Queer History + Place: NYC

by: A.J. Kushner (Parsons Interior Design MFA ’22) and Cotter Christian (Faculty Adviser)

What is meant by “Queer Space?”

Queer space exists through an intentionally adopted program of acceptance of non-normative genders and sexualities. Queer space provides a deliberate challenge to the world’s existing physical, social, cultural, and political structures for a group that has historically experienced discrimination, marginalization, and violence within the broader accumulation of human environments (Reed, 1996). As such, its conception and placemaking, as well as any associated programming, are a performance. It responds to lived experiences and is a venue for transmuting them into ones of joy, freedom, and possibility within a safer, more comfortable context (Gregory, 2009).

Interiors beyond the Interior:

For this curated collection, we frame interiors as not simply “containers” people inhabit but as zones that actively shape experience and form modes of active engagement through their interiority. Vlad Ionescu (2018) states that an “interior is a moment when a building receives its cultural significance. It is through interior design that a tectonic structure ‘speaks’ to its users” [added emphasis]. This element of temporality is inherent in any dynamic programming within a general delineation of space. With space and time inseparable, interiority emerges in various environmental contexts. This expanded definition of “the interior” allows for the inclusion of otherwise exterior spaces. For example, when activated by the interactions of humans, pride marches and protests (taking place within the bounds of the avenue) or outdoor cruising venues (such as the Christopher Street piers or the Rambles section of Central Park) become queer interiors within our definition.

Sites of Resistance and Subversion:

To expand on this, since the genesis of a queer interior can occur anywhere and under varying conditions and result in different outcomes, its physical attributes do not define its queerness. Instead, it is a place that becomes queer only when occupied, activated, and transformed by people who identify as queer (Pavka, 2020). But queer spaces are not just spaces with queer people in them. These spaces are actively appropriated from existing locations and repurposed in the act of liberation. They are at once reclamations of territory and sites of resistance and subversion. We believe the following examples show how subversion is a unifying characteristic of queer space, regardless of if the space is capitalizing on these acts. From a queer romantic dinner to a thousands-strong liberation march, and the businesses, community centers, and nightclubs in between, sites that allow for queer play, care, love, creation, and solidarity, offer a radical resistance to a capitalist society that advocates normative productivity. They are queer as fuck.

Gregory, J. (2009, January 21). What is ‘Queer Space’? Jasper’s Wardrobe. https://jasperswardrobe.wordpress.com/2009/01/21/what-is-queer-space/

Ionescu, V. (2018). The interior as interiority. Palgrave Communications, 4(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-018-0088-6

Pavka, E. (2020, June 29). What Do We Mean By Queer Space? Azure Magazine. https://www.azuremagazine.com/article/what-do-we-mean-by-queer-space/

Reed, C. (1996). Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment. Art Journal, 55(4), 64–70. https://doi.org/10.2307/777657

Collection

Rodwell, ...

Tandy

De Wolfe

White

Oscar Wilde Bookshop
The first of its kind on the East Coast, Craig Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1967 in Greenwich Village. While inexperienced in business or books, Rodwell committed to creating a queer community center of sorts that sold books and magazines by gay writers or focused on uplifting and enlightening gay content. Its single-minded focus and unapologetic existence served to promote queer writers and organize political movements and literary events until 2009. Despite repeated attacks by vandals and thieves in its early years, the shop became a mecca for the queer community of New York and beyond, attracting global attention as a sanctuary for safe self-discovery.

Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop – NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. (n.d.-a). Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/oscar-wilde-memorial-bookshop/

Rodwell, ...

Home of Elsie de Wolfe & Elisabeth Marbury
Elsie de Wolfe and Elisabeth Marbury met in 1887 and began leasing the house at 122 East 17th Street in 1892. An aspiring actor and a playwriters’ agent, respectively, they are perhaps the earliest example of a prominent lesbian power couple in New York City. It was here that Marbury encouraged de Wolfe to pivot her attention from acting to remodeling their home, marking the beginning of the career of the woman now considered to be the first professional interior decorator. The site is a significant queer domestic space in several ways. It was here that de Wolfe first discarded the Victorian aesthetic that characterized the era—dark woodwork, heavy upholstery, and the clutter of imposing furniture pieces—in exchange for her own: a light palette with fine details influenced by 18th-century France, as well as garden elements, chintz, and animal prints. In the early 20th century, the couple hosted weekly tea parties attended by pre-eminent cultural figures such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sarah Bernhard, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. In this sense, de Wolfe and Marbury dismantled, or “queered,” domestic and aesthetic institutions of the time in order to fashion a boundary-breaking space that fostered an extravagant, forward-looking social atmosphere, as well as a private home that celebrated and affirmed the independent lifestyle of its residents.

Defying expectations: Elsie de Wolfe and Elisabeth Marbury. (2016, July 29). Lesbian News. https://lesbiannews.com/defying-expectations-elsie-de-wolfe-and-elisabeth-marbury/

Elisabeth Marbury & Elsie de Wolfe Residence – NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/elisabeth-marbury-elsie-de-wolfe-residence/

Franklin, R. (2004, September 20). A Life in Good Taste. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/09/27/a-life-in-good-taste

De Wolfe

Judson Memorial Church
In 1957, the Judson Memorial Church at Washington Square was a socially active, liberal, accepting congregation under the Reverend Howard Moody and his associate minister, Al Carmines. In addition to a place of worship, it became a cultural venue that hosted events for artists, poets, and performers in the 1960s and 70s. At this time, the modern gay liberation movement was taking shape, and the church began hosting political gatherings that led to protests and other activist events in opposition to discriminatory city policies. It also served as a residence for homeless youth, sex workers, and drug addicts. In the 1980s, with the emergence of the AIDS crisis, Judson became a prominent place of communal gathering for support groups and the site of numerous memorial services. The implicit queerness of a space that remained governed by the tenets of Catholicism makes for a profound and complex site of radical acceptance. Its outreach and fostering of community, despite predominating doctrine, enabled the establishment of numerous systems of care that endured through multiple existential crises of queerness. Structurally and symbolically, the building served as a foundation for several queer communities, upon which queer existence, prominence, and agency still stand.

Judson Memorial Church – NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/judson-memorial-church/

White

St Vincent’s Hospital
St Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village was the most prominent clinic in the city associated with the AIDS crisis, partly due to its location and status as a charity hospital that did not turn away HIV and AIDS patients. As the numbers grew, over half of the hospital beds had AIDS patients at one point, and the hospital needed to open a dedicated ward at the O’Toole building at 7th and Greenwich Avenues. At the peak of the crisis in 1995, it was the largest HIV treatment center in the country. Despite its acceptance and the quality of care, patients and their loved ones experienced frequent discrimination from the Catholic-run hospital. Eventually, direct action from groups such as ACT UP led to attitude changes from the staff and the bending of policy rules in place at the hospital’s other departments, such as allowing parties and visits from friends and partners of the ill. The nuns and nurses’ increasing compassion marked the site as an oasis of acceptance in a city and during an era hostile to the queer community. They allowed the ward to be a place for a full spectrum of queer experience and interiority to take place - from celebrations, memorials, and political actions to intimate domestic moments.

Armstrong, W. (2010, August 17). St. Vincent’s Remembered. Out Magazine. http://www.out.com/news-commentary/2010/08/17/st-vincents-remembered

Boynton, A. (2013, May 16). Remembering St. Vincent’s. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/remembering-st-vincents

Ledner

ACT UP Protests
In 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power began staging political action events in New York City that targeted Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, St. Vincent’s Hospital, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and other business and government locations. ACT UP is most clearly associated with writer and activist Larry Kramer, whose anger and frustration with the existing, more timid LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations helped imbue the group with a radical, aggressive spirit. Protests, die-ins, occupations, and acts of shocking significance (such as covering crosses with condoms) ensured media attention. They led to wins such as lowering the cost of AZT (an HIV antiviral drug), amending hospital staff conduct and procedure, and the increased urgency on the NIH and FDA towards speedily addressing the crisis. While these actions took place in areas of varying interiority, the protesters’ temporary, aggressive enforcement of queer existence made these some of the most powerful, clearly queer spaces in public memory. After infiltration and occupation, these spaces became unambiguously queer in program and composition, as places within the existing homophobic social structure became transformed and reclaimed for marginalized people. Despite their temporality, echoes of these protests persist in today’s more liberated and life-affirming queer spaces.

ACT UP Demonstrations on Wall Street – NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/act-up-demonstration-at-the-new-york-stock-exchange/

Pavka, E. (2020, June 29). What Do We Mean By Queer Space? Azure Magazine. https://www.azuremagazine.com/article/what-do-we-mean-by-queer-space/

The ACT UP Historical Archive: ACT UP New York. (2018, August). The ACT UP Historical Archive. https://actupny.org/index.html

artists

Ballroom at the Imperial Elk Lodge
Citing discrimination against contestants of color, Black drag queen Crystal LaBeija stopped participating in pageants in order to begin her own ball. But beyond this, LaBeija created the infrastructure that undergirds the cultural phenomenon of drag as we understand it today. She formed the House of LaBeija to foster a system of care for herself and other QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color), including other performers, and serve as a “venue” of sorts for Ball events. With herself as “mother” at the helm, LaBeija provided the organizational structure of support, allowing her “children” to self-actualize with love and guidance. The term “house” derives from fashion houses, with ball events modeled on runway shows and their central focus on clothing, makeup, beauty, and performance. “Voguing,” named after the fashion magazine, became a style of dance performance that evoked the poses made by models on the catwalk. The 1990 film Paris Is Burning prominently featured the Imperial Elk Lodge in Harlem, where many balls were held through the 1990s. Space was co-opted at the Lodge and other venues through inexpensive means like folding tables and chairs and simple decorations, with the catwalk at the center and spectators and judges facing it from four sides. The relative thrift and ease with which balls were set up and dismantled stands as a testament to queer placemaking; a space is quickly transformed to suit the needs of marginalized inhabitants. This versatility allows the moment’s focus to be on the crucial work of caring - for the house’s family members, the joyful performers and attendees, and subsequent generations in thrall to this art form of queer spectacle, resistance, and freedom.

Betsky, A. (1997). Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire (1st ed). William Morrow & Co.

Morgan, T. (n.d.). How 19th-Century Drag Balls Evolved into House Balls, Birthplace of Voguing. HISTORY. Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/drag-balls-house-ballroom-voguing

Rio, M. (2020). Architecture Is Burning: An Urbanism of Queer Kinship in Ballroom Culture. Thresholds, 48, 122–132. https://doi.org/10.1162/thld_a_00716

Tandy

Starlite Lounge
Harold “Mackie” Harris opened Starlite Lounge in 1962 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as one of the first Black-owned gay bars at a time when racial discrimination was commonplace in American nightlife businesses. Additionally, Mafia-owned and operated gay spaces at this time were largely white-only, and therefore Starlite became one of the few safe places for LGBT people of color. In addition to being a local drinking establishment, it hosted karaoke, drag shows, and club nights and accommodated patrons of different ages, races, and genders, both gay and straight. Referring to itself as “the oldest Black-owned, Non-Discriminating Club,” Starlite maintained its inclusively until the building it rented from was sold in 2010. In a sense, Starlite’s quiet longevity as a modest and welcoming place – amidst racial and queer discrimination, cultural appropriation, and gentrification – prefigured the ambiguous nature of the “mixed” spaces of today, in which queer friendliness and diversity are often taken for granted and historical context is not so apparent in the heat of the night. Unfortunately, as of 2021, there are only two Black-owned LGBTQ bars left in the city. Starlite’s legacy of flexibility in acceptance and event programming, while maintaining its central importance as a decidedly Black queer space in a Black neighborhood, perhaps points towards a future in which clear identities and legacies can be upfront, visible, and integral to any place’s existence.

Black-owned gay bars are dwindling. Can they survive Covid? (n.d.). NBC News. Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/black-owned-gay-bars-are-dwindling-can-they-survive-covid-n1241100

Dominus, S. (2010, January 23). A Brooklyn Bar and Haven Teeters on the Edge of Extinction. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/23/nyregion/23bigcity.html

Kunath, K. (2014). WE CAME to SWEAT Official Trailer. https://vimeo.com/101585793

Wortham, J. (2019, June 26). The Joy of Queer Parties: ‘We Breathe, We Dip, We Flex.’ The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/26/style/queer-party-safe-space.html

Unknown

Faggot Balls
Today's popularized, mainstream drag performances and competitions began in the form of annual cross-dressing balls over one hundred years ago in Manhattan. One of the most prominent events was the “Faggots Ball” held in Harlem, in which hundreds of guests would pack halls such as the Hamilton Lodge and dressed and caroused in ways unacceptable in public at the time. These balls were popular, well known, and reported on in prominent newspapers; spectators, many of whom were distinguished (and ostensibly straight) figures of the time, would travel from elsewhere in the country and beyond. Occurring in the context of Prohibition and the Harlem Renaissance, the gatherings were rare public spaces of integration amongst Black and white people and different socioeconomic classes. The mixing of various cultural elements, and the semi-illegality of the events, produced an energized atmosphere in which queer people could explore gender and sexuality, subvert the norms of the day, and create radical forms of art in a space of acceptance and free expression. The vastness of some of these halls, including the still-extant Webster Hall on the Bowery, However, racial discrimination was expectedly present at balls with white judges and organizers, which led to Black and Latino-run balls from the 1960s onward, the typology of which forms the basis for today’s events.

Chauncey, G. (2019, May 28). The Harlem Drag Ball Scene. Columbia News. https://news.columbia.edu/news/harlem-drag-ball-scene

Morgan, T. (n.d.). How 19th-Century Drag Balls Evolved into House Balls, Birthplace of Voguing. HISTORY. Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/drag-balls-house-ballroom-voguing

Zarrelli, N. (2016, April 14). The Incredible Forgotten Queer Nightlife Scene of the 1920s. Atlas Obscura. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/in-the-early-20th-century-america-was-awash-in-incredible-queer-nightlife

artists

West Side Piers
New York City’s waterfronts have been sites of queer subversion since before Walt Whitman cruised the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But the piers of Manhattan’s West Side helped cement New York as a mecca for cruising and communing from the early days of the 20th century. As immigration and commercial port traffic declined during the Depression and through the automobile and jet ages, hotels, warehouses, and bars became sites of nighttime gathering for gay men. As the century progressed, the city’s business, fiscal and demographic changes led to the dilapidation of the marine infrastructure, and vacant spaces became gathering sites for parties, sex, and artistic venues. Gay bars and clubs popped up, and artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, Peter Hujar, and David Wojnarowicz began large-scale photographic and mural projects in the 1970s and 80s that helped crystallize the pre-AIDS era as one of freedom, adventure, subversion, and celebration. In particular, Hujar’s photo series of sex on the Christopher Street piers gives weight to the interiority of these spaces, capturing a blending of a quieter, natural world with abandoned human ruins that often precede the creation of places of queer agency.

Chauncey, G. (2019). Gay New York: gender, urban culture, and the making of the gay male world, 1890-1940 (2. trade paperback edition). BasicBooks.

Greenwich Village Waterfront – NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/greenwich-village-waterfront/

Swanson, C. (n.d.). Manhattan’s West Side Piers, Back When They Were Naked and Gay. Intelligencer. Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2015/11/west-side-piers-when-they-were-naked-and-gay.html

artists

Pride Marches
The first pride march in New York was held on Sunday, June 28, 1970 – the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Its formal title was the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, and it began at Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, went uptown on 6th Avenue, and ended with a “Gay-In” at Sheep Meadow in Central Park. It attracted thousands of participants; “[n]ever in history had so many gay and lesbian people come together in one place and for a common endeavor” (Faderman, 2015). Its intentionality had been months in the making, coordinated by several organizations. And yet the planners asserted that, in contrast to other civil rights marches of the 1960s, there would be no dress code or age requirement to participate. As such, marchers took over a significant Manhattan artery for the exclusive use of a group of pariahs, whose loud and messy assertion of dignity and respect bounded its space for the duration of the march and couldn’t be ignored. The protest reverberated with the echo of the energy of the uprising a year prior at the Stonewall Inn. While there had been smaller protests for homosexual rights earlier and in other places, this was the radical, critical mass that set the example for all marches that followed everywhere else in the world and formed the template for the “pride parades” of today.

Faderman, L. (2015). The gay revolution: the story of the struggle (First Simon&Schuster hardcover edition). Simon & Schuster.

Sargeant, F. (2010, June 22). 1970: A First-Person Account of the First Gay Pride March. The Village Voice. https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/06/22/1970-a-first-person-account-of-the-first-gay-pride-march/

artists

Stonewall Inn
After prohibition ended, the New York State Liquor Authority prohibited granting licenses to establishments considered “disorderly.” At this time, the mere suggestion of homosexual activity - not just gay people drinking and dancing together - was enough to be arrested. So from its early days as an illegal Mafia-run gay club, which took a cover fee in part to pay off the cops, the Stonewall Inn has been a site of resistance and subversion. Stonewall accommodated a diversely queer clientele by being discreetly designed. It had a dark interior, and its windows were boarded up with plywood. Patrons had to enter through several antechambers, write down a name, and pass a bouncer to get to the main room. At the time, it took up two adjoining storefronts, and a door in the rear led to the second building, which contained another dance space and bar. Despite these precautions, police would regularly raid the bar and arrest people randomly. The raid that began June 28, 1969, was the first time patrons resisted, and the site expanded out into the street. It continued for several nights, with hundreds of people joining the resistance, galvanizing a movement to advance gay rights.

Faderman, L. (2015). The gay revolution: the story of the struggle (First Simon&Schuster hardcover edition). Simon & Schuster.

Stonewall Inn – NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/stonewall-inn-christopher-park/

Unknown

Julius’ Bar
While not as dramatic as the Stonewall Uprising, the Sip-In at Julius’ Bar on April 21, 1966, was a defining moment of queer interior occupation. The early gay rights group, the Mattachine Society, publicized that three men would enter several drinking establishments, ask to be served, and quickly announce that they were gay. As planned, the establishments refused service, as illustrated by an iconic photograph. Politically, the act was intended as strategic and an attempt at publicity, challenging the opacity of the state Liquor Authority’s “disorderly” premise as effectively denying the right to free assembly based exclusively on identity. At this moment, business was disrupted by a quiet civil protest, leading the Mattachine Society to challenge the rule in court and see it overturned. While police discrimination continued, as seen through Stonewall three years later, gay people’s simple existence in a space no longer defined it as “disorderly.”

Faderman, L. (2015). The gay revolution: the story of the struggle (First Simon&Schuster hardcover edition). Simon & Schuster.

Simon, S. (2008, June 28). Remembering a 1966 “Sip-In” for Gay Rights. NPR. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91993823

The “Sip-In” at Julius’ Bar in 1966 (U.S. National Park Service). (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.nps.gov/articles/julius-bar-1966.htm

Unknown