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Meet the Preservationists Who Are Cataloging NYC’s LGBT History

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The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is highlighting overlooked LGBT stories from across the five boroughs

For the past 18 months, a group of historic preservationists has worked tirelessly to identify LGBT sites across New York City, as well as raise awareness of the impact LGBT culture has had on both this city and the country. "There’s an invisible history here and it tells a really important narrative," says Ken Lustbader, the co-director of what is now known as NYC LGBT Historic Sites.

The group's work was made possible by a National Park Service grant to identify buildings and sites associated with a particular minority community. When the opportunity first presented itself, Lustbader jumped at it, and nto just because allowed him to return to a topic he explored in his graduate thesis 23 years ago. "In light of the massacre in Orlando, it’s even more important to reflect on LGBT spaces," he explains. "It will show young people that gay spaces didn’t just develop overnight, and these sites show us that people were not alone in their struggle to come out and develop a sense of community."

With the grant secured, Lustbader and two other preservationists began the work of identifying sites across the five boroughs. They began with a deep dive into the world of archives and academic textbooks, combing through the collections held by New York Public Library, the LGBT Center, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. They've also contacted dozens LGBT groups across the five boroughs — after all, they didn’t want this to be a Manhattan-centric project.

Most lists of NYC’s historic LGBT sites are focused on Greenwich Village, Midtown, and the West Village, and that makes sense, Lustbader says, since those neighborhoods were and continue to be cultural hubs. But that doesn’t mean LGBT culture wasn’t being fostered in other parts of the city. For instance, both photographer Alice Austen and activist poet Audre Lorde lived with their respective partners in homes on Staten Island. The Historic Sites project is now working to investigate whether there was a thriving lesbian community on the island. There are several similar examples in the other boroughs as well, Lustbader said.

The group’s recently concluded project involved placing rainbow flags at the graves of notable LGBT individuals—including composer Leonard Bernstein, muralist Violet Oakley, poet Countee Cullen, and literary agent Elisabeth Marbury—at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, in celebration of NYC Pride. But that brought up the question of identifying LGBT individuals. How do you identify someone’s sexuality if they haven’t revealed it themselves? Could a project like this potentially ‘out’ people unintentionally?

Lustbader and his team have taken great care to do otherwise. "Right from the start we decided this is going to be rigorous and scholarly," Lustbader said. "If we saying someone is gay or lesbian it has to be cited by an academic publication. We are not just outing people without information already being out there and researched."

Placing flags at the cemetery also allowed the group to broaden the understanding of what a historic LGBT site can be. In many cases, the figures the group was researching didn't have homes, meeting spots, or other traditional locations that can be identified, and it was important to the group that they make the understanding of this historic sites project as diverse as possible. It’s not just bars and restaurants they’re looking for, but theaters, hospitals, and organizational locations—all sites that impacted LGBT history and culture in one form or another.

So far, the group has already identified 550 sites across the five boroughs. They were the group responsible for nominating Julius’ Bar to the National Register of Historic Places, and they have several other projects lined up in the horizon. For now, they have a teaser website, which in the coming months will turn into an interactive one where you can sort the sites by geography, cultural significance, or look for notable LGBT individuals.

Next up for the group is visiting LGBT groups and centers across the city and raising awareness about the project, and most importantly getting feedback from people about new locations—they already have a submission form on their website that they’re encouraging people to use. In the future, Lustbader sees the project expanding to include historic walks, podcasts, and video projects.

"More than anything we want this project to be fun and to provoke curiosity," Lustbader said. "There was a strong, thriving LGBT community in New York even before Stonewall, and it has had a direct impact on American culture. Our project is just one of the many ways to tell those stories."