Many of the places important to American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history were established in secrecy and, unless officially documented, could fade to obscurity. A fight is being waged to remember the places important to the LGBT movement, and San Francisco is the epicenter of the battle. Recently, the GLBT Historical Society and San Francisco Architectural Heritage sponsored “These Walls Can Speak,” a panel discussion about the spaces that illuminate the history of these groups. “The sites of important moments in LGBT history were often secret, because gathering in public was illegal,” says panelist Gerry Takano, an architect and preservation consultant. “People can tear down or remodel a building without realizing it has historical significance.” Takano stresses that the current panel is simply advocating documentation, not restrictions or safeguards. “We just want to make sure history is not lost,” he says.
The Stonewall Inn, 51-53 Christopher St., New York City
The website of the storied bar calls it “the place where Gay Pride began.” On June 28, 1969 at 1:20 a.m., police raided the establishment known to cater to a gay clientele. At that time in New York, it was illegal for LGBT people to dance together and also against the law to serve them alcohol—and both activities were going on in full force that morning. The patrons, who had quickly dispersed during similar crackdowns, fought back—much to shock of the police officers. Hundreds of people tried to overturn the police wagon parked outside haul away those arrested. Ten police officers barricaded themselves inside the bar as protestors lobbed bricks and bottles at the building. The riots continued into the next week. As the current owners of the bar tell it, this was the first time in history gay people “refused to take the status quo of oppression and stood up for themselves.” The Stonewall Inn is still in operation and is one of the very few LGBT sites that is currently on the National Historic Register. The event is remembered around the globe in June with Gay Pride parades.
According to panelist and architectural historian Shayne Watson, Mona Sargent Hood was a straight woman who opened a bar so her bohemian friends would have a place to hang out. One evening at Mona’s 440, her second establishment, she befriended a young lesbian who had been kicked out of her home for her sexual preferences and gave her a waitressing job. The woman began wearing a tuxedo to work, and soon the city’s first male impersonation venue was born. “The female staff all dressed as men and sang,” says Watson. “Many gay, lesbian and transgender people got into entertainment, as it helped them blend in with society.” The bar was just one of many LGBT establishments that thrived in North Beach after Prohibition. In the 1950s the California Alcohol Beverage Control began cracking down on the these bars—the names of the people arrested were often published in the next day’s papers—and by the early 1960s, nearly all of them were gone.
The Black Cat Tavern, 3909 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
The Black Cat in LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood was the site of LGBT civil rights demonstrations two years before the riots at Stonewall Inn. The unrest was sparked when undercover police raided the bar on New Year’s Eve and began arresting people for same-sex kissing and beating those who resisted. Protesting the police action, people began rioting in the bar and on the streets. In the following days, 200 protestors rallied outside of the bar. This incident was the genesis for creation of The Advocate, one of the most important LGBT newspapers in history. In 2008, LA made the site an historic landmark and, just this month, a new and much swankier version of the bar reopened there.
Photo credit: Courtesy Gay Community News Archives
Bromfield Street Educational Foundation, 22 Bromfield St., Boston
The Foundation, which existed from 1968 to 1999, was home to Gay Community News, once considered the most liberal newspaper in the LGBT community. Although it started as a two-page mimeographed community newsletter, it grew to become a national tabloid publication before it folded in 1992. It was, according to the archives of Northeastern University, the oldest, continuously published national LGBT newspaper. The Foundation was also noted for programs that provided outreach to gays and lesbians in prison and conferences promoting gay and lesbian literature.