Historic LGBTQ Sites You Need to See in NYC
“LGBTQ history is American history,” says Ken Lustbader, co-Director of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. Together with his co-founders (and one paid employee), these preservationists and historians identify and document the spaces and places where LGBTQ people made significant contributions to New York City and the nation as a whole. “We’re looking at NYC through [an] LGBTQ lens and making this invisible history visible by conveying the rich history of LGBTQ people in NYC,” Lustbader says.
The organization has nearly 200 New York City historical sites listed on its website, with an aim to develop the most comprehensive LGBTQ cultural map in New York City, or any city in America. The sites include the obvious, like The Stonewall Inn, where the namesake riots started in 1969, and the broad, like “the entire Theater District,” as Lustbader says.
The endeavor reaches all corners of the city, spotlighting Flushing Meadow Park, where openly gay architect Philip Johnson designed the New York State Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair, and the 19th Century Bronx home of Christine Jorgensen, where she made headlines after her sex reassignment surgery. Prominent LGBTQ people have been marginalized from mainstream history, but Lustbader and his “passion project” colleagues are working to change that.
Still, there are shortcomings: Racial discrimination often prevented LGBTQ people of color from gaining capital to open bars and restaurants, and many important sites, like those of pivotal to 1980s ball culture, have disappeared due to gentrification. Lustbader and his co-directors are working to uncover underrepresented narratives and better include people of color in their preservation efforts.
The team is also preparing an app and visiting local classrooms to, “educate the next generation that LGBTQ Americans have really contributed to society, politics, art, literature and the general health of our country,” Lustbader says.
With the project’s resources and walking tours, any New Yorker can dip into queer history at LGBTQ heritage sites citywide. Here are a few to start with:
Yep, this is the bar known for the historic June 1969 riots, when queer activists fought back against discriminatory police raids. Lustbader says that it’s important for visitors to realize that this is not the “birthplace of the modern liberation movement,” and calling it such can minimize the previous activism led to that pivotal night. Recognizing this and what preceded this turning point, and understanding the streets where all the action took place is a huge part of comprehending LGBTQ history.
One of New York City’s longest-standing gay bars, this is a second home to LGBTQ people eager to dig into a burger or share a few drinks with newfound friends. While the interiors have historic charm -- the building dates back to 1826 and housed a grocery store before it was converted to a bar in 1864 -- its power is derived from the history of the people who supported it along the way. Julius’ survived as a speakeasy during Prohibition, and began attracting a gay clientele in the decades that followed. In April 1966 (pre-Stonewall), it sparked a “sip in,” to fight a New York State Liquor Authority regulation prohibiting bars and restaurants from serving homosexuals.
A solemn place to visit, this site memorializes Julio Rivera, a gay New Yorker who was murdered by three skinheads in 1990. The tragedy helped generate political movement, especially in Queens, for LGBTQ visibility and fight against discrimination.
Theater DistrictMidtown West
While sites like Stonewall are famously important to America’s queer history, others may be more subtle. Lustbader recommends looking at the Times Square area through a new lens, to comprehend the massive role LGBTQ people (whether out or not) have had Broadway and theater culture. “It’s amazing to be able to understand that so many theaters have such a rich LGBT overlay,” he says.
The narrowest house in Manhattan is worth a visit for history buffs and architecture fanatics alike. Bisexual poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lived here from 1923-1925, writing in cramped quarters decades before creatives could toil in the relative comfort of WeWork spaces. The townhouse sold for $3.25 million in 2013, and the backyard garden (private access only, sorry) is #goals.
The RambleCentral Park
It’s easy to take the beautiful oasis in the middle of Manhattan at face value: Nice grass, few garbage heaps, plenty of room for outdoor imbibing. But the green acreage also had deep significance to gay New Yorkers and visitors throughout the 19th Century. The Ramble was a well-known cruising spot, and the city’s early Gay Pride Marches ventured from Christopher Street to Central Park.
Black lesbian writer and activist Audre Lorde lived here with her partner and two children from 1972 to 1987. Here, she worked on various books and poems, and also co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press with black lesbian feminist Barbara Smith.
This picturesque historic Dutch farmhouse (built in 1690) was home to photographer Alice Austen and her partner, Gertrude Tate in the early 19th Century. A National Historic Landmark since 1993, it now showcases Austen’s work, hosts weddings and opens its picturesque grounds to visitors. And at $5 a pop, it may be the most reasonable museum admission in all of New York.
The oldest gay bar in Queens, the old guard may remember this dive right off Astoria Boulevard as a lesbian bar, while recent regulars will know it as a straight up queer bar with Drag Race viewing parties and live drag queen performances. Albatross is full of lore, and frequently packed with locals and regulars vying to ensure its continued success.
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