Activism, Queer Culture

Lesbian History: 15 Lesbian Historical Landmarks to Pay Respects

When I came out in 1998 I was the only LGBT person I’d ever known about. I thought I was completely alone until I saw Ellen on the cover of Time Magazine. Little did I know I’d spend my entire adult life surrounded by queer women. It would be another 10 years before I learned anything about LGBT history and it was rarely lesbian history. 

Until recently it was illegal in many places in the United States to discuss LGBT themes in public schools. I often wonder if my journey as a young queer woman would have been different if I’d learned about Elenor Roosevelt’s bisexuality or Audre Lorde’s lesbian feminist poetry. 

Lesbian history is important because it’s an acknowledgment that our people have always existed. Today we owe what lesbian historical evidence we do have to the dedicated activists who preserved the photographs, journals, and love letters of the queer women who came before us. 

In the last 20 years, many of these documents have been compiled in LGBT history museums and lesbian history landmarks are finally getting the designations and respect they deserve. These 15 lesbian historical landmarks are far from the only places in the world where we can see the impacts of queer women, but they’re a great place to start.

Hull House 

The Hull House is a museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of Jane Addams, who is the mother of modern social work. She founded the first settlement house and was a feminist icon of the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was a social reformer who worked to create progressive change in Chicago and across the United States. 

Her work is the reason we have laws against child labor, the juvenile courts, and juvenile protection agencies, plus she dedicated her life towards achieving the woman’s right to vote. She also co-founded the first national women’s labor union and two major civil rights groups including the ACLU. If that’s not enough she also lobbied for the eight-hour workday and an end to abusive labor practices. She even became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. 

Jane was also a queer woman who created a safe space for other queer women at Hull House. She worked almost exclusively with other queer women and shaped most of her life around building a community and providing opportunities for these women in order for them to support themselves and not be forced into marrying men for economic protection. 

She was in two lengthy and well-documented long-term relationships with other women. Addams founded Hull House with her long-term partner Ellen Gates Starr and later spent her life with Mary Rozet Smith who she was married to for 40 years. 

While they were not legally a married couple, Addams and Smith traveled, wrote love letters, owned property together, traveled together, and shared a bed. In the letters they left behind, they also viewed themselves as a couple. Jane and Mary would write letters every day they were apart, saying things like “I miss you dreadfully and am yours ’til death.” They referred to each other as “my dearest” and “my forever dear” in numerous letters throughout their 40-year relationship. 

You can tour her house today and experience their love and service to the world firsthand.

‘Iolani palace – Honolulu Hawaii

America’s only living royal is a 95-year-old Hawaiian lesbian princess. Yes, you read that correctly. Can someone please call Disney? 

Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa is the heir to the House of Kawānanakoa the last line of Hawaiian royals. Princess Abigail comes from a long line of absolutely badass women. Her great aunt Queen Liliuokalani, was the first woman of color in control of a nation-state back in the late 1800s. 

‘Lolani Palace was built in 1882 and served as the home to the Hawaiian monarchy. It was both a home and a grand estate for visiting dignitaries, balls, and other royal events until 1891. When Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown in 1891 it became her prison where she was confined to an upstairs bedroom. Eventually, it was used as the Capitol Building for the state of Hawaii and has been a museum since 1978. The ʻIolani Palace is the only royal palace on US soil and is a historic landmark in Honolulu but also a tribute to Hawaiian culture.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera Monument NYC 

Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were two transgender women of color most well known for their roles in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. After Stonewall, they dedicated their lives to creating and supporting the LGBTQ community and founded STAR – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. 

STAR offered resources and community to homeless queer youth and transgender young adults. Eventually, they opened the first LGBTQ homeless youth shelter and provided warm beds and hot meals to thousands of queer kids who’d be kicked out of their homes. 

At World Pride NYC in 2019 the City of New York announced their intentions to create a monument dedicated to the pair that will be unveiled in 2021. The official debut of the statue has been delayed due to the Covid 19 global pandemic. 

However, Marsha P. Johnson State Park in Brooklyn is open to the public and is the first state park in the state of New York to be dedicated to an LGBTQ person and a Trans woman of color.

The Alice Austen House – Staten Island, New York

Alice Austen was a groundbreaking photographer who was one of the first women to document life outside of the photography studio. Her work from 1866-1952 involved her lugging more than 50 pounds of photography gear through the streets of New York City to document the conditions of working immigrants and women in the Victorian era. At this time, most photography was done for well-off families in portrait style so documenting the poor in their natural state was unusual and innovative.

Alice and her partner Gertrude Tate lived, worked, and celebrated 53 years of love in their home Clear Comfort which has now been turned into a museum. Clear Comfort is now The Alice Austen House Museum on Staten Island. The house was built in 1690 as a one-room Dutch farmhouse and renovated by Alice’s father in 1844.

Alice left behind numerous photographs, letters, and mementos documenting the intimate relationships of queer women of New York City. Her contributions are some of the rare photographs of LGBTQ people of the time period. Her house is now an LGBTQ designated landmark welcoming visitors today. 

Susan B Anthony’s Grave  

Susan B Anthony was a queer woman and a pioneer of the women’s rights movement. She spent her entire life championing the suffragette movement. Unfortunately, she passed away in 1906 and was never able to see the 19th amendment to the constitution. Her home is now a museum in Rochester, New York that is open to the public and dedicated to her life’s work. 

Her grave is located in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester as well. It has become a tradition during elections for women to decorate her grave with “I voted” stickers, flowers, and letters of thanks from young women expressing their gratitude.

Unlike many other queer women in history, Anthony left behind letters from her young lover orator Anna Dickinson that candidly indicate physical desire. They’re so candid and direct that they mirror modern-day sexting in some ways. Anthony even describes Dickinson as a “naughty tease” in one such letter. Despite this Anthony is often forgotten as a member of our community.

The Stonewall Inn – New York City

The Stonewall Inn is definitely the most well-known LGBTQ landmark in the world. Also known as the birthplace of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, this New York City gay bar is the site of the Stonewall riots of 1969. 

The riots took place over several days. Police came to raid the Stonewall Inn because it was illegal for LGBTQ people to assemble at the time. Raids were common practice at the time but most LGBTQ bars were owned by the mob who paid the police bribes to stay away. 

Generally, the police would tip the mob off before a raid was happening because if people were arrested inside a gay bar they would often have their photos or names printed in the newspaper and were likely to lose their jobs, housing, and families. 

Stonewall is significant because instead of people peacefully lining up to be dragged off to jail, the mostly queer and transgender people of color who frequented the bar revolted. Hundreds of people gathered to fight against police brutality. 

A year later, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn organized the first Pride in remembrance of the Stonewall Riots. Never forget, the first Pride was a police protest. Stonewall is still an active bar that is welcoming and inclusive of all LGBTQ people, when you visit to pay your respects, have a drink, buy a T-shirt, and honor those who fought for us. Stonewall has a great lesbian party upstairs on Friday nights.

National Women’s Hall of Fame – Seneca Falls, NY 

The National Women’s Hall of Fame was the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The pair organized the Seneca Falls Convention which was the first women’s rights convention. 

The idea of a professional convention for women was novel and unheard of at the time. The convention gave American women the first public opportunity to discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women. 

You may remember the Seneca Falls Convention from your high school history class but what you may not remember is that the convention and the entire suffrage movement was run by queer women. 

While they wouldn’t have used the word “lesbian or queer” to describe themselves, the event was chock full of women-loving women who spent their lives advocating for women’s independence. A few other famous lesbian attendees were Mary Grew, Margaret Burleigh, Carrie Catt, Mollie Hay, Susane B Anthony, and Isabel Howland.

 

LGBT Activists Cemetery – Washington DC

Keeping with the theme of honoring heroes who fought for our rights, the LGBT Activist Cemetery in Washington D.C. is home to some of the US’s greatest icons. 

It’s a section of the larger Congressional Cemetery, which is the only cemetery that has an exclusively LBGT commemorative section and holds some of this community’s finest activists. 

The cemetery hosts a walking tour of the cemetery where you can pay your respects to people such as Thomas “Gator” Swann, who fought against the military’s repressive “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and the couple Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin, who loved each other for 42 years and fought tirelessly to found lesbian rights organizations.

Jewel’s Catch One 

When It opened in 1972, Jewel’s Catch One was the first black LGBTQ disco. Owned by lesbian businesswoman and activist, Jewel Thais-Williams, Catch One became a pillar of the Los Angeles community providing community, safety, and AIDS resources for over four decades. 

The name ‘Catch One’ came from the slang term used for cruising that was common amongst black gay men in the 70s. As a black lesbian, Jewel struggled to find staff that would work for her and patrons that would accept her but eventually fought her way to the top. 

Jewel was a frontrunner in breaking down racial lines, fighting for community across identities in the LGBTQ community, and championing LGBTQ causes.

Catch One is still open in Los Angeles but changed management in 2015 after Jewel served her community for 40 years. Stop by and have a drink in Jewel’s honor but if you can’t make it all the way to Los Angeles, watch the documentary, Jewel’s Catch One, directed by C. Fitz, on Netflix.

Lesbian Herstory Archive – Brooklyn NY

Want to dive into Lesbian history? The Lesbian Herstory Archives is home to some of the most important lesbian historical documents in the world. From newspapers to videos to books, the Lesbian Herstory Archives are packed with 11,000 books and 1,300 periodical titles in Brooklyn NY. 

The four co-founders started the Lesbian Herstory Archives as a response to the sexism they experienced in other gay liberation groups formed in response to the Stonewall Riots. Co-founders Joan Nestle, Deborah Edel, Sahli Cavallo, Pamela Oline, and Julia Penelope Stanley came together to document as much of the history of queer women as they could track. 

At the time, any documents that referenced a queer woman’s same-sex attraction or relationships were often destroyed by family and friends to “protect” their memory which has created a vacuum in the documentation of the early lives of queer people. 

Visit the Lesbian History archives in Brooklyn and attend one of their programs like art exhibits, poetry readings, or film showings. Want to visit, but don’t have the cash saved up yet? They have a virtual tour that you can take. While it’s not quite as epic as perusing the annals of queer history, it has a floor-by-floor rendering of the material, and it’s a great place to learn about your roots.

Pulse Nightclub – Orlando Florida

On June 12, 2016, a group of mostly Latinx LGBTQ people partied the night away at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Before the end of the night, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old local, opened fire on the club-goers and took the lives of 49 people and injured 53 others. 

The Pulse massacre was one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history. The memorial stands in its place today as a sanctuary of love dedicated to the lives lost in this tragedy. 

For the queer community, our bars have always been a safe place dedicated to both celebration and mourning but few LGBTQ bars have the solemn significance that Pulse does. 

Following the tragedy, the owner Barbara Poma decided not to sell the property but instead, she founded OnePULSE a nonprofit foundation with the goal to build a memorial that opens hearts, a museum that opens minds, educational programs that open eyes and legacy scholarships that open doors for LGBTQ Latinx students. While the museum is not yet complete, there is a temporary memorial open to the public. If you’re unable to visit Orlando you can see the virtual tour and rendering of the memorial on the OnePULSE website.

Audre Lorde’s House – Staten Island NY

Audre Lorde is a black, lesbian, American poet, and writer best known for her passionate writings on lesbian feminism and racial issues. Her work confronts the injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. She spent her life creating passionate calls to action to combat oppression in every sense of the word. 

Lorde’s body of work spans nearly every form of writing, theory, and political discourse. Scholars are still actively studying her work and will continue to decode her impact on feminism for generations to come. Lorde’s legacy lies in the numerous nonprofits created in her honor. Two of the most well-known are the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center and The Audre Lorde Project. Callen-Lorde is dedicated to providing medical care to the city’s LGBT population without regard to ability to pay. Callen-Lorde is the only primary care center in New York City created specifically to serve the LGBT community.

The Audre Lorde Project is an organization for LGBT people of color that focuses on community organizing and radical nonviolent activism. Specifically around issues relating to LGBT communities, AIDS and HIV activism, pro-immigrant activism, prison reform, and organizing among youth of color.

Lorde was born a first-generation American in New York City. The home where she spent 15 years with her wife and two children is now owned by the Madison Community Coop which provides low-cost, not-for-profit cooperative housing for very low- to moderate-income people. MCC is an inclusive environment that strives to uplift underrepresented and marginalized groups in the same way. 

Home of Calamity Jane – Deadwood, South Dakota 

Martha Jane Cannary more commonly known as Calamity Jane is one of US history’s most famous gender-nonconforming icons. Calamity Jane the character and Martha Jane the person were two very different humans who had little in common beyond both preferring men’s clothing, drinking like a fish, and swearing like a sailor. 

Her fame came from her position as a character in a series of dime-store western novels called Deadwood Dick. With 33 novels, she appears in about 25 of the books in the series, even appearing on the cover of two of them. 

Unfortunately, almost nothing in the novels was actually true. The novels paint her as many things she was not, like being the lover of Wild Bill Hitchcock or her being a scout for Custer’s Army, or even claiming that she once rescued a runaway stagecoach. 

The truth is that the real Calamity Jane was an impoverished alcoholic drifter. She was a sex worker who made her living via odd jobs around the west. 

Aside from her gender nonconformity, there’s also little evidence that she was a member of the queer community or even attracted to other women. So why does her grave make this list? 

She makes this list because in modern retellings of pop culture Calamity Jane is often depicted as a queer androgynous woman. She was famously portrayed by queer icon Dorris Day in the 1953 musical titled Calamity Jane

While she wasn’t officially a lesbian in the musical it’s impossible to watch that film without seeing the campy Hays Code era subtext that’s in the works there. In another modern retelling of Jane’s story, Deadwood depicts Jane as an androgynous lesbian more overtly. Jane is now buried in Deadwood, South Dakota, and you can visit her grave there.

Christine Jorgensen’s Childhood Home  – Bronx, New York

Pioneering transgender activist Christine Jorgensen grew up in the Bronx in Throgs Neck. In 1952, She was the first transgender woman to publically undergo a series of gender-affirming surgeries and hormone therapy. Which made her one of the first publicly acclaimed transwomen to reach a national level of fame. 

Christine was an overnight sensation when The New York Daily News put her on the cover and highlighted the medical aspects of her transition. While the coverage was not always accurate or kind, Christine was able to parlay the fame into an opportunity to stay employed and become an entertainer, activist, and community advocate. 

The strategy she used to build her career has been used as a case study for many other recent LGBTQ celebrities. Jorgensen was not the first transgender woman to have surgery or hormone therapy but the spotlight on the option of medical intervention was in mainstream media for the first time. Which allowed transgender people to better understand what was available to them. Prior to her media spotlight, most people were unaware of the cutting-edge technology in transgender healthcare. You can still visit her childhood home in the Bronx and pay homage to her activism and journey. 

The Church of the Village 

After Jeanne Manford’s gay son was brutally beaten in 1972 she joined him for one of the first NYC Pride marches. The image of her at Pride carrying a sign that read “I love my gay son” while openly accepting and loving her child was considered revolutionary at a time when the majority of LGBTQ young people were disowned by their parents. 

She fought back against homophobia and became a lifelong resource for parents of LGBTQ children. She started PFLAG, Parents, and Families of Lesbians and Gays in the basement of The Church of the Village in 1973 in New York City. 

PFLAG has more than 400 chapters nationally and 200,000 members. They provide resources and support to the families of LGBTQ people. 

Jeanna was later awarded the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Citizen Medal, from President Barack Obama. Today you can visit the Church of the Village and see the plaque dedicated to the PFLAG founding in NYC.

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