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“So much of this history is not written.”

May 03, 2017

For many people in New York City and around the U.S., the gay rights movement began at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

Following a police raid on the popular Greenwich Village bar, gay, lesbian, and trans people throughout the city took to the streets in series of a protests and riots, demanding the same rights to congregate as straight people. Those six-day long demonstrations would help catalyze a burgeoning LGBT rights movement which would blossom throughout the 1970s.

But LGBT people have been living, working, and contributing to the rich cultural life of the city long before 1969. A new interactive map of New York City hopes to shed light on historical locations shaped by these communities in order to paint a fuller picture of the richness of LGBT life from the 19th century until now.

“Part of our project is to reinterpret American history through an LGBT lens,” Jay Shockley, a retired historian for the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission and one of the leaders of the project, told Travel + Leisure.

“One major aspect of our project is to prove that there’s a lot of history before Stonewall,” he said.

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From the row house in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn where poet Walt Whitman spent his days following the publication of “Leaves of Grass” in 1855, to the stage of Carnegie Hall where composer and conductor Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky conducted the very first symphony on the venue’s opening night in 1891, it isn’t hard to find examples of LGBT people forging the early cultural landscape of New York City.

Both Tchaikovsky and Whitman were some of thousands of gay men who contributed significantly to the history and culture of the city throughout the 19th century, and the inclusion of these sites on the map pays homage not only to historically gay spaces such as certain bars and places of demonstration, but also to cultural spaces like Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera that were shaped by gay men in particular.

When the new Metropolitan Opera staged its first show in 1966, it welcomed openly gay composer Samuel Barber and his opera “Antony and Cleopatra.”

“While gay history is a generally interesting historical theme, it is particularly important in NYC:  Gay history is important to NYC, and NYC is important to gay history,” noted Andrew Lear, a former university professor who leads gay walking tours of in Greenwich Village and the Metropolitan Museum.

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The map also includes sites that pertain directly to the history of gay people in the U.S., such as Julius’ Bar in Greenwich Village, a hangout known for welcoming gay people as well as African-Americans, making it a frequent police target.

Early gay rights group the Mattachine Society, which had been organizing throughout the 1950s in chapters across the country, staged a “sip in” in 1966 to protest for their rights to exist in public spaces. Serving openly gay people was technically illegal at the time, and some bars posted signs such as “if you're gay, go away,” Dick Leitsch, head of the New York Mattachine Society, told NPR. The sip in was one of the first prominent protests against these laws.

Shockley and co-director Ken Lustbader have made a strong effort to include sites pertaining to people of many different orientations and cultural backgrounds and not just to gay men, who often dominate the history of LGBT history at large.

The apartments of prominent writers of color such as James Baldwin and Audre Lorde can be found on the map, as well as bars in Harlem and Brooklyn such as the Starlite Lounge in Crown Heights that served as meeting places for both queer and black communities.

The 20th century writer Audre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” 

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“One of the issues is really to make sure we are getting the diverse representation of the LGBT community” Lustbader told T+L.

The creators of the map have also curated thematic groupings of sites, so people can easily find the history that is most interesting to them or create their own personal walking tour. Visitors and residents can quickly access a series of sites related to architectural design or early lesbian life, for instance.

Beyond the immediate cultural and historical access that this map gives the people of New York City, the project also aims to use this research to petition the National Parks Service to make more of these sites national historical landmarks or monuments.

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Of the 92,000 properties on the national registry, only 13 are registered as LGBT, with Stonewall being inaugurated as a monument in 2016. The leaders of the LGBT mapping project are advocating for Julius' bar, among other sites, to be landmarked.

Lesbian sculptor Emma Stebbins created the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in the 1860s, making it the first work of public art by a woman.

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The project encourages residents of the five boroughs to submit their own recommendations of buildings or neighborhoods so that the map can continue to grow, with co-director Lustbader describing it as grassroots history.

With contributions from residents from Staten Island to Queens, the map will be more able to fully celebrate the lives and histories of the city — not just the big historical landmarks, but also the cafés, clinics, and streets that have made up the fabric of people’s daily lives.

“What’s crushing is that things that are taken for granted for straight people — the facts of their lives, their relationships that are openly discussed — are hidden for gay people,” said Shockley.

“So much of this history is not written.”

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