Forum Bulletin

Recognizing LGBT Historic Sites in Our Cultural Heritage 

06-21-2011 00:00

Every June, people around the world organize Gay Pride parades and rallies to commemorate three historic days of rioting in New York City. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the NYPD initiated a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar, which prompted drag queens, queer youth, and other fed-up gay people to take to the streets in protest of persistent police harassment.

Known today by the shorthand "Stonewall," these riots are generally recognized as sparking the modern-day LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) movement. And, as the launching pad of a major civil rights movement, the Stonewall Inn took its due place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and as a National Historic Landmark in 2000—the first LGBT-related site to gain this status.

The designation of the Stonewall Inn might strike some preservationists as odd, since it is, after all, a bar. But it is important to understand the role that bars played in LGBT history as gathering places and ad-hoc community centers. In the days when same-sex sex was criminalized and gay people risked imprisonment simply for acting on their sexuality, going to the bars provided a way to make friends, meet lovers, and establish a sense of community. "By finding ways to socialize together," write Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis in their book, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, "individuals ended the crushing isolation of … oppression and created the possibility for group consciousness and activity."

Today, 40-plus years of post-Stonewall activism has led to significant accomplishments for LGBT rights. Twenty states and dozens of municipalities now have anti-gay-discrimination laws on their books. Same-sex couples can marry in five states and the District of Columbia, and five other states have passed legislation recognizing civil unions. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized sodomy in all 50 states in its landmark Lawrence vs. Texas decision. And at the close of 2010, the ban on gay people serving openly in the military was finally repealed. Still, court cases and legislation alone do not eliminate prejudice, which is deep-rooted and habitual.

Consider how LGBT discrimination manifests in the preservation and interpretation of our national cultural heritage. We currently have a paucity of historic sites and markers commemorating gay rights events and activists of note, as if LGBT history was nonexistent instead of the rich treasure trove it actually is. Indeed, 12 years after its designation, the Stonewall Inn is still the only LGBT site in the National Register, although other sites are certainly worthy of this honor. Among the first to come to mind are Harvey Milk’s camera store in the Castro District of San Francisco, and the rowhouse in Chicago where Henry Gerber founded the country’s very first gay rights organization, the Society for Human Rights, in 1924.

State and Local Recognition

Through the efforts of LGBT historians and activists, a few states and municipalities have honored LGBT historic sites. In 2005, for example, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission installed a marker in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to commemorate the peaceful gay rights protests that took place at that site annually between 1965 and 1969. The District of Columbia bestowed landmark status in 2009 on the home of gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, who was fired from his job with the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay and took his unsuccessful but groundbreaking case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Much work remains to be done at the local level to give historic sites related to gay activism their due. For example, markers at sites where 1950s gay- and lesbian-themed magazines were born—such as ONE in Los Angeles and The Ladder in San Francisco—would honor the contributions those early publications made to the fostering of community.

Lives of Notable Americans

The issue of queer historic sites, however, goes beyond gay rights–related places, and this is where things can get pretty sticky. What about the homes and haunts of hundreds of famous LGBT Americans?

When it comes to the same-sex relationships of American historical figures, museum and historic site curators and educators still show an astounding lack of curiosity, employing a double standard with regard to sexuality. While heterosexuality may be front and center—for example, in an exhibit or display that highlights a famous man’s marriage or his wife’s accomplishments—same-sex attachments are viewed as a "private" matter, often politely ignored. In a telling example, a guide at the Lizzie Borden Museum in Fall River, Mass., quickly dismissed a question posed by a friend of mine about Borden’s possible lesbianism: "I really don’t care about that. I always say, as long as you don’t do it in the road and frighten the horses."

But homosexuality is so much more than just sexual behavior. Like their heterosexual counterparts, LGBT historic figures had full lives, and were some of the country’s most accomplished citizens. Their affectional and sexual orientation influenced the work they produced and informed the lives they led.

It’s hard, for example, to visit the birthplace of Walt Whitman—who was about as gay as a fellow could be in the 19th century—and see his lover Peter Doyle referred to as "his Confederate veteran pal" in the permanent exhibit. And how can you tell Willa Cather’s full story without acknowledging that as a teenager on the Nebraska plains she cross-dressed and identified as "William"?

Ever so slowly, we are beginning to feel a shift in public documentation of LGBT history. On its website for Val-Kill, the home of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the National Park Service now actually flirts with ER’s probable lesbian relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok, calling it "a close and intimate friendship." (Previously Hickok went unmentioned.) An Ohio Historical Marker erected in 2009 for lesbian poet Natalie Barney in Dayton, her city of birth, addresses her sexuality: "Natalie, who knew she was a lesbian by the age of twelve, lived an outspoken and independent life unusual for a woman of this time period. Her openness and pride about her sexuality, without shame, was at least one hundred years ahead of its time."

Digging Deeper 

When historical figures aren’t as forthright or famous as Barney, curiosity must drive the detective work required to document queer historic sites. Did the famous suffragist born and raised in your town share her life with another woman, and what do her papers tell us about their relationship? In more recent history, where are the gay civil rights sites in your city, such as bars, community centers, and bookstores, and how did they function in creating social change in the 20th century?

This is daunting but rewarding work that requires collaboration with LGBT historians, archives, and groups who can identify sites and figures, and correct or expand interpretations to include sexuality.

For additional assistance and ideas, the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo in October 2011 will host its first-ever panel specifically on LGBT sites. Titled "Beyond Stonewall: Recognizing Significant Historic Sites of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community," the panel will feature presentations by myself, and by Jay Shockley and Andrew Dolkart, co-authors of the Stonewall Inn’s successful application to the National Register.

By working from the starting point that not all history is "straight," local preservationists and historic site managers can help bring LGBT lives and events into the light, where they belong.

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Author(s):Paula Martinac