A History of LGBTQ+ Activism and Progress in the United States
Edited by Dr. Megan E. Springate
Interpretation Coordinator, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education
National Park Service
University of Maryland
The LGBTQ Theme Study released by the National Park Service in October 2016 is the fruit of three decades of effort by activists and their allies to make historic preservation a more equitable and inclusive sphere of activity. The LGBTQ movement for civil rights has given rise to related activity in the cultural sphere aimed at recovering the long history of same-sex relationships, understanding the social construction of gender and sexual norms, and documenting the rise of movements for LGBTQ rights in American history. This work has provided an intellectual foundation for efforts to preserve the tangible remains of LGBTQ heritage and make that history publicly visible at historic sites and buildings, in museum exhibits, and on city streets. This essay traces the history of the movement to identify, document, designate, interpret, and preserve elements of the built environment and cultural landscape associated with LGBTQ heritage.
Undocumented LGBTQ History at National Historic Landmark Properties and Those on the National Register of Historic Places
Sites with queer associations made their way onto the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and roster of National Historic Landmarks (NHL) not long after the passage of the 1966 Historic Preservation Act; however their connections to LGBTQ heritage almost always went undocumented in inventory-nomination forms and the subject went unmentioned—or was referred to only in euphemisms—when visitors toured places open to the public. Only in recent years, with rising public acceptance of differences in sexual orientation and gender expression, wider public support for LGBTQ civil liberties, and the creation of a robust body of scholarship in LGBTQ studies has it become possible to document and convey the full significance of these “lavender landmarks.” Yet much work remains to be done to fully integrate the histories of lesbian gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people into local, state, and federal cultural resources management programs.
Not all historic places are open to the public. Among those that are, many—including historic house museums—were established at a time when any discussion of sexuality and gender nonconformity was impermissible in public venues, but especially in the context of LGBTQ issues.1 Historic houses associated with individuals noted for their literary or political achievements constitute the majority of listed properties with untapped potential to address LGBTQ themes. Nearly all that are open to the public were established at a time when any discussion of sexuality was impermissible in public venues, but especially in the context of LGBTQ issues. Because gay-positive public attitudes have evolved more quickly in major metropolitan areas, historic house museums that lie outside of urban centers have been slower to broadcast their LGBTQ associations.
In some cases, those charged with managing historic properties have been aware of relevant LGBTQ content, but have suppressed it within their interpretive programs. Despite persistent inquiries about LGBTQ connections to the properties, they have resisted taking action, sometimes hesitant to “out” historical figures who worked overtime to hide their sexual orientation. Some site managers have found themselves mired in uncertainty about how to make sense of documented same-sex affections that do not neatly fit into contemporary categories of sexual orientation and identity. So too, while it feeds the logic of homophobia, they fear that the social stigma and shame attached to homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender nonconformity might sully the reputation of the person or people being honored at the property they manage. Finally, in the context of the nation’s culture wars, in which the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people became one of the most divisive issues in American politics, few mainstream organizations relished the idea of actively courting controversy by bringing LGBTQ content to the fore at historic places. For all of these reasons, there are many designated NHLs and properties listed on the NRHP whose connections with LGBTQ history remain to be articulated, including at historic properties association with Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Eleanor Roosevelt and her associates, and Frances Perkins.
The small two-story wood-framed house in Camden, New Jersey that Whitman occupied from 1884 until his death in 1892 is open to the public, managed by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry.3 Whitman’s homosexuality is neither mentioned in the NHL nomination for his home, nor on the museum’s website, despite the homoeroticism in his work, including his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass (the final version of which he wrote at this location) and evidence of his relationships with other men.4 Likewise, although the NHL nomination for Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska recognized the home as a source of inspiration for her fiction, it was silent on Cather’s transgressive gender expression in adolescence and her adult romantic and sexual ties with women (Figure 1).5 Existing interpretation at the historic house museum as well as the official website also skirt these aspects of her life history, referring only briefly to Cather cropping her hair short, calling herself Willie or William, and adopting male attire as examples of her unusual degree of independence, rather than her defiance of social norms regarding sexual orientation and gender expression.6 Changing ideas about Cather’s place in American literature are mirrored in the evolving interpretation of her Red Cloud childhood home, except for the treatment of her personal life—and its implications for her work—which remain outdated by three decades.
As scholars have uncovered evidence of same-sex intimacies in connection with some of the most prominent figures in American history, including Eleanor Roosevelt and her circle, the managers of landmark destinations such as the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York, known as Val-Kill, have had to weigh competing pressures to tackle the subject head-on or deflect potential controversy by only addressing it when visitors make inquiries.8
Eleanor Roosevelt was close friends with many influential and powerful lesbians, including couples Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman and Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read (Figure 2). Roosevelt credited Lape and Read as playing an important role in her development as a political activist; Cook and Dickerman were frequent visitors to Val-Kill, ultimately residing in a stone cottage there for three decades.9 Eleanor herself had a lengthy and intimate relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok: they vacationed together, Hickok had a bedroom in the White House, and the two wrote extensive and sensual letters to each other daily.10 Evidence of this passionate relationship challenges long-standing stereotypes of Eleanor as “cold, remote…ugly, terminally insecure, dry-as-dust.”11
As to whether Eleanor Roosevelt and “Hick” were physically intimate, according to historian Blanche Wiesen Cook:
We can never know what people do in the privacy of their own rooms. The door is closed. The blinds are drawn. We don’t know. I leave it up to the reader. But there’s no doubt in my mind that they loved each other, and this was an ardent, loving relationship between two adult women.12
Neither the NHL nomination for Val-Kill nor the NPS website mention the same-sex relationships of either Eleanor Roosevelt or Cook and Dickerman. Concerns about the erasure of these aspects of Val-Kill’s history have been long-standing, dating to Paula Martinac’s 1997 observations in The Queerest Places that despite the evidence, “you won’t hear even a hint about Eleanor’s lesbianism [or bisexuality] in the official Park Service interpretation and film, in which Nancy and Marion are painted as ‘good friends,’ and Hick – one of the major relationships of her life –isn’t mentioned at all.”13 In this case and many others, the ambiguity of evidence surrounding same-sex sexual intimacy, as opposed to intense emotional or romantic attachments, frequently has been used as a rationale for avoiding the issue. Established as a National Historic Site in 1977, Val-Kill would benefit from refreshed interpretation that brings insights from the past twenty-five years of scholarship into the presentation of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and legacy.
Likewise, nominations and interpretations of places associated with Frances Perkins, another major figure in Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s New Deal circle, neglect to mention her same-sex relationships.14 The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, Frances Perkins was secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945 (Figure 3). While married to Paul Caldwell Wilson, Perkins maintained a long-standing romantic relationship with Mary Harriman Rumsey, who had founded the Junior League in 1901. Both women made their mark advancing the Progressive movement’s labor and consumer reform agenda and subsequent New Deal initiatives. They lived together in DC until Rumsey’s death in 1934, after which Perkins shared her life and home in DC with Caroline O’Day, a Democratic congresswoman from New York.15 Building on her many accomplishments, Perkins went on to fight for the Social Security Act.
The interpretation and understanding of these places—and all of the others with silenced LGBTQ history—would benefit from representing the full complexity and histories of those who lived there. Part of this process is amendments to the existing nominations, and ensuring that LGBTQ history is incorporated into future nominations. Since anyone can prepare and submit an NHL nomination, the coverage of LGBTQ-related content depends on the author’s awareness, comfort level, and facility. Review of draft nominations by NHL and NRHP program staff is therefore key to ensuring quality control. But these programs have, for many years, been chronically understaffed. One way to help ensure successful representation of LGBTQ places in these programs is by more fully engaging LGBTQ scholars in the review process at the state, regional, and federal levels.17
Strategies for Improving Documentation and Interpretation of LGBTQ History at Existing Landmarks
Similar to past efforts to improve the presentation of American women’s history at historic properties and museums, designated landmarks open to the public might benefit from a coordinated program of consultation with experts in LGBTQ history to develop more accurate and complete interpretive programs. At the federal level, Planning Grants to Museums, Libraries and Cultural Organizations from the National Endowment for the Humanities are an underutilized source of support to plan for reinterpretations of historic sites and districts that improve the coverage of previously neglected aspects of history and expand the diversity of public history audiences.18
A 1992 project by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, aimed at improving the interpretation of women’s history at the state’s historic sites and buildings, offers one model for bringing the staff at multiple historic properties into an extended dialogue with scholars to mine the possibilities for improved interpretation.19 As LGBTQ sites are identified in systematic surveys and theme studies, it is important to designate overlooked properties and improve both the documentation and interpretation of places already listed on landmark registers.
Scaling Up: Illuminating LGBTQ Presence in National Register Districts
Individual buildings, often historic houses, constitute the vast majority of properties listed on landmark registers with unexplored connections to LGBTQ history. But many historic districts also have unrealized potential to address LGBTQ themes, including those designated at the local, state, and federal levels. Greenwich Village was designated a local historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1969.20 Completed in the same year as the Stonewall uprising, the designation report for Greenwich Village reflects the preservation movement’s contemporary emphasis on documenting the architectural significance of buildings in field surveys, rather than elaborating on their social history. To the extent that its historical significance was addressed directly, attention focused on the district’s vibrant role as a cultural incubator for theater, literature, and the arts, evidencing no awareness of its overarching national significance as a haven for LGBTQ people over the long arc of the twentieth century, which has been documented in numerous scholarly works in recent decades.
Districts such as Greenwich Village have been protected by whatever land use tools are applicable at the local level, but in many cases their original nominations and related preservation plans need to be updated from a LGBTQ perspective. Among the missing elements in Greenwich Village are apartment buildings that were not only home to bohemians generally, but also havens for lesbians specifically in the interwar years. One co-op building, for example, was home to two power couples in Eleanor Roosevelt’s circle: Molly Dewson and Polly Porter; and Marion Dickerman and Nan Cook, who lived across the hall from one another.21 The property was proposed for NHL designation under the Women’s History Landmark Project in 1991, but rejected by NHL program staff because they had an internal practice of only designating apartment houses when the whole building was deemed significant, rather than selected apartments.22 Beyond recognizing multifamily housing associated with major political figures, even the well-covered theme of Greenwich Village as a creative cauldron merits updating with respect to the lesbian and gay literary figures who made it their home, including luminaries such as Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin.23 The places associated with them present opportunities to reflect on the confluence of gender, race, and sexuality in the life and work of two pivotal writers in the mid-twentieth century. Beyond individual properties, district boundaries and determinations about which places constitute contributing elements might change when considered from a queer perspective.
The interpretive silences and distortions that overshadow LGBTQ lives at historic properties extend more broadly to historical figures whose circumstances and choices carried them beyond normative expectations of their gender. This is particularly true of women who chose not to engage in intimate relationships with anyone; those who married, but were unable or chose not to have children; free spirits who defied normative expectations of monogamy; or the minority who preferred communitarian living to the relative isolation of a nuclear family. Normative expectations about men and women’s proper roles affect the interpretation of all lives—gay, straight, and beyond the usual binaries—making insights from feminist and queer theory relevant to the interpretation of many historic properties.
Historic resources associated with the Modernist poet Marianne Moore illustrate some of the possibilities for challenging visitors’ assumptions about gender norms and preconceptions about sexual orientation and identity in a domestic setting. Marianne Moore’s parents were only married for two years, separating before her 1887 birth in Kirkwood, Missouri.24 Marianne and her brother John Warner were raised by their mother Mary, with help from her female lover, Mary Norcross, until the relationship ended. Photographs from around 1904, showing one Mary sitting affectionately on the other’s lap, and the two adults and children on a trip to the shore, are stunning reminders of lesbian family life more than a century ago (Figure 4).25
Gay and lesbian individuals and couples figured prominently in the Moore household’s social circle. After crushes on other women in her youth, however, the poet is not known to have entered into any intimate relationships, either with men or women. She thought it necessary to choose between dedication to her craft and the social expectations that accompanied romantic relationships, marriage, or parenting. Though Marianne’s brother married and established an independent home, the poet ended up living with her mother in various apartments in New York City for almost all of her adult life, first moving to Greenwich Village in 1918. Mother Mary provided nearly all of the supports needed for her daughter to focus on writing, although by all accounts it was a complicated mutual dependency. As Marianne Moore rose to prominence as a pioneer of Modernist poetry, she enjoyed a rich social life that included the most notable literary figures of the time: Elizabeth Bishop, H.D, her lover Winnifred Ellerman (aka Bryher), William Carlos Williams, and more. The first time Marianne lived on her own was at the age of sixty, after her mother’s death in 1947. In all of these respects, the Moores’ lives did not follow the standard narrative for women who came of age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.26
Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library was the recipient of the poet’s papers, photographs, and personal possessions, including the contents of her Greenwich Village apartment at 35 West 9th Street after her death in 1972.27 Exhibited on the third floor of the townhouse that contains the Rosenbach’s collections, Moore’s literary works are displayed in a reconstruction of her living room, allowing visitors to contemplate Marianne Moore’s creative accomplishments in the social and spatial context of her unconventional upbringing, and adult lives that defied social expectations for two generations of women.
Indeed, the reconstruction of Moore’s living room is a rare example of alternative constructions of family on display in a museum. With the exception of communitarian settlements such as Shaker Villages or historic properties associated with Catholic religious orders of men and women, there are exceedingly few places where visitors can glimpse the private lives of people who in past times opted out of the mainstream. The recent NRHP designation of the lesbian-feminist collective, the Furies, DC home boldly points to the ways that places originally designed to be single-family dwellings could be re-appropriated for collective living.28 The NRHP designation of Bayard Rustin’s home signals the beginnings of a more racially-inclusive LGBTQ agenda for historic preservation, but is also notable for marking a distinguished American political figure whose home life was based in one unit within a larger urban apartment building—a breakthrough in its own right.29 Occupied by private owners, neither the Furies’ home nor Rustin’s apartment are open to the public.
While the Rosenbach’s reconstruction of Moore’s apartment offers a welcome view of bohemian lives, dislocation from its physical context increases the risk that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, uncoupled people, and even those who chose celibacy will appear to have been more isolated from community than they were in actuality. Women who led unconventional lives, such as Mary and Marianne Moore, felt at home in Greenwich Village precisely because they contributed to shaping a public literary, artistic, and social culture that was their own. From the 1920s on:
The South Village emerged as one of the first neighborhoods in New York that allowed, and gradually accepted, an open gay and lesbian presence. Eve Addams’ Tearoom at 129 MacDougal Street was a popular after-theater club run in 1925-26 by Polish-Jewish lesbian émigré Eva Kitchener (Clothier), with a sign that read, ‘Men are admitted but not welcome.’ Convicted of “obscenity” (for Lesbian Love, a collection of her short stories) and disorderly conduct, she was deported. Later popular lesbian bars were: Louis’ Luncheon (1930s-40s), 116 MacDougal Street; [and] Tony Pastor’s Downtown (1939-67), 130 West 3rd Street, which was raided on morals charges in 1944 for permitting lesbians to ‘loiter’ on the premises, but survived with mob backing until the State Liquor Authority revoked its license in 1967.30
Because these and other welcoming public places provided a community context for women whose sexual orientation, identity, or choice of living arrangements set them apart from the mainstream, the most powerful approach to presenting the domestic lives of LGBTQ people is likely to be in situ, where the inextricable connections between public and private lives are evident.
Fortunately, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) has taken the lead in efforts to remedy these sorts of oversights and omissions in preservation planning.31 In 2006 the Society commissioned a report supporting the establishment of a new South Village Historic District; its author, Andrew Dolkart, noted that the section of MacDougal Street within the proposed district was “‘the most important and the best-known locus of gay and lesbian commercial institutions’” by the 1920s.32 A cluster of new local landmark nominations advanced by GVSHP also bring attention to individual properties significant in LGBTQ heritage, such as Webster Hall, a popular working-class gathering space that included lesbians and gays in the African American culture of drag at costumed balls.33 The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission increasingly has addressed LGBTQ history within its designation reports for individual historic properties, as well as proposed historic district designations. Its 2003 and 2004 reports for houses on MacDougal Street detailed the block’s importance to lesbians and gays in the 1920s, and reports for the Gansevoort Market (2003) and Weehawken Street Historic Districts (2006) called attention to the cluster of bars and nightclubs serving LGBTQ patrons from the 1970s to the present.34 The long-term presence of historian Jay Shockley on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s research staff, from 1979 until his retirement in 2014, was key to incorporating LGBTQ history into designation reports.35 There’s no substitute for expertise in LGBTQ heritage on staff and among consultants working for advocacy groups and cultural resources management agencies.
Greenwich Village is one of many historic districts designated at the local, state, or national level that have overlooked LGBTQ heritage in their documentation. Similarly, the historical significance of Chicago’s Boystown, which lies within the eastern section of the Lakeview Historic District, was not articulated in the original NRHP nomination.36 One consequence is that contributing resources are defined mostly in terms of their architectural distinction, as opposed to their connections with LGBTQ themes or other aspects of significance, particularly in relation to marginalized groups. Without documenting important aspects of social history within historic districts, gaps remain in the knowledge base used to make decisions about planning, preservation, and future development.
New York City’s Greenwich Village and Chicago’s Boystown are just two examples of neighborhoods with enormous potential for enriched public interpretation. There are many other places between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts that are significant in LGBTQ heritage. One example is the German Village Historic District in Hamilton [Columbus], Ohio (Figure 5). Recognized for its association with German settlement, anti-German sentiment during World War I, the impact of urban renewal on near-downtown neighborhoods, and the power of preservation to revitalize them, a recently developed tour offered by the German Village Society calls attention to the role of gay men in the neighborhood’s preservation and revitalization from the 1960s on, efforts which led to listing the district on the NRHP.38 A new walking tour, “Gay Pioneers of German Village,” explains that
The commonality for many men that came to German Village in the early years was their sexuality [;] they were gay. While this fact was not broadcasted in the open for most of them, it was integral part to whom they were and why they chose to move to German Village in the first place. The Gay Pioneers of German Village tour is intended to interpret the lives of individuals that impacted the community and whose stories just happen to be intertwined by their sexual orientation.39
German Village has become an influential model for historic district restoration, winning recognition from the American Planning Association as one of its Great Places in America in 2011. Similarly, the role of gay men in preserving other historic places such as Pendarvis, in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, has been a topic of renewed interpretive interest.40 In his 2005 book, A Passion to Preserve, Will Fellows made a compelling case for recognizing the instrumental role that gay men have played in the historic preservation movement. Now it’s time to recognize their contributions, and those of lesbians, bisexual, and transgender Americans at the historic buildings, landscapes, and districts they have so lovingly restored and saved.
Considering New National Register Districts Associated with LGBTQ Communities
Many urban neighborhoods with clusters of properties significant in LGBTQ history await survey, documentation, recognition, and protection. In Seattle, Washington, for example, two historic neighborhoods have unrealized potential to be recognized for their association with LGBTQ heritage: Pioneer Square, which was central to LGBTQ activity during the pre-World War II period; and Capitol Hill, which became important in the post-Stonewall era.41 Specific Seattle landmarks of LGBTQ history remain to be designated, for example the Double Header Tavern in Pioneer Square, which laid claim to being the oldest continually operating gay bar in the city (and possibly the United States), having opened in 1934 and closed on December 31, 2015.42
Largely framed by neighborhoods as units of study, official surveys of the city’s historic resources have generally emphasized architecture at the expense of social history, including LGBTQ themes.43 Even Seattle’s Harvard-Belmont Historic District, which lies in the heart of Capitol Hill, presents its character defining features in terms of “fine homes built by the city’s leading financiers, industrialists, merchants, and businessmen in the early years of the twentieth century,” overlooking the role of LGBTQ community in shaping neighborhood character.44 But it is not just a matter of adding the missing information; the way that district boundaries have been framed from neighborhood and architectural perspectives may not align with the social geography of LGBTQ community.45
Signature urban “gayborhoods” too often have been overlooked by preservation planners, however geographers Michael Brown and Larry Knopp, who mapped Seattle’s LGBTQ heritage, including historic places within the Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, caution that concentrated neighborhoods are also paralleled by more diffuse patterns of queer settlement; “we are everywhere.”46 Historical patterns of residential segregation by race also complicate the geography of LGBTQ settlement. This pattern made San Francisco’s Castro District a center for white, gay male community beginning in the 1960s, while across the Bay, the color line combined with a richness of community institutions to make Oakland the locus of African American LGBTQ settlement. Building on the work of Omi and Winant, and Oliver and Shapiro, respectively, Charles Nero offers a reminder of the critical role housing has played as a site of racial formation, constraining African Americans’ residential opportunities in American cities. It has framed the racialized geography of LGBTQ communities in ways that have largely unexplored implications for preservation planning.47
Moreover, geographic differences among and between cities have implications for varying patterns of spatial development in LGBTQ communities. For example, Los Angeles covers more geographic area than Manhattan and San Francisco put together, necessitating “a mobility of daily life that scatters ethnic, racial, religious, and other culturally defined communities,” including LGBTQ communities. As a result, instead of concentrated “gayborhoods,” like those found in the Castro and Greenwich Village, “gay and lesbian communities exist at all scales and levels of visibility… simply put, the complexity of Los Angeles’s social and physical geography is the basis for a different narrative.”48 These observations point to the need for more conceptually and methodologically sophisticated approaches to conducting surveys of places significant to LGBTQ communities, designating their landmarks, framing prospective historic districts, and assessing the relative significance of cultural resources.
From Los Angeles’ West Hollywood and Las Vegas’ so-called Fruit Loop, heading east to gay-friendly enclaves such as Lambertville, New Jersey and New Hope, Pennsylvania, and reaching north to the lesbian haven of Northampton, Massachusetts, the commercial and residential spaces claimed by LGBTQ people in America, while often recognized at the local level, have yet to be fully acknowledged as nationally significant in the context of the NHL and NRHP programs.49 The tendency to conceptualize urban historic districts as dense, contiguous, and rooted in the downtown core may make it easier to designate neighborhoods historically populated by those white gay men whose relative economic, social, and racial privileges have allowed them to come together in dense urban residential and commercial zones, as opposed to the places where queer women and people of color have tended to make their homes.
Addressing Overlooked Property Types in Federal, State, and Local Preservation Programs
The abundance of historic houses on the NRHP, and predominance of this building type among listings with potential to interpret LGBTQ lives, reflects a prior generation’s emphasis on extraordinary individuals as agents of change and underlying biases that favored preserving the architecturally distinguished heritage of a property-holding elite. The rise of the New Social History in the 1960s and 1970s brought greater attention to places associated with the collective struggles, accomplishments, and experiences of the American people. Beyond the questions it raised about whose history is remembered, this paradigm shift in historical scholarship has pointed to the need to preserve a wider array of property types beyond historic houses and districts. Historic resort destinations that established a welcoming climate long before it was a consistent feature of everyday life, such as Provincetown, Massachusetts; Fire Island, New York; and Palm Springs, California, offered unusual degrees of freedom precisely because of the vast scope of the public landscape queer folks claimed as their own: hotels, guest houses, beaches, groves, entertainment venues, and streets.50 When a single property with a high degree of integrity is designated as emblematic of a larger landscape, such as the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater on Fire Island, it skews the overall picture of LGBTQ community life in past times and places.51
Private residences of various types served as safe spaces for launching homophile and gay rights organizations. Henry Gerber’s Chicago residence was the organizational base for the briefly lived Society for Human Rights from 1924 and 1925. The Society was the first chartered organization in the United States dedicated to advocacy for the rights of homosexuals, and published Friendship and Freedom, the first known publication of a homosexual organization in the United States. While the Society dissolved in 1925 when Gerber and several other members were arrested, Gerber continued to advocate for the rights of homosexuals throughout his lifetime.52 The brick row house, built in 1885, is a contributing element in the Old Town Triangle Chicago Landmark District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The property associated with Gerber was first designated a Chicago City Landmark based on its significance in LGBTQ history in 2001 and became a National Historic Landmark in 2015. Similarly, Harry Hay’s various residences in Los Angeles played a similar role by hosting formative meetings of the Mattachine Society in the late 1940s and early 1950s; the Gay Liberation Front at the end of the 1960s; and the Radical Faeries a decade later.53
Once these sorts of groups gained organizational momentum, expanded membership, and adopted a more confident public posture, the next step was to rent storefronts and office space. Any organization that survived more than a few years, such as the Daughters of Bilitis, moved multiple times, since they were tenants rather than property owners.54 Other commercial property types historically associated with the formation of LGBTQ communities include bathhouses, bars, and social halls. Ephemeral events often are tied to place without necessarily leaving a permanent imprint, including sites of protests and demonstrations, marches, riots, gatherings, and celebrations. The random accrual of NHL and NRHP listings without intentionally planning for the protection of LGBTQ cultural resources has skewed queer lives in ways that render them as more isolated than they were in actuality. In years to come, as the historic context for LGBTQ heritage is fleshed out and a wider range of property types are documented, a far richer picture will emerge of the LGBTQ dimensions of American history.
Mapping LGBTQ Historic Places
Beginning in the mid-1990s, grassroots efforts were launched simultaneously in several cities to identify and map places of significance in gay and lesbian history. One notable project was A Guide to Lesbian and Gay New York Historical Landmarks, prepared in 1994 by preservationists involved with the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects and Designers (OLGAD) in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in New York City.55 This project drew upon original research by OLGAD members including Ken Lustbader’s 1993 Columbia University graduate thesis on preserving lesbian and gay history in Greenwich Village.
Community-based mapping projects, driven largely by volunteer energy, have been intertwined with two related developments to support LGBTQ preservation: the emergence of archives with collections and exhibition programs; and a growing body of scholarship, particularly studies of local history, highlighting LGBTQ individuals, organizations, events, and aspects of everyday life potentially linked to historic places.56 Mapping projects have reflected this convergence of archival collecting, public history projects, and local scholarship.
Founded in 1994 by Mark Meinke, Jose Gutierrez, Charles Johnson, Bruce Pennington, and James Crutchfield, the volunteer organization Rainbow History initially took on the project of archiving DC’s gay history, driven by an overarching concern about the loss of community memory due to the AIDS epidemic and Meinke’s specific interest in documenting local drag culture. As the oral histories and archival sources pointed to places of significance, Rainbow History established a database of historic places. As Meinke has explained, “By the end of the first year, the Places and Spaces database of sites, compiled from oral histories, newspaper advertising, and extant community guides had reached 370 sites.”57
By its second year, the organization used the information it had amassed to begin preparing a NRHP nomination for the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny home and office in the Palisades area of Washington, DC.59 Between 2003 and 2010, Meinke generated a series of eight self-guided walking tours of LGBTQ historic places in DC, available to the public in brochure form, with members of Rainbow History periodically leading groups on tours. Similar volunteer initiatives that generated public exhibits, maps, and walking tours in Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle, among other cities, brought new attention to the status of LGBTQ historic sites and buildings long before the mainstream of the preservation movement was ready to extend its embrace.60 Although it was not necessarily the case at the time they were originally identified for maps and walking-tour itineraries, some of the extant historic buildings they located eventually became the object of focused preservation activity.
A number of urban design, streetscape improvement, and street naming interventions have amplified a LGBTQ presence in public places. Yearly Pride Celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion have built an audience for relevant programming at the local level and offered an impetus for new projects to increase the public visibility of LGBTQ communities, simultaneously presenting opportunities for local, state, and federal government entities to signal their commitment to diversity and inclusion. The City of Philadelphia added rainbows to its Twelfth and Thirteenth Street signs in recognition of its vitality as a so-called “gayborhood,” and the cities of West Hollywood and Seattle, in 2012 and 2015 respectively, decorated crosswalks in a rainbow design in conjunction with Pride celebrations (Figure 6).61 As a strategy to promote LGBTQ tourism, West Hollywood ultimately made its rainbow crosswalks permanent. Related initiatives have popped up in cities including Key West, Philadelphia, Northampton, San Francisco, and Sacramento.62 Recognizing that progress in LGBTQ rights has also been matched by a backlash, Seattle used rainbow crosswalks to call attention to the consequences of virulent homophobia, marking eleven spots where people had been the victims of homo- and transphobic assaults.63 This raises the larger question of whether there is room within commemorative programs to address some of the most pernicious and troubling aspects of LGBTQ history—discriminatory firings and evictions, unjust incarceration in prisons and mental hospitals, hate speech, and violence—subjects not readily embraced by the tourist industry, which tilts toward substantially more upbeat and heroic narratives.
Strategies for Increasing LGBTQ Visibility in American Cities
A variety of strategies have been adopted to make LGBTQ pioneers, communities, and history visible on public streets, even when there is no direct connection to preserving historic resources. Chicago’s Boystown was the object of a 1998 neighborhood streetscape investment by Mayor Richard M. Daley intended to recognize and make visible its significance as an LGBTQ neighborhood. The resulting urban design project erected ten pairs of rainbow pylons, with memorial plaques honoring icons of LGBTQ history, which together define a Legacy Walk along the North Halsted Street corridor.65 Street naming initiatives have commemorated major figures in the LGBTQ rights movement, including Frank Kameny (Washington, DC, 2010), Barbara Gittings (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2012), José Sarria (San Francisco, California, 2006), Sylvia Rivera (New York City, New York, 2005), Harvey Milk (San Diego, California, 2012; Salt Lake City, Utah, 2016), Bettie Naylor (Austin, Texas, 2012). In 2015, Staten Island renamed a street to honor Jimmy Zappalorti, a gay military veteran who was brutally murdered in a gay bashing in 1990. In 2011, Los Angeles’ Silver Lake Neighborhood Council voted to rename the Cove Avenue Stairway in honor of gay rights pioneer Harry Hay.
Historical marker programs, such as the one run by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, have begun to commemorate sites associated with LGBTQ heritage. In 2005, they erected a state historical marker across from Independence Hall in Philadelphia to honor the LGBTQ activists who held annual Fourth of July Reminder Day demonstrations there from 1965 to 1969 calling for equality (Figure 7).66 In 2016, the state erected a state historical marker commemorating the life and work of Barbara Gittings.67 A state historic marker recognizes the birthplace of lesbian poet Natalie Clifford Barney in Dayton, Ohio, and in Hidalgo County, Texas, a state marker was placed in 2015 at the grave of Gloria Anzaldúa, an influential cultural theorist who had relationships with both men and women. Honorific street naming is also under consideration for the block of Taylor Street in San Francisco where Compton’s Cafeteria was located, in recognition of patrons’ 1966 protest against homophobic police harassment.68
Artists have also played a role in making LGBTQ history more visible at historic sites and buildings, independent of their official status in designation and preservation programs. In a 1994 temporary street sign installation project called Queer Spaces, the artists’ collective REPOHistory boldly called attention to nine New York City landmarks of LGBTQ history with text screened onto pink triangles made of chipboard, queering the narrative usually found on historical markers.69 Similar to other REPOHistory projects, the signs were intended as counter-monuments to provoke public reflection on why some histories are visible, while others remain obscured in public memory. Since 1989, the Visual AIDS organization has used art projects to increase AIDS awareness and prevention, document the work of artists with HIV/AIDS, and promote the artistic contribution of the AIDS movement. It offers a reminder of the impact of the epidemic on an entire generation, including its artists, and points to the enormous shadow it casts over LGBTQ preservation efforts. While none of these strategic interventions in urban design, public art, or streetscape projects has led directly to the preservation of historic resources, together they have helped to gain traction for emerging heritage preservation initiatives.
Leveraging the Tourist Industry to Promote LGBTQ Heritage Preservation
A complementary force informing all of these initiatives is a growing segment of the tourist industry that markets its services to LGBTQ people, contributing in direct and indirect ways to creating a market for LGBTQ heritage tourism. Some travel agents, resorts, cruise ships, and lodging owners have built their reputation on being LGBTQ-friendly, advertising places of respite in a heteronormative and homophobic world.70 Many of these enterprises operate under the banner of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, founded in 1983, whose reach now extends to eighty countries on six continents.71 Tourist itineraries that highlight places significant in LGBTQ heritage have been bolstered by this industry, for example in world cities that have hosted the Gay Games, which feature a robust slate of athletic and cultural events.72 In 1998, when Amsterdam became the first city outside of North America to serve in that role, the usual canal cruises were augmented with tours of local queer heritage.
Over time, some cities have intentionally promoted their reputation as being LGBTQ-friendly in a bid for tourist revenue. Some places that took the lead in legalizing same-sex marriage or civil unions launched campaigns to become destinations of choice for couples unable to tie the knot in their home state. These segmented marketing campaigns have highlighted local history, cultural resources, and commercial establishments of particular interest to queer visitors. Beginning in 2002, for example, the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus began marketing its attractions with a website provocatively titled, “Get Your History Straight and your Nightlife Gay.”73 This advertising tends to feature current businesses, but sometimes is linked to LGBTQ heritage tours. In Philadelphia, Bob Skiba bridged the marketing of Philadelphia as a gayfriendly tourist destination and related heritage tourism: while president of the Philadelphia Association of Tour Guides in 2008, he prepared a series of maps that documented LGBTQ business in Center City. Later, as curator at the William Way LGBT Community Center’s John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, Skiba created a blog called The Gayborhood Guru, which translates the city’s queer history into site-specific historical information, occasionally leading walking tours of these places under the Way Center’s auspices.74
Small scale heritage tours were established early on in the most queerfriendly cities, notably Trevor Hailey’s walking tour, “Cruisin’ the Castro,” which started in 1989.75 While much of the mapping of LGBTQ historic places—and occasional tours—have been advanced by nonprofit organizations such as DC’s Rainbow History or the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project in Seattle, tours that highlight places of contemporary and historical significance have emerged as more elaborate profit-making enterprises in recent years. Paid walking tours can be found in New Orleans and Chicago, while bus tours are available in Manhattan and Los Angeles.76 The combined forces of LGBTQ pride, queer entrepreneurship, and urban boosterism enhanced the commercial viability of heritage-oriented LGBTQ enterprises from the 1990s onward. It was in this broader context, and amidst growing interest in LGBTQ history generally, that Paula Martinac found a welcoming audience for the 1997 publication of her national guide to historic sites, The Queerest Places.77
The Rise of LGBTQ Advocacy in Fields Associated with Preservation
Developments within scholarly and professional associations have buoyed LGBTQ preservation efforts both directly and indirectly. In all cases, LGBTQ heritage and cultural resources professionals have built networks of mutual support, organized to advocate for their interests, and promoted visibility for emerging scholarship in their fields, including in flagship journals and on the programs of annual meetings. The Committee on LGBT History, founded in 1979 as the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History, has played an important advocacy role within the American Historical Association (AHA), with which it has been affiliated since 1982.78 As public memory and the power of place increasingly have become analytical categories within historical scholarship, AHA sessions sponsored by the committee, such as one at the 2013 annual conference in New Orleans on “Locating LGBT History in Urban Spaces,” have become increasingly relevant to the project of queer heritage preservation.79 The Committee on the Status of LGBTQ Historians and Histories, established in 2013, has played a similar role within the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Links between scholarship and tangible heritage are illustrated by the committee’s offerings at the 2015 OAH meeting, which included a walking tour of the queer history of St. Louis’ Central West End, as well as selections from the exhibit Gateway to History, featuring the city’s LGBTQ history.80 The National Council on Public History also has been a welcoming home for LGBTQ content at its annual meetings.
Founded in 1989, the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR), an interest group within the Society of American Archivists, formed to advance queer history and the status of LGBTQs in the archival profession. In addition to basic advocacy work, LAGAR has created a guide to collections of interest to the LGBTQ community and a manual outlining best practices for community archives.81
Within the museum world, the LGBTQ Alliance, a professional network within the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), is committed to advancing a more inclusive agenda. While its concerns include issues of representation and visibility at large institutions, its membership includes managers of historic sites and independent museum professionals who are grappling with how issues of sex and sexuality—as well as race, class, and gender—can be integrated into interpretive programs.82 A useful tool, two years in the making by Alliance members and released at the May 2016 AAM meeting, articulates “Welcoming Guidelines” that set standards for LGBTQ inclusion in museums.83 The volume of scholarship related to the interpretation of LGBTQ history at museums and historic sites is growing, from focused case studies of particular sites, for example Michael Lesperance’s study of Virginia’s Glen Burnie, to a comprehensive treatment in Susan Ferentinos’ award-winning book.84 In a related field with implications for museums, the Queer Caucus for Art, initiated in 1989 as a society of the College Art Association (CAA), has been instrumental in advancing art history, theory, criticism, and art practice related to LGBTQ themes, issuing its first newsletter in 1995 and holding sessions, exhibitions, and related activities at annual meetings of the CAA.85
The emergence of LGBTQ advocacy groups within the architecture and design professions has had direct consequences for historic preservation.86 As well as OLGAD’s work in New York City,87 Boston Gay and Lesbian Architects and Designers (BGLAD), formed in 1991 as a committee of the Boston Society of Architects, worked with the Boston Area Gay and Lesbian History Project to produce a map of known lesbian and gay historic places in 1995.88 Progressive Architecture reported on OLGAD’s inaugural Design Pride Conference in New York City, held in 1994, which provided a forum for discussing concerns about the status of lesbians and gays in architectural firms and helped to build an audience for an array of new publications about the relationship between (homo)sexuality and space.89 The Arcus Endowment and Foundation Chair, established at University of California, Berkeley in 2000, is the rare university-based resource supporting emerging experts and projects at the intersection of LGBTQ issues and the professions of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning.90
At the American Planning Association (APA) national conference in Boston in 1998, Gays and Lesbians in Planning (GALIP) became a new division of the APA, having functioned as an informal network since they met for the first time in 1992 at the national conference in Washington, DC.91 Similar to the other scholarly societies and professional organizations previously mentioned, GALIP provides a venue for information exchange, mutual support, and promoting scholarship in city and regional planning. The field of planning has produced numerous articles and two major volumes on LGBTQ themes that incorporate historic preservation on the queer planning agenda.92 Beyond professional associations, citizen planners began to organize in the mid-1990s to protect queer interests in gay neighborhoods facing runaway development pressures, for example the Bay Area group Castro Area Planning + Action.93
The intellectual foundations for efforts to map queer space have been reinforced by academic work at the intersection of geography and urban and regional planning, as spatially-oriented social scientists began in the 1990s to engage with sexuality as a category of analysis in addition to race, class, and gender.94 While early architectural publications tilted toward the experiences of white gay men, geography proved to be more inclusive of the spatial dimensions of lesbian lives.95 Within the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the specialty group Sexuality and Space formed in 1996, arising out of serious concern about the “unquestioned heterosexuality of the geographic enterprise.”96 Over time, the specialty group has become an intellectually vital force in mapping out a new subfield of geographic study by holding pre-conferences in conjunction with annual AAG meetings and bringing recognition to outstanding scholarship. Two of its members, Larry Knopp and Michael Brown, have been central to a project that mapped Seattle’s LGBTQ landmarks.
Established in 2014 after more than a decade of effort, the Queer Archaeology Interest Group is one of more than a dozen affiliates of the Society for American Archaeology, providing a network for LGBTQ archeologists and an engine for advancing research and pedagogy.97 Beyond providing a gathering place for scholars working in this area, the formation of the interest group is a landmark achievement in its own right by overcoming “the difficulties often associated with being LGBTQI and stigmatization within [the] discipline and society at large.”98 While the theoretical and methodological implications of this field are emerging, it is not yet clear what will be required to integrate insights from queer archeology into the public interpretation of archeological sites.99 Past struggles to incorporate LGBTQ history into the interpretive programs at historic properties points to the likelihood of a significant lag between the state of knowledge in the field and successful implementation in public archeology practice.
The Rise of a LGBTQ-Inclusive Preservation Movement
Advocacy for LGBTQ issues directly within the preservation movement began to coalesce at the end of the 1980s and firmly took hold in the 1990s, powered by the combined forces of local and national initiatives. Grassroots activities in San Francisco drew the Western Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) into issues of preservation that involved LGBTQ communities, a position that put it out in front of the parent organization in many respects. At a time when the preservation movement was still resistant to addressing LGBTQ issues and the community had not yet explicitly embraced preservation within its broader agenda for political equality and cultural equity, the advocacy group Friends of 1800 formed in San Francisco to articulate the connections.
Friends of 1800 organized in 1987 as advocates for the preservation of San Francisco’s nearly century-old Carmel Fallon building, whose future was threatened by demolition plans intended to make way for a LGBTQ Community Center.100 Thus, the Friends’ initial cause required work to build awareness of and appreciation for the value of historic preservation within the LGBTQ community, though it also raised awareness of LGBTQ issues among many preservation professionals. These goals ultimately shaped the organization’s mission to preserve “significant historical buildings, landmarks and the architectural heritage of San Francisco with a special interest in the identification and recognition of issues and sites important to GLBT history and culture.”101
For a time, Friends of 1800’s website was the place to go for information on LGBTQ preservation. Following the organization’s success in preserving the Fallon Building,102 the Friends organized a 2001 conference in San Francisco focused on preserving LGBTQ heritage, Looking Back and Forward, in collaboration with the GLBT Northern California Historical Society and the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center at the San Francisco Public Library. As organizer Gerry Takano recalled, the conference broke new ground:
Back then only a few bona fide preservations sanctioned the legitimacy of the glbt community’s minority status. The basis of a cultural resource’s recognition and significance, instead, was commonly defined by race and ethnic origin, not sexual orientation. Furthermore, the high proportion of gay men and lesbians involved in some form of preservation activity was trivialized as inconsequential and negligible.
For that reason, the conference highlighted a wide array of places significant for their connection with LGBTQ communities, and helped to coalesce advocacy for LGBTQ cultural resources among preservationists.103 The vocal contingent of LGBTQ preservationists who organized to save the Carmel Fallon Building served as a bridge between the LGBTQ and preservation communities, raising questions of where their concerns fit on each other’s agendas. Friends of 1800 also directly advanced the cause of identifying places of significance in LGBTQ heritage by producing the first historic context statement in the United States on LGBTQ properties.104
Institutional Transformation: Gaining Traction for LGBTQ Issues within the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service
These early initiatives helped to seed a network of concerned LGBTQ preservationists and their allies, who in turn leveraged momentum to press for a more visible place on the program of annual meetings of the NTHP with the goals of embedding issues of sexual orientation within the organization and institutionalizing change. Behind the scenes, there were wrenching struggles over the prominence of LGBTQ topics on the program of NTHP annual conferences, as the organization’s leadership was concerned about antagonizing and alienating conservative elements of the membership at a time when the culture wars were raging.
Progress in advancing organizational change advanced incrementally. The first sign of progress was the NTHP’s commitment to hosting an October 1996 social gathering for LGBTQ preservationists at its fiftieth annual conference in Chicago. It foreshadowed a more significant commitment the following year to a full educational session, “Hidden History: Identifying and Interpreting Gay and Lesbian Places,” at its National Preservation Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico.105 The resounding success of that session paved the way for LGBTQ receptions and heritage tours at the National Trust’s annual conferences. These steps cumulatively laid the foundation for addressing LGBTQ issues within the NTHP’s publications: Preservation Magazine, which is a perk of general membership; and Forum, which is followed mainly by preservation practitioners and educators.
Coverage of the San Francisco walking tour “Cruisin’ the Castro” broke the silence about LGBTQ heritage within Preservation in 1997.106 It was followed in 1998 by the publication of my essay, “Blazing Trails with Pink Triangles and Rainbow Flags,” in Forum.107 Drawn from my presentation at the New Mexico session, the article outlined an agenda for action, including:
- writing gays and lesbians into the history of the preservation movement;
- improving the interpretation of LGBT history at existing landmarks;
- identifying and listing overlooked historic resources;
- increasing public education and awareness of LGBT heritage;
- building advocacy for the protection of historic resources; and
- building institutional capacity within preservation advocacy organizations and cultural resource management agencies to address these issues effectively.
Still, it was unclear to what extent the NTHP was prepared to address LGBTQ themes at historic properties in its own portfolio, as evidenced by pressure from Forum editors to drop references in the “Blazing Trails” article to the Trust’s planned acquisition of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut and negotiations in process over Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.108 My point was that the acquisition of these historic properties would provide the NTHP with the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to LGBTQ inclusive policies and practices, since same-sex relationships were essential to their creation. The editorial conflict captured the leadership at a moment of deep ambivalence, caught between the demands of LGBTQ preservationists in its own ranks, who were frustrated by chronic silences that devalued their contributions to the movement and obscured important elements of their history, and a conservative faction within the membership still struggling with unvarnished presentations about the horrors of slavery at NTHP properties, much less shame-free narratives about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Ultimately, Ghost Ranch remained in the hands of the Presbyterian Church, which runs it as an education and retreat center. To date, the contributions of Maria Chabot to building the house, and her intimate relationship with O’Keeffe, have little purchase. In contrast, the Glass House, which Johnson ultimately bequeathed to the NTHP, has become a model of candor since opening to the public in 1987 (Figure 8). Both the website and site-based programs directly address its gay content as a landmark of modern architecture designed by a gay architect, Philip Johnson, whose partner of forty-five years, David Whitney, was instrumental in shaping their private art collection. The fact that Johnson stepped out of the closet late in life helped make it possible to address his sexual orientation and same-sex partnership without the shadow of outing someone against their wishes.110 It has become one of the rare historic houses that explicitly acknowledges a same-sex life partnership on its website as well as in creative site-based programming.111 In May 2016, for example, Glass House hosted a performance of “Modern Living” by Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly, whose work is a meditation on “how the house sheltered and protected a queer subculture.”112 The property is a bellwether of the NTHP’s growing embrace of LGBTQ issues. Today the preservation advocacy organization broadcasts its commitment to inclusion in multiple ways, sponsoring a listserv for those interested in LGBTQ issues, publicizing examples of historic places, and bringing advocates into broader conversations about diversity and inclusion in the preservation movement.113
By the end of the 1990s, the foundation for an LGBTQ-inclusive preservation movement had been established through grassroots initiatives, the formation of new interest groups focused on LGBTQ heritage within professional associations, and an increasingly vocal contingent of out lesbians and gay men working within the field of preservation. Preservation professionals, some of whom had been active in grassroots initiatives, mobilized to make the major preservation organizations and agencies more responsive to their concerns. These efforts were complemented by progressive developments in a wide range of scholarly and professional organizations in the fields of history, archival and museum administration, architecture, art, planning, and geography, which lent support to changes in the preservation movement’s approach to LGBTQ issues.
The National Park Service exhibited similar concerns in the 1990s about the prospect of political fallout in response to any effort to designate historic places tied to LGBTQ people and events. At a time when the culture wars were raging, matters of historical interpretation became highly politicized at the federal level. Intense controversy in 1989 over the National Endowment for the Arts’ support for Andres Serrano’s provocative photograph, Piss Christ; and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s planned 1994 exhibit of the Enola Gay, the plane used to drop atomic weapons on Japan, put federal agencies on notice that a coalition of conservative politicians and their constituents, particularly religious organizations, would use the threat of budget cuts to enforce their views.
In this climate, some NHL nominations prepared for the Congressionally-funded Women’s History Landmark Study that touched on controversial contemporary issues such as birth control, abortion, sexuality, and radical politics—for example Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Clinic and Emma Goldman’s apartment, where her ideology of free love was practiced and the Mother Earth News was published—were sidelined. Conservative hostility toward critiques of American history, feminism, and LGBTQ rights that reached into the next decade occasionally derailed unrelated NHL nominations, such as Seattle’s Panama Hotel, which is significant in Japanese American history for many reasons, including the ca. 1915 traditional Japanese bathhouse, Hashidate-Yu, in the basement.114 In the nomination review process, the bathhouse—a model of propriety—was erroneously conflated with gay bathhouses, where public sex has been a feature of male sociality and a celebration of same-sex attraction. The 2002 nomination stalled for four years before finally securing NHL status. But its eventual success begs the question: what if actual gay bathhouses were proposed for landmark designation, such as the Everard, Lafayette, Continental, and New St. Marks in New York City; or their San Francisco equivalents: the Palace, Jack’s, Ritch Street, Barracks, and Liberty Baths, among many others?115 These types of sites, far more provocative than domestic idylls, are just beginning to be considered for recognition, for example San Francisco’s Ringold Alley in the South of Market neighborhood. Once a cruising spot for gay men seeking quick pickups and sex, it is now scheduled to become a commemorative plaza, which will include bronze footprints in the pavement and the reproduction of an iconic mural from the Tool Box Bathhouse, harkening back to its heyday from 1962 to the mid-1960s.116 The volatile relationship between politics and culture that settled into American public life in the 1990s (which has morphed into new debates over the impact of LGBTQ rights on those who object on moral or religious grounds) provides a context for appreciating the cultural victory that Stonewall’s listing as a National Historic Landmark represented in 2000.
The contentious political climate in this period also explains why much of the forward momentum to recognize places of significance in LGBTQ history can be traced to grassroots initiatives. The Victorian-era building that housed Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera shop and residence, which also served as headquarters for his four campaigns for public office, was designated San Francisco Landmark #227 in July 2000 (Figure 9). Iconic Stonewall, part of the Greenwich Village Historic District, was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000. It would take fifteen more years, however, before the property would be approved as a New York City landmark.118
In DC, the group Rainbow History was the driving force behind the addition of gay rights activist Frank Kameny’s home and offices to the roster of local landmarks, with support from the DC Preservation League. The research and writing process began in 2003 and resulted in a completed National Register nomination in 2006, with the property becoming a DC landmark in 2009 and listing on the NRHP in 2011.119 A contributor to the delay was the standard practice of limiting NRHP designations to those no longer living. While Kameny had the satisfaction of living to see his home and office listed as a DC landmark, the property was added to the NRHP only after his death, becoming the first property to honor a major figure in the LGBTQ rights movement.
Support within the Department of Interior for listing these overlooked properties on the NHRP and recognizing the most outstanding examples as NHLs came from GLOBE: Gay Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Employees of the Federal Government. Interior GLOBE, a mutual support and advocacy group run by and for employees of the Department of the Interior, played a key role in advancing Stonewall for listing on the NRHP as a first step toward NHL designation, which is restricted to properties with the highest levels of significance and integrity. According to Stephen A. Morris, a founding member of Interior GLOBE, it was at one of its:
monthly meetings in the summer of 1998 that the idea of honoring Stonewall as an official historic site was first discussed – the members hit on this as a bit of a legacy project for the Clinton Administration which had brought so many openly gay political appointees into the Department [of the Interior].120
Their partnership with the GVSHP, OLGAD, and Andrew Dolkart and colleagues, who authored the nomination, moved the project beyond the roadblocks encountered in an attempt several years earlier. Interior GLOBE also lent support to the inclusion of Frank Kameny’s house on the NRHP.121
Connecting Grassroots Initiatives with Landmark Designation Programs
One of the major limitations of the many local, community-based mapping projects, from the perspective of historic preservation, is that they did not directly advance the protection of resources significant in LGBTQ heritage or integrate them into programs to designate landmarks. Nevertheless, as momentum grew within the preservation movement, grassroots mapping projects became a source of actual nominations. Virginia-based Rainbow Heritage Network has proven to be a particularly fruitful generator of nominations, widening the coverage of places associated with women and people of color. Rainbow Heritage Network cofounder Mark Meinke, along with homeowner Robert Pohl, led efforts to nominate the Capitol Hill row house that was the main home and operational center for the Furies as a DC landmark and to the NRHP. The Furies was a small lesbian feminist collective founded in 1971 that played a key role in the rise of Second-wave feminism and the LGBTQ movement. The building’s large basement hosted meetings of the collective and was the headquarters for publishing its newspaper, The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 2, 2016.122
The DC home of the Furies’ Collective is not the only site with significant connections to the rise of lesbian feminism. There are others that also have the potential to become landmarks. The homes of some of the movement’s most articulate proponents, for example black lesbian feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde, which stands in Staten Island; or preeminent American poet Adrienne Rich, who established long-term residences with her partner, the writer and editor Michelle Cliff, in Montague, Massachusetts, and later in Santa Cruz, California, could become the late twentieth century’s equivalents of a prior generation’s drive to save Willa Cather and Walt Whitman’s houses.123 Moreover, collective spaces such as the offices of Olivia Records, which was founded in 1973 to record and distribute women’s music (based in Los Angeles and subsequently located in Oakland), along with critical sites of political action, by groups such as ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers, both of which shunned conventional forms of protest in favor of bolder tactics, await recognition for their distinctive roles in LGBTQ history.124
Fortunately work to identify and designate places associated with some of the most compelling LGBTQ figures in American history has begun to move beyond the lives of white gay men to include women and people of color. Trailblazing civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s (1912-1987) residence at the Penn South Complex in Manhattan was recognized as a landmark by the New York State Board for Historic Preservation in 2015 and added to the NRHP in 2016.125 An African American gay man, Rustin was active in American movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights, earning a reputation as the best organizer in America. He purchased the apartment in 1962, joined by his life partner Walter Naegle in 1977. Rustin lived there until his death in 1987, after which Naegle preserved it almost exactly as it had been during Rustin’s time. Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama in 2013.126
One little-recognized source of information feeding LGBTQ preservation projects are theses and dissertations by students pursuing graduate degrees in historic preservation and related fields (particularly architecture, urban planning, museum studies, and public history), who are eager to connect their political concerns and identity to their chosen profession.127 Ken Lustbader’s 1993 Columbia University thesis on Greenwich Village laid a foundation for two decades of initiatives addressing LGBTQ history within the historic district and pointed the way for broader initiatives to recover NYC’s queer cultural resources.128 Bill Adair’s graduate thesis and Moira Kenney’s dissertation, both completed in UCLA’s Urban Planning program, fed into a grassroots project to map the city’s gay and lesbian landmarks, an initiative that was supported by the Western Regional Office of the NTHP.129 Similarly, Shayne Watson’s 2009 University of Southern California thesis, which identified the tangible remains of San Francisco’s lesbian community in North Beach in the period from 1933 to 1960, provided both methodological insights and a stream of information for a recent citywide context document.130 Many of these projects created experts and leaders in the area of LGBTQ heritage. It points to the possibilities for cultivating a next generation of leadership by supporting the work of graduate students with an interest in and aptitude for preserving queer heritage.
Because much of the foundational work to preserve LGBTQ historic places was not commissioned or sponsored by formal preservation advocacy groups or agencies, the mapping projects and growing number of individual landmark designations were done without some of the most useful tools for preservation planning, namely:
- detailed historic context documents that identify the range of themes and property types significant in LGBTQ heritage within a particular locale; and which provide a comparative context for assessing the relative significance and integrity of places associated with those themes; and
- systematic surveys that document the history and condition of extant resources. These kinds of projects require substantial resources to produce high-quality products and go well beyond the capacity of purely voluntary efforts. Fortunately, there are now several model projects to guide further work of this type, and new projects in the pipeline.
Employing the Tools of Preservation Planning: LGBTQ Context Documents, Field Surveys, and Nominations
The first known example of a an LGBTQ context document, prepared by Damien Scott in 2004, grew out of the foundational work done by Friends of 1800 in San Francisco and was carried out with very limited funding. Faced with financial constraints, project organizers are rarely able to engage the full range of constituencies nominally organized under the banner of LGBTQ. More than two decades later, the City and County of San Francisco deepened its commitment to planning for the protection of its queer heritage by commissioning a new context document that built upon and reached beyond the pioneering 1994 project. San Francisco’s leadership points to the level of political mobilization, advocacy, organization, and volunteer effort required to bring LGBTQ heritage to the fore, and explains why it remains obscured elsewhere in the American landscape, despite the fact that LGBTQ people have resided everywhere. Fortunately, this picture is beginning to change as groups outside the metropoles of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City are organizing to preserve their cultural queer resources.
The ability to carry out systematic surveys of LGBTQ places has hinged on the willingness of preservation agencies to allocate funding, which in turn depends on the political clout of the local LGBTQ communities. For that reason, the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco have been at the forefront of supporting the development of historic context documents. Nestled within the larger project “Survey LA,” the City of Los Angeles completed an LGBT Historic Context Statement in 2014 with support from the NPS and the California Office of Historic Preservation.131 It focused on resources dating from the 1930s through the 1970s, principally located in neighborhoods between Downtown and Hollywood such as Westlake, Angelino Heights, Echo Park, and Silver Lake. The project utilized an online forum to gather information from members of the community and concerned groups, a strategy that augmented information exchange at a public meeting. The final report highlighted several themes, including:
- the Gay Liberation Movement;
- LGBT persons and their impact on the entertainment industry;
- the reconciliation of homosexuality and religion;
- gay bars as social institutions;
- the misguided labeling of homosexuality as a mental illness;
- the LGBT community and the media;
- gays and lesbians on the Los Angeles literary scene; and
- queer art. Each theme generated information about multiple properties.
The most comprehensive citywide historic context statement on LGBTQ history completed to date began in 2013 and was completed in 2015 by Donna Graves and Shayne Watson for San Francisco, funded by a grant from the City and County’s Historic Preservation Fund.132 This context statement covered a longer timeline and wider range of themes than its Los Angeles counterpart, including:
- early influences on LGBTQ identities and communities;
- the development and building of local LGBTQ communities;
- policing harassment;
- homophile movements;
- the evolution of LGBTQ enclaves and development of new neighborhoods;
- gay liberation, pride, and politics;
- LGBTQ medicine; and
- the city’s experience of the AIDS epidemic.
The San Francisco project has clarified the value of engaging in an intensive process of grassroots consultation to generate information about properties meaningful to various segments of the LGBTQ community, a process that requires more funding than typically is needed for well-documented aspects of history. So too, it has highlighted the problems that arise when urgently trying to protect historic places whose significance was overlooked for decades and survival is threatened by rising land rents and the rapid pace of development in a superheated regional economy, in this case fueled by the tech boom.133
NPS funding, directed toward local projects to advance preservation in underrepresented communities, is supporting systematic surveys of LGBTQ heritage in New York City, the development of an LGBTQ context document and amendment of several NRHP nominations in Louisville, Kentucky, and the nomination of civil rights properties (including LGBTQ) to the NRHP in San Francisco.134 Funding for the NPS Underrepresented Communities Grants has been approved for 2016. These sorts of investments will begin the hard work of filling gaps in our shared understanding of the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and increase the possibilities for preserving the tangible resources associated with their heritage in the future.
Once more work has been done to identify the landmarks of LGBTQ history across the American landscape, and understand their comparative significance and integrity, it will be possible to develop a more comprehensive agenda for preservation and interpretation. The case of NHL designations for Frances Perkins, Molly Dewson, or others in the Roosevelts’ political and social circle (as discussed earlier), points to the value of considering all of the possible sites before narrowing the focus of preservation efforts to one or more properties. The same is true for some of the highest-profile LGBTQ designations.
Prepared as an individual nomination, rather than as part of a comprehensive study, Stonewall was designated without necessarily considering the comparative significance and integrity of other contemporary sites of rebellion. Well-documented examples occurred years earlier, in August 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, also sparked by resistance to police harassment.135 Two parallel riots occurred in Los Angeles: the first at the popular downtown hangout, Cooper’s Donut shop, in May 1959, which was a hangout for drag queens and hustlers because they were barred from entering either of the gay bars that flanked it; and the second at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, which occurred on January 1, 1967.136 It inspired a demonstration the following month that drew hundreds of people to protest police raids, harassment, and violence. The Black Cat was designated as a Los Angeles Cultural-Historic Landmark in 2008.
There’s no debate about Stonewall’s significance or its merit for NHL designation. However, it would hew closer to historical reality to recognize that most national social movements emerge as multi-nodal phenomena over an extended time period, and accordingly, to designate a cluster of associated tangible resources as a thematic group, rather than searching for one iconic property. While local studies are currently the path along which progress is advancing, thematic studies that cross geographic boundaries, for example of the homophile movement, resistance to discrimination in the military, or the emergence of same-sex marriage in America, would benefit from a careful examination of extant historic properties nationally, rather than on a case-by-case basis. The themes explored in this study provide the foundation for a more comprehensive approach to planning for the protection of LGBTQ resources, but additional progress depends on moving to the next stage by commissioning field surveys of the extant tangible resources.
The Queer Future of Preservation Action
Much of the work in LGBTQ preservation undertaken to date has focused on identifying landmarks, increasing public awareness of their significance, and securing their presence on local, state, and federal registers of historic places. Realizing the goals of preserving LGBTQ heritage, however, will require concerted action to protect places of significance from demolition or damaging alterations. Development pressures, especially in cities with runaway growth, make it difficult to preserve historic landmarks under any circumstances. But the long neglect of LGBTQ heritage, uneven knowledge base, and limited mobilization of advocates complicate the process of trying to save threatened cultural resources. San Francisco routinely reports the planned demolition and redevelopment of properties that were identified in its recent theme study. Entry of information about the LGBTQ historic places into the city’s Property Information Map makes it possible to flag them when applications for demolition permits are filed and to include them in broader planning studies, but it doesn’t guarantee protection.137
Where the LGBTQ community exercises considerable political influence, including within local advocacy organizations, negotiations have begun over the fate of threatened landmarks. One property identified as significant within the Survey LA LGBT Historic Context Statement is Circus Disco, a prominent gay and lesbian bar founded in 1975 which had a large Latino/a following.138 In addition to being a place to socialize, it also played an important role in political organizing and coalition building: “In 1983, civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez addressed roughly one hundred members of the Project Just Business gay and lesbian coalition at the bar, where he offered strategies for organizing boycotts and coalition fundraising.”139
Circus Disco was recommended by city staff for consideration as a Los Angeles landmark, however it was not deemed significant or worthy of designation in the Environmental Impact Report prepared for the Lexington Project, the development scheduled to replace it. Early in 2016, Hollywood Heritage struck a deal with the developer to save key artifacts from the property. While it wasn’t a total victory from the perspective of preservation, it signaled a new level of activism to protect the tangible remains of LGBTQ heritage.140 Most news is bleaker: the shuttering of legacy businesses due to soaring rents or threatened demolition of historic properties due to redevelopment.141 Clearly much work remains to be done to translate a growing knowledge base about LGBTQ cultural resources into effective preservation action.
Recent Progress in Reinterpreting LGBTQ Historic Properties
Beyond the designation and protection of places previously overlooked in preservation planning, the work of reinterpreting designated historic properties is advancing on many fronts. At the Hull-House Museum, where the nature of Mary Rozet Smith’s relationship with founder Jane Addams has long been a point of contention, new leadership in 2006 opened the door to engaging with the interpretive issue directly (Figure 10).142 Under Lisa Yun Lee’s direction, museum staff invited visitor responses to alternative descriptions of the bonds between these women:
After consulting with historians and descendants, museum staff crafted three different labels and displayed them next to the painting,… inviting visitors to indicate which label they found most meaningful by posting their comments on a nearby large public response board. Staff hoped the project would inspire visitors to think more critically about the history presented at the museum and to reflect on what was at stake — the determining of the meaning of history and who gets to decide. Thousands of people responded to the project, both at the museum and online, and these responses ultimately informed the treatment of the painting in… the museum‘s new permanent exhibit. The exhibit now includes additional artifacts and photographs illustrating the deep emotional intimacy the two women shared.144
“Gender and Sexuality” is a relatively recent addition to the tour options for Hull-House Museum visitors.145 Other historic places with submerged LGBTQ histories have contended with greater degrees of resistance, conflict, and controversy before site administrators accepted the need for making adjustments. A case in point is Clear Comfort, the home of pioneering photographer Alice Austen located on the north shore of Staten Island.146 The NHL nomination, which was generated in the context of a Congressionally-mandated study of women’s history landmarks, like many others of their day, comes close to addressing LGBTQ issues, while ultimately skirting the subject:
Many of Austen’s pictures explored not only conventional Victorian morals but also gender roles. Often, she and her friends are shown in intimate poses, revealing glimpses of underwear or sharing a bed, private things that no man would have dared to photograph. Other pictures show cigarettes dangling from their lips (at a time when women could be arrested for smoking in public). To further test gender boundaries Austen would dress her friends in male clothing and encourage them to parody what they viewed as typical male poses. Perhaps her rebellion against conventional Victorian standards explains the fact that Austen never married. Her friends said, ‘she was too good for men, that is she could do everything better.’ Instead, she and friend Gertrude Tate formed a fifty-year partnership in which each complemented the other. Austen and Gertrude Tate traveled extensively. In her lifetime Austen made over twenty trips abroad and travelled through much of the United States.147
The Friends of Alice Austen, which manages the property on behalf of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, resisted pressure to deal directly with the issue, a controversy that has been documented by heritage planner Tatum Taylor, who wrote her 2012 graduate thesis in Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program on the dilemmas of interpreting marginalized aspects of heritage:148
In fact, the museum’s board threatened to close the house as a debate swelled over whether Alice’s supposed lesbianism was being intentionally suppressed, or whether it was a fact irrelevant to the interpretation of Clear Comfort’s historic significance. The debate was marked by a 1994 protest at the house held by the Lesbian Avengers.149
In recent years, visitors have benefited from a slightly more candid interpretation of Austen’s relationship with Gertrude Tate, who lived with her at Clear Comfort from 1917 to 1935. Addressing their relationship is not only an important biographical fact, but also a key context for understanding some of the subjects of Austen’s photographs. As the Alice Austen House website explains it:
On one such summer excursion in 1899, visiting a Catskill hotel known as “Twilight Rest,” Alice met Gertrude Tate, who was recuperating there from a bad case of typhoid fever. Gertrude was twenty-eight, a kindergarten teacher and professional dancing instructor, who worked to support her younger sister and widowed mother in Brooklyn. Judging from the small personal photo album that commemorates that summer, Gertrude’s spontaneous gaiety and warm humor enchanted Alice, who was then thirty-three. Gertrude began regularly to visit the Austen House, then to spend long summer holidays in Europe with Alice. But not until 1917, when her younger sister and mother gave up their Brooklyn home, did Gertrude, overriding her family’s appalled objections over her ‘wrong devotion’ to Alice, finally move into Clear Comfort.150
Because the website and interpretation of the historic house made limited direct references to Austen and Tate’s relationship when she examined them in 2012, Taylor was critical of the omissions in the museum’s displays, its orientation film, and related aspects of public interpretation.151 Landmark nominations for this property and others like it that have not been amended to address LGBTQ themes run the risk of overlooking—and potentially threatening—aspects of the physical fabric that merit inclusion in historic properties’ preservation, interpretation, collections management, and restoration plans.
But even in cases where historic site administrators remain reluctant to embrace LGBTQ history, it is possible to convey that history to the public through independent projects presented on the internet or in public spaces adjacent to the property. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, for example, has prepared a presentation that explains the LGBTQ connections to many listed properties, including the Austen House, and there are many models for site-specific art projects that mark placed-based histories in public space.152 Independent initiatives that do not require obtaining the consent of property owners or nonprofit boards offer paths to interpretive freedom. Buy-in is critical for institutionalizing and embedding reforms on site; but direct action has the virtue of disengaging from intractable resistance to make claims on LGBTQ heritage at historic properties that lie beyond current grasp.
At many historic properties, decisions about how much to reveal remains in the hands of individual docents, who often calibrate presentations based on their own perceptions of each visitor’s receptivity. Such is the case at the Gibson House Museum in Boston’s Back Bay, another example of an NHL where little is officially recognized about the place’s connections to LGBTQ history, but where individual guides, with an interest in the subject, have begun to address visitors’ questions about the sexuality of key interpretive figures, in this case Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr. (1874-1954), who was the leading force in preserving the family home as a museum (Figure 11).154 As Gibson House guide Jonathan Vantassel explained, he is:
circumspect about the love life of Charles Hammond Gibson Jr., who preserved his family’s Victorian home for the public, but forthcoming when asked directly about Gibson’s sexuality — often by LGBT visitors. ‘It’s very clear that he was very open and proud about who he was,’ Vantassel says. ‘I think that absolutely we have to . . . give that to our visitors. Otherwise, we’re not telling the whole story.’155
This revised interpretation complicates Gibson’s self-representation as an exceedingly formal and patrician man, who was viewed by others as aloof and lonely.156
Deepening research about the LGBTQ dimensions of historic places, such as Beauport, located in Massachusetts, is transforming their presentation to the public.157 Located atop a rocky ledge overlooking Gloucester Harbor, Beauport was the creation of and home to self-taught designer Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934), a gay man who was a nationally-recognized antiquarian, collector, and interior decorator. The property, designated an NHL in 2003 and operated as an historic house museum, marks Sleeper’s contributions to American decorative arts, and is one of only two places illustrating his career as a designer that survive with a high degree of integrity. Described in most accounts as a lifelong bachelor, tour guides originally responded to questions about Sleeper’s sexuality by stating he never married. Close examination of his passionate letters to A. Platt Andrew, Jr. offered new insight into his same-sex relations, providing an evidentiary base for addressing his homosexuality on guided tours of the property.158 Since 2008, tour guides at Beauport have acknowledged that Sleeper was gay, making it a positive example of the ways LGBTQ heritage can be incorporated into the interpretation of historic places that in the past have principally been recognized for their architectural significance.159
Appropriating New Technologies to Improve the Protection of LGBTQ Heritage
Projects to map LGBTQ sites are becoming more technologically sophisticated, drawing on geographic information systems that marry databases to geolocation programs. Where a community is willing and able to contribute its memories and knowledge of historic places to online venues, the interactive capability of these types of projects allows for crowd-sourced information exchange. Several major projects of this type are directly lodged in the preservation community. Founded in 2012 by Gerard Koskovich, Shayne Watson, and Donna Graves, “Preserving LGBT Historic Sites in California” is a Facebook page that welcomes posts and comments. “California Pride: Mapping LGBTQ Histories” is an intensive, online archives dedicated to the identification, interpretation, and commemoration of queer historic places. It was launched in 2014 with seed funding from the NTHP.
Rainbow Heritage Network, organized in 2015 by Megan Springate and Mark Meinke, has also established a webbased approach to connecting those interested in LGBTQ preservation, sharing information about relevant issues on Facebook, and feeding information into a map locating LGBTQ historic properties.160 The issue with web-based interactive projects, however, is that they require consistent funding to maintain and to support ongoing engagement with members of relevant communities. For these reasons, the long-term success of what started as independent projects will require ongoing institutional commitments, hosts, and homes that stabilize the infrastructure for information collection, dissemination, and mobilization to advance the preservation of LGBTQ heritage.
Conclusion: Strategies for Realizing an Inclusive Preservation Agenda
This overview of the history of LGBTQ preservation points to the many independent initiatives, collective efforts, and organized struggles for institutional change that have moved the needle over the past three decades. Future progress depends not only on coalescing LGBTQ activism, but also on integrating issues of sexuality and gender identity into the larger movement to transform preservation from its elite origins to become more democratic and inclusive. The same identity politics that have energized campaigns to preserve overlooked aspects of women’s history, ethnic history, and LGBTQ history run the risk of missing the intersections among and between them. As new investment is directed toward preparing nominations of LGBTQ properties, it makes sense to prioritize places that have the potential to illuminate the overlap areas.
A nomination in progress for the San Francisco Women’s Building captures multiple layers of historical significance and intersectional themes.161 A four-story building in San Francisco’s Mission District, it was built in 1910 as a Turn Hall, which housed German social and athletic clubs and subsequently purchased in 1939 by the Sons and Daughters of Norway. In 1978 a group of women, who founded San Francisco Women’s Centers, initiated the purchase of this building to provide an incubator and hub for a wide array of projects dedicated to improving the lives of women. Known as The Women’s Building, it became the first women-owned and operated community center in the United States.162 Renovations and seismic retrofits in 2000 retained elements from former uses while addressing the contemporary functional needs. Over time, the Women’s Building has housed more than 170 independent organizations, such as San Francisco Women Against Rape, Lilith Lesbian Theater Collective, Lesbian Youth Recreation and Information Center, and Somos Hermanas, a Central American solidarity group led by lesbians of color. An NHL nomination for the Women’s Building currently is being prepared by Donna Graves that highlights its important roles in Second-wave feminism and the LGBTQ movement, addressing the connections among and between the politics of gender, race, class, and sexuality as Second-wave feminism unfolded from the 1970s to the present.
Another priority for advancing a LGBTQ preservation agenda is identifying sites that illuminate the complexity of political alliances and differences among and between lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people. The spatial implications of racism are etched deeply into the landscape of community, resulting in a pattern of bars and other institutions having been more or less welcoming to people of color. Before Stonewall, some gay bars and their patrons kept a distance from drag queens and others who crossed customary gender boundaries because the criminalization of public cross-dressing provided ready opportunities for police harassment. Some of the alliances that produced a political movement inclusive of LGBTQ people under one banner actually fray upon closer inspection; for example, ideological divisions between lesbian feminists who limited entry to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to “womyn-born-womyn” and those who denounced the policy as transphobic (Figure 12). An annual event held on land in Oceana County, Michigan, for forty years from 1976 to 2015, the festival’s popularity waned with the decline of women’s record labels such as Olivia; the mainstreaming of female recording artists; and a new generation of feminists disinclined toward binary conceptions of sex and gender, and therefore with a different attitude toward women-only events. The festival ended permanently over irreconcilable political differences between the separatist ethos that shaped its origins and the rise of greater activism related to the rights of transgender people.
When previously suppressed aspects of history finally are brought to light, the temptation often is to critique societal forces of oppression and valorize the oppressed. An accurate and complete representation of history, however, demands a critical perspective on the complex dynamics of gender, race, and class, among other categories of social analysis, that have shaped the circumstances, standpoint, status, and political consciousness of particular LGBTQ people. Finally, there is a need to move beyond marking places associated with LGBTQ history per se to identify places that have been essential to producing and policing heteronormativity. Marking gay bars that were sites of rebellion is a powerful act; however, as a matter of social justice, police stations and liquor licensing offices that once led the charge in harassing LGBTQ people are also critical sites for telling the story. Similarly, historic places such as psychiatric hospitals where queer people were incarcerated and “treated” under the mistaken medical belief that they possessed disorders should address the dark and difficult aspects of their history as part of site interpretation. It’s necessary, but far from sufficient, to mark this history at the few sites LGBTQ people historically claimed. Justice demands a critical perspective and more LGBTQ positive message at places that played an instrumental role in enforcing heterosexuality as normative: churches, hospitals, military facilities, and more. As an instrument of social justice, cultural work on behalf of oppressed groups requires telling difficult truths about the past, honoring their struggles to achieve equity, and reclaiming the wider world from which they were so often excluded as a welcoming place for all of the American people. Historic places and their interpretation cannot in themselves bring about justice for historic inequities in the treatment of indigenous people, women, people of color, or those whose sexuality and gender expression defied social norms. But these forms of cultural work can disrupt the oppressive logic of settler colonialism, sexism, racism, and homophobia; signal a public ethos of equality; and promote civic dialogue about the gaps that remain between our actual practices and our aspirations for a democratic and inclusive society.
While preservation advocacy built around the politics of identity thus far has marginally improved representations of women, ethnic communities of color, and LGBTQ people at historic places, in the long run it risks diluting the collective power of previously underrepresented groups to change discriminatory policies and practices that pose structural and institutional barriers to equity.163 The standards of significance and integrity that guided the designation of NHLs were set at a time when the activities and accomplishments of elite white men of a propertied class were at the center of historical scholarship. Now that history includes not only those who were significantly disadvantaged, but also dispossessed, or considered property themselves, notions about the integrity of the places associated with them merit reexamination. In this sense, many underrepresented groups share a common cause for reform of standard preservation policies and practices that a focus on a particular identity may obscure. For that reason, building alliances among groups whose histories have been marginalized and supporting the development of emerging leaders inclined to build bridges between them is critical to realizing a progressive vision for historic preservation.
(See endnotes at source)
Originally published by the National Park Foundation and National Park Service (2016) to the public domain.