New York City Group Brings Attention to LGBTQ+ Historic Sites
Their history was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It was the early 1990s, and members of the New York City–based Organization of Lesbian + Gay Architects and Designers’ Preservation + History Committee lived in the city where the Stonewall uprising took place, where transgender tennis player Renée Richards played at the West Side Tennis Club, and where Black lesbian playwright Lorraine Hansberry penned A Raisin in the Sun. But little of it was marked, known, or discussed.
So in 1994, to mark the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, the committee published the “first ever history-focused map of sites in New York City associated with an LGBTQ+ past,” says member Ken Lustbader.
Lustbader and a couple of fellow preservationists applied for an Underrepresented Community Grant from the National Park Service in 2014. “Much to our surprise and pride, we received one of the first grants for LGBTQ+ history documentation,” Lustbader says. They launched the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project the following year as a cultural heritage initiative and educational resource. Nearly three decades after the original map’s launch, that project has grown into an online index of more than 430 sites dating from the 17th century to the year 2000, with accompanying walking tours, Zoom lectures, and social media feeds. The goal is to reach multiple generations, whether they’re in New York City or not.
The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s motto is “making an invisible history visible,” and the group has paid special attention to underrepresented communities even within the LGBTQ+ family. It’s ensuring that the project spreads across all five boroughs of New York City, documenting sites in communities of color and with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. “We from the very start have really made an effort to make our sites as diverse as possible,” says project cofounder Andrew S. Dolkart.
Highlighted places include the former Staten Island residence of Black lesbian writer and activist Audre Lorde and her partner Frances Clayton; sites of ACT UP demonstrations on Manhattan’s Wall Street in the 1980s and ’90s; and the Snake Pit, a gay-run Greenwich Village bar where patron Diego Vinales was impaled on a fence after a 1970 police raid, which led to a protest. “You have to tell a complete story,” Dolkart says.
Soon after the project was founded, the group started conducting tours at Green-Wood and Woodlawn cemeteries, placing Pride flags at the graves of LGBTQ+ individuals. “We didn’t realize how emotional this was going to be for people,” Dolkart says. “People got kind of weepy and applauded.” That, he said, is the power of place, and the potential for a small moment of recognition to create a big impact.
“It was really important emotionally and politically, and also professionally as a preservationist, to see that this narrative is represented in the physical environment,” says Lustbader. “We’re preserving tangible, site-based history, but the intangible benefits are pride, identity, a continuity, and a connection to a past that therefore hopefully reduces isolation and shame.” He notes that many people from underrepresented religious, racial, or ethnic groups may grow up with a sense of their history passed down through generations. But for LGBTQ+ people, that history isn’t always known or readily available, and it doesn’t necessarily get passed down from parent to child as other histories might. “We are filling in the void of a history that is really important because it’s not done through family or in an oral tradition.”
The project has shared research with New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, successfully advocating for the designation of nine landmarks, including the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. It’s been involved in 11 new and amended nominations to the National Register of Historic Places—including Lorraine Hansberry’s residence, listed in 2021.
In November of 2022, at its annual conference, the National Trust presented the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project with its Trustees’ Award for Organizational Excellence. “Getting an award from the National Trust and the imprimatur of the Trust itself is so meaningful and important,” Lustbader says. It shows “that the Trust believes that they can acknowledge an organization telling the full American story.”
The success of the project and the award send a message, Lustbader says, that LGBTQ+ history is worth preserving and that the group’s work can serve as a model for other communities. “It will hopefully incentivize others to do this work.”
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