Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's Left of Our Communities?

So ... there used to be a couple of offices in LA where the Mattachine Society and Foundation operated. Gone - now a parking lot and a modern office building. There used to be a whole neighborhood of clubs and entertainment spots in DC, including the city's longest running and best drag show. Gone - obliterated when the city fathers wanted to build a baseball stadium for a team so bad that Montreal sold it.

Can we start saving our historic places instead of kissing them goodbye?! Queer America is still getting into the history business - writing up its past and collecting its documents and artifacts. We have hardly even begun preserving our historic sites. Ten years ago the Stonewall got listed as a historic national landmark. Nothing else has made the list. No one has pushed anything else on to the list. Between California and New York, virtually nothing has been saved or preserved, with the exception of Henry Gerber's house in Chicago. [see earlier posts]

Forty years after Stonewall, it's time for local queer communities to tally up the spots that celebrate their history, document them and get them onto the historic preservation/landmark lists before they're gone. And where there is already local preservation as with Milk's home and camera shop and Gerber's home, local communities need to press their state historic preservation officer (that's what they call the guy who recommends sites to the national register) to submit those local sites to the National Register of Historic Places run by the National Park Service, and maybe even to the National Historic Landmarks list.

With a new administration coming in, there is more of a chance that queer history won't be shoved into a closet the way it was during the Bush years.

We're a people with a past and we're a people with historic places. We need to keep those places safe, organize walking tours, and invite straight society to learn about our civil rights struggle.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

DC's Kameny Historic Site

It couldn't be more historic or prominent in LGBT civil rights history: 5020 Cathedral Avenue NW, just a couple of blocks up the hill from MacArthur Boulevard in the Palisades -- is Frank Kameny's home and office.

This is where the self-affirming slogan of the Sixties' gay civil rights campaigns, GAY IS GOOD, was born. This is also where discussions and planning for regional and national gay civil rights organizations went on, where picketing plans were made, where campaigns against civil service and military discrimination were launched, and where the first campaign of an 'out' gay man for Congress was hatched.

Kameny moved there in 1962, from his 4th floor walkup on 18th St NW where he lived on 20 cents a day after being fired from his government job, renting at first and later buying the house. That's it there in the column on the right of this blog page.

The year before he moved to Cathedral Avenue, Kameny and Jack Nichols started the Mattachine society of Washington and completely turned the somewhat reserved world of homophile rights on its head with picketing, in-your-face legal battles, interviews (print, radio, and TV), and taking on the federal government, the psychiatrists' professional organization, and the religious community.

The little neo-colonial house with the patterned blue and white trim was at the center of national and local campaigning for gay civil rights from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. The upstairs bedroom overlooking the front yard (under Kameny's distinctively patterned shingles) has been Dr. Kameny's office for years. Here he met with members of the local Mattachine Society, with leaders of other gay civil rights groups, and with friends in the movement.

Forty-six years after Kameny moved in and forty-seven years after he stood up to federal employment discrimination and launched a militant campaign for equal rights for homosexuals, the little house at 5020 Cathedral NW, Washington, DC deserves preservation and recognition as a site at the center of a minority's assertion of equality and rights.

Rainbow History has nominated the Kameny home and office as a historic site. The District of Columbia's Historic Preservation Review Board will decide whether to accept that nomination on January 22, 2009. To read the nomination check out the pdf file at

Saturday, December 6, 2008

It's About TIME -- and Fairness -- and Making the Case.

Is our history too 'young'?

Many of the historic sites of the queer civil rights campaigns and of community building date from the 1960s and 1970s. To those of us who are still struggling for our equal rights, that seems far in the past. To the National Park Service (NPS), whose rule-making guides most state and local preservation authorities, historic sites younger than 50 years (since they became significant) aren't historic. Yet.

The 50 year rule is a major hurdle for preserving our sites. Although the NPS provides guidelines for submitting sites younger than fifty years, those guidelines require that a site be of extraordinary significance and be widely regarded in the history community as significant. It's no surprise then that no queer historic sites other than the Stonewall Inn have made it on to the National Register or the National Historic Landmarks list.

At the recent National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Tulsa, I made the point that since most queer historic sites are urban, they stand a good chance of being destroyed or altered beyond recognition before they are eligible for preservation. Two of the early office sites of California's Mattachine Society and Foundation have already disappeared. Here in Washington, DC an entire entertainment district, with roots in the early 1970s, was demolished to build a baseball stadium for a cellar-dwelling baseball team.

Not surprisingly, many in the audience with concerns about second wave feminist sites, Latino sites, African-American and Native American sites chimed in with the same concern. African-American civil rights sites have had somewhat more recognition, despite the 50 year rule, but you have to wonder what is happening with the sites of the Black Power movement and community development that date from the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Though NPS is resistant, there are hopes for change and for working with the rules. After all the Stonewall Inn was recognized as a national landmark just 30 years after the events that made it significant. The onus of responsibility lies first, and foremost, with the queer community, its archives and historical associations, to make the case and submit the sites for local, state, and -- one hopes -- national recognition. If we don't start the process, the rules at NPS can't be challenged and changed.

Queer communities across the country have the primary responsibility for starting the preservation process for their historic sites.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The OTHER Black Cat - Communities Recognizing Their History

Sometimes communities get there first and recognize their own history.

A year ago, friends and community members recognized the historic Black Cat Bar in San Francisco -- the other Black Cat, not LA's equally important Silver Lake Black Cat. San Francisco's Black Cat had a past as a bohemian watering place that once attracted Steinbeck and Saroyan and made an appearance in Kerouac's On The Road before becoming a drag spot under the ownership of Jose Sarria, the first Empress of the Imperial Court drag system.

Last December 15th, friends and members of the gay community unveiled a plaque at the 710 Montgomery St site of the Black Cat, now the Bocadillos tapas restaurant. Jose Sarria, who had run as the first 'out' man in 1961 for City Supervisor, following years of harassment of the Black Cat, viewed the proposed plaque in October 2007. Sarria lost the election but drew 6,000 votes, demonstrating the power of the gay voting block.

A 1951 California Supreme Court ruling in favor of an earlier owner of the Black Cat, Sol Stoumen (Stoumen vs. Reilly) held that bars could not be closed by beverage control authorities simply because homosexuals frequented a bar or met there.

The Bay Area Reporter covered the unvieling of the plaque and commemoration of the Black Cat by its friends, rather than the official preservation authorities:
JD Doyle's wonderful Queer Music Heritage has an informative page about Jose Sarria, including a 31 minute clip from the
No Camping album and lots of Sarria memorabilia:

Monday, December 1, 2008

The ONLY One that Made It to the Landmark List: Stonewall

In June 1999, just in time for the 30th anniversary, the Stonewall Inn in New York City was designated a National Historic Landmark, the first queer site to be recognized as a NATIONAL landmark. In January 1999, Bernadette Castro the New York State Historic Preservation Officer, had raised the Stonewall Inn nomination for a National Historic Landmark, noting that there was not one letter in opposition. That June, there were many hopeful statements. The New York Times noted that Assistant Secretary of the Interior M John Berry remarked
''Let it forever be remembered that here -- on this spot -- men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose and love whom our hearts desire.''
Nine and a half years later, not one more queer site has been seen fit for the National Historic Landmarks list. And, not a single queer site has made it on the National Register, the next level down from 'landmark' status. The work that Carter, Dolkart, Harris and Shockly put into getting the Stonewall nomination accepted has turned into a once-and-only event.

The Stonewall Inn certainly deserves its place as a queer national historic site but how could it be the only one. Two years after landmark status was achieved the Keeper of the National Register Carol Shull and Beth Savage, architectural historian at the National Register, congratulated themselves and the National Park Service in a paper at the annual NCSHPO meeting in DC:
"Historic places associated with other groups in American society forced to fight for civil rights are beginning to be documented, and more will be identified as part of the NPS’s civil rights study. Stonewall in Greenwich Village, the site of the 1969 raid and demonstrations regarded by many as the single-most important event that led to the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement, was documented by several local organizations and nominated to the National Register by the New York State Historic Preservation Officer. After its listing, Stonewall was designated a NHL for the exceptional role it has played in the Nation’s history."
Yet that same year, the National Park Service dropped entirely the discussion of queer historic sites from its year long study Civil Rights in America: A Framework for Identifying Significant Sites.

So now nearly forty years after the Stonewall riots, at the thirtieth anniversary of the Milk assassination, and four weeks after Proposition 8 triumphed in California, queer historic sites linger in preservation limbo. We certainly have historic sites -- and not just bars and clubs -- to remind us of our historic struggles. We need to get them out of the preservation closet and into the main streets of preservation.

The nomination to the National Park Service: by David Carter, Andrew Dolkart, Gale Harris, Jay Shockly -
New York Times' coverage of the National Historic Landmark listing:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Visible Past

Visibility builds awareness, which can lead to understanding.

Buildings and sites connected to historical movements and events create a physical connection with the historical narrative. The sites of queer history, where gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people have campaigned for civil rights and built communities, are often invisible to the larger community.

Recognizing these sites, achieving historic preservation status for them, and making them visible marks the queer community as a people with a history that cannot be ignored. It also preserves that history as part of the national story of achieving minority rights and acceptance. For current and future generations, preservation ensures that the physical locations remind ourselves and others of the struggles and creates a visceral connection to that story.

Queer physical history is largely urban. As such it often disappears beneath developers bulldozers. In Washington, DC an entire community of entertainment sites, dating from 1970, fell to bulldozers building a new baseball stadium in 2006. In Los Angeles, the two offices of the Mattachine have been replaced by parking and a newer office building. To date only one site, the Stonewall Inn, has been recognized by the National Park Service as worthy of inclusion on the National Historic Landmarks list. A handful of other sites have been recognized locally.

This blog will profile historic sites not yet preserved, examine the
process and hurdles of achieving historic site recognition and preservation, and advocate for heightened preservation campaigning by queer historical and archival organizations, professional archivists and historians, and the public.

The photo on the right is the home and office of Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, the father of militant gay activism from 1961, which has been nominated by Rainbow History for historic site recognition in Washington, DC (more on that later).