride groups across the country.”

McDaniel said the LGBT community is relatively small in Joplin, a town of 50,000 that serves as a commercial hub for the surrounding region. Joplin is served by American Eagle Airlines from Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport. By car, Joplin is one hour and 15 minutes from Tulsa, three hours from Kansas City and four hours from St. Louis, he said.

“People often call Joplin the buckle of the Bible Belt,” McDaniel said. “It’s very conservative. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats probably two to one, but there’s been a growing acceptance of gay-lesbian people that would follow national trends. The Joplin Pride Center has been instrumental in doing that.”

McDaniel said the Pride Center plans to go forward with a gay Pride celebration set for June 11 in a park that wasn’t heavily damaged. The center is hosting Pride for the first time this year after it was put on by a group affiliated with the MCC church for the last two years.

“The nature of Pride will change dramatically,” McDaniel said.”It will be a coming together of community less than a month after the tornado … to take our minds off the destruction.”

McDaniel said the rebuilding efforts in Joplin may provide an opportunity for the Pride Center to achieve its goal of obtaining a building. He said he planned to post a link for donations on the center’s website and Facebook page later today. He said those wanting to contribute to tornado relief should do so through the Red Cross or the United Way.