New York City hosts a treasure trove of places that are important to the history of the LGBTQ+ movement. Not only will you find the Stonewall Inn — where the Stonewall rebellion inspired the modern LGBTQ+ movement — but you will also find sites related to LGBTQ+ and BIPOC artists and writers, the early years of the AIDS crisis, and more.
Greenwich Village and Chelsea are important places to start, but there are interesting places to see further afield — on Staten Island and in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
Many historic LGBTQ+ sites have been erased due to gentrification, while others are still in operation. We think it is important to what remains and to reimagine what used to be. You can spend a week or more exploring LGBTQ+ history or you can hit some sites in a day or afternoon. Here are some suggestions (in no particular order) on where to start.
1. The Stonewall Inn
The Stonewall Rebellion (called a riot by many) in 1969 was a pivotal moment in the growth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. Stonewall was a private gay bar owned by the Genovese crime family. It was one of the few gay bars that welcomed drag queens, butch lesbians, and queers of color. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall, setting off 6 days of protesting led by gender-nonconforming (drag queens) and queer patrons. One year later, thousands of people marched on Christopher Street Liberation Day, which gave birth to the annual NYC Pride March.
The Stonewall is still in operation. It’s a lovely stop for a drink or to play drag bingo, listen at the piano bar, shoot some billiards, or simply take a photo of where it all began.
2. Gay Liberation Monument
Across the street from the Stonewall Inn, you’ll find the Gay Liberation Monument in Christopher Park. The Gay Liberation sculpture was created by George Segal and depicts two couples (male and female). Cast in bronze and painted white, there are many who critique the sculpture (including the authors of this article) as “too white” given the history of Stonewall and the LGBTQ+ movement. While that critique is valid, it still depicts an important segment of LGBTQ+ history.
Pro Tip: The Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and Christopher Street were designated as national monuments in 2016.
3. Christopher Street And The Piers
We recommend a walk down Christopher Street (west) towards the Hudson River. While the village has changed tremendously since the late 1960s, you’re still treading on the path of the gay rights movement. The Piers near West 10th Street were an important place for gay men, homeless youth, and trans people of color from the end of World War I until the area was gentrified and turned into a park.
4. The Meatpacking District
Another historic area that has been gentrified is the Meatpacking District. Back in the day, it was full of gay and lesbian bars, prostitutes, drugs, and the type of LGBTQ history that is often swept under the rug. It is now the site of designer stores. For Sex And The City fans, this was where Miranda lived.
5. New York City AIDS Memorial And St. Vincent’s Hospital
New York City and San Francisco were the epicenters of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and beyond. The New York City AIDS Memorial was dedicated in 2016 to the 100,000+ New Yorkers who died from the disease. It is on the site of the former St. Vincent Hospital, which had the largest AIDS ward on the East Coast and was the place of many protests. It closed in 2010 after 160 years of operation and was a huge loss to the community (we lived a block away at that time). On another historical note, the survivors of the Titanic sinking were brought to St. Vincent’s.
Pro Tip: There are often art exhibits, events, and performances at the memorial, especially during the month of June.
6. LGBT Community Center
Opened in 1983, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Community Center was one of the first in the country to open. Inside its walls, dozens of LGBTQ+ groups had their first meetings, including ACT UP, GLAAD, Lesbian Avengers, SALGA, Asian Lesbians of the East Coast, and SAGE. Stop by to find out about current happenings in the city.
At an unassuming location on 10th Street in the heart of Greenwich Village, you will find Julius, the oldest gay bar in New York City. It has been a bar since 1864 (though not always LGBTQ+). Julius was the site of an early LGBTQ+ “sip-in” protest in 1966. At that time, it was illegal to serve alcohol to gay or lesbian patrons. The Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups, protested that policy by holding a “sip-in” where gay men ordered a drink and then made it clear they were LGBTQ+. The bartender at Julius refused to serve drinks to the four gay men that came in.
Pro Tip: Julius is famous for its burgers.
8. Leslie-Lohman Museum Of Art
The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art (formerly the Leslie-Lohman Museum Of Gay And Lesbian Art) was the first museum in the country to exhibit art by LGBTQ+ artists and art that depicts the LGBTQ+ community. The exhibits are thought-provoking and historical. The museum also has an extensive archive. We highly recommend a visit if you are in New York.
9. James Baldwin Residence
A trip up to 71st Street on the Upper West Side will bring you to James Baldwin’s apartment, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As an African American gay man, Baldwin is one of the most important writers and political activists of the 20th century. He wrote 14 works while living in the building. His mother and sister also lived there (as did Toni Morrison for a time). Many important artists, writers, and political figures met with Baldwin in this building as well.
10. Audre Lorde’s Home
Audre Lorde was a poet, essayist, professor, and activist. Located in the Stapleton Heights section (northeast Staten Island), the home where she lived from the early 1970s–1980s with her partner and children is a New York City landmark. For fans of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC literature, it is where Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press (a press run by and for women of color) was conceived.
11. Alice Austen House Museum
The Alice Austen House Museum is another important stop on Staten Island. Born in 1866, Austen was a lesbian photographer. She lived in the house with her partner Gertrude Tate for 30 years (they were together for 56 years). Her photography provides an intimate portrait of the relationships between Victorian women, immigrants, and the working class. Unfortunately, Austen lost her wealth in the stock market crash of 1929 and was evicted from the house in 1945. Austen and Tate spent their last years separated due to poverty and their homophobic relatives.
12. Lesbian Herstory Archives
Now located in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the Lesbian Herstory Archives has been collecting material by and about lesbians since 1974. It has a wealth of information about lesbian life over the past 5 decades and is well worth a visit.
13. Jacob Riis Beach
LGBTQ+ swimmers and sun worshipers have been going to The People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park in Queens since the 1940s; first white gay men, then lesbians, and now, LGBTQ+ people of all colors and persuasions. There are frequent parties/events and some topless/nude sunbathing (though the police have been cracking down).
Pro Tips: The queer beach is in front of the old Nesponsit Hospital. The hospital is slated for demolition and this may have an impact on future beachgoers. Bathrooms are a long walk and there are not many amenities at the beach.
This is just a sample of the historical LGBTQ+ sites in New York. Others to be considered are the Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse, the Housing Works Bookstore Café, the Women’s Liberation Center, the LGBTQ Memorial, Billy Strayhorn’s House, and Greenwood Cemetery. All are worth a visit. You can’t go wrong exploring the rich history of the LGBTQ+ movement.