By Laura Dominguez
Though often eclipsed by San Francisco and New York City, Los Angeles has long been at the forefront of creating and shaping a collective yet diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer (LGBTQ) identity. For decades the L.A. region and its residents have played a vital role in bringing the experiences of LGBTQ communities into the public consciousness, their stories and struggles embedded in our built environment. Over the course of the 20th century, the region has been home to one of the world’s first gay pride parades, the world’s first LGBTQ synagogue, the country’s longest-running LGBTQ publication, groundbreaking work in medical research and care for LGBTQ communities, and other milestones. However, deeply significant historic LGBTQ places have been threatened or lost before their stories could be understood.
For several years, the Los Angeles Conservancy has been working on a project to document, recognize, and preserve historic LGBTQ places throughout L.A. County. Through a dedicated microsite, we offer general information and profile dozens of places related to LGBTQ heritage. In February 2017 we launched our latest effort, a short film series produced in collaboration with local media studio FORM follows FUNCTION. Distributed in partnership with Southern California’s KCET and funded in part by a grant from the Richard and Julia Moe Family Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “LGBTQ Historic Places in L.A.” brings together a diversity of stories, perspectives, and experiences that reveal the layered historic and cultural importance of LGBTQ places throughout the region.
The first three short films, which feature both onsite interviews with community members and archival footage, spotlight The Black Cat in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, The Woman’s Building in Chinatown, and Great Hall/Long Hall at Plummer Park in West Hollywood. The sites were selected to help tell a broad story about LGBTQ places and civil rights as well as for their enduring value.
Uncovering Hidden Stories
The films enliven these three distinct places through personal narration, amplifying community stories of struggle, empowerment, and inclusion. Connecting their memories to place, the film subjects reflect on the sites as sanctuaries for marginalized LGBTQ communities.
Activist Wes Joe, who was instrumental in designating The Black Cat as an L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument in 2008, tells the emotional story of a watershed demonstration that occurred at the bar in 1967, two years before New York’s Stonewall uprising.
“You can read about things in books or see videos, but … there’s something about touching a building or seeing how it really looked,” Joe says in the film. “It can spur your imagination; it can deepen your understanding about [the site’s] significance.”
The Woman’s Building housed the first independent art school for women, the Feminist Studio Workshop. Created by and for women, the school exemplified the impulse among feminists, including lesbian and bisexual women, to establish autonomous spaces outside of traditional, patriarchal institutions during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.
“We live in a world that is very male dominated, and the art world was certainly not serving us as women artists—we were very invisible,” says artist Cheri Gaulke, who was affiliated with the school from 1975 to 1991. “[With the building], we could carve out this little space that would be our space, and not just our space privately, but our space publicly—to say, ‘here’s what we’re making as women artists.’”
Great Hall/Long Hall at Plummer Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its New Deal–era roots—it was built by the Works Projects Administration during the 1930s. Yet it is also significant for its later role as the meeting place for the local chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a prominent advocacy group during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s. ACT UP/Los Angeles members Kevin Farrell and Helene Schpak share their stories in the third film.
“People forget what we were up against in those days … [They] wanted to pass laws against us, get us tattooed … just crazy stuff for people that were HIV positive and for people that had AIDS,” recounts Farrell. “History was made here, period,” adds Schpak.
As our preservation efforts advance, we hope that these films stimulate a much larger conversation about LGBTQ historic places in our contemporary landscape and what those places represent to LGBTQ communities today. We aim to expand the series over time.
Screenings and Panel Conversations
The films premiered at a screening and panel conversation at The Black Cat on February 9. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Black Cat protest, the series then debuted online on the Conservancy and KCET websites on February 11. A second screening and panel took place on March 16 at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, which is located across from The Woman’s Building. More than 150 people attended the second event, which made history as the first LGBTQ-centered gathering held in a California State Park.
Panelists have included artist, educator, and activist Cheri Gaulke; artist and curator Mark Timothy Hayward; activist and preservationist Wes Joe; journalist and trans media advocate Ashley Love; urban planner and community activist James Rojas; LGBTQ civil rights activist Alexei Romanoff; and artist and activist Cheryl Swannack. At both events, panelists discussed their own experiences and the importance of preserving LGBTQ historic places.
Additional screenings and panel conversations are planned for this spring. The third event will take place on Thursday, April 20, at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, and the fourth will return to Great Hall/Long Hall at Plummer Park on May 25. Registration for each event is $5, and proceeds support the Conservancy’s LGBTQ film project.
Laura Dominguez is the preservation manager for the Los Angeles Conservancy.
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