For decades, visitors to Independence Hall in Philadelphia were told one main story: This was where the country’s Founding Fathers enshrined Americans’ inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
But now, an additional human rights story is being told at the symbolic birthplace of the United States: that of Reminder Days, one of the earliest public protests against LGBT discrimination.
Tour guides talk about the primly dressed demonstrators who marched past the Liberty Bell on July 4 for five years in the 1960s, reminding the public that gay people lacked basic rights. In the visitors’ center, there are lectures and a slide show about the protests. And a state-installed marker outside the hall notes that the demonstrations helped transform a local campaign into a new civil rights movement.
President Obama’s designation on Friday of the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village as a national monument comes amid a push across the country to write lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people into the nation’s collective history, an effort that has been quietly underway for years. Along with suggesting new sites for recognition, community activists and preservationists at the local level have begun revising existing national historic sites to include long-ignored or unacknowledged LGBT history.
Michael Doveton, a National Park Service ranger at Independence Hall for seven years, said it bothered him that no one ever mentioned Reminder Days. So during the city’s Pride Week celebration four years ago, he started talking about the protests. That led to an exhibit in 2015 that included replicas of some of the signs the marchers carried and a discussion about the difficulties gay people faced during the 1950s and ’60s — including the threat of unemployment under an order signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower requiring the government to terminate anyone it considered a “sexual pervert.”
The story of America’s oppression of gay people “is a story that hasn’t been told that needs to be told,” Doveton said.
Museum staff members at Beauport, a historic landmark in Gloucester, Mass., tell tourists that Henry Sleeper, the house’s owner and one of the country’s first professional interior designers, was gay. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the decision to do that came in 2007, when employees found evidence of Sleeper’s sexual orientation. Also in 2007, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago moved a painting of Addams’s companion, Mary Rozet Smith, to Addams’s bedroom with a label describing the significance of the relationship. (Addams founded a well-known settlement house and shared the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.) The museum also gives gender and sexuality tours about the history of gender nonconformity in Chicago, linking that to LGBT rights.
“It’s a chance for people to reflect on the present while learning about the past,” said Jennifer Scott, the Hull House museum’s director.
At Val-Kill, the Hyde Park cottage built by Eleanor Roosevelt and two other women, curators are seeking to highlight her ties to women and their partners who shared Roosevelt’s progressive ideas.
In Richmond, Calif., a local historian’s persistent pressure to include stories of gay Americans led to an exhibit — slated to open in October at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park — mentioning Bev Hickok, a lesbian “Rosie” who assembled airplanes, and Jeffrey Dickemann, known as Mildred while a member of the Women’s Land Army. Dickemann lived as a man later in life.
The park, on San Francisco Bay, opened in 2000 and includes an original assembly plant, child-care center, shipyard and hospital, as well as a sculpture honoring the women who worked there. Donna Graves, a park consultant and urban planner who says her goal is to publicize stories of marginalized people, began pressing officials 10 years ago to include stories of gay Americans during World War II. She received a grant to do that in 2014.
The exhibit emphasizes tales of hardship but also opportunity for women and people of color who streamed into the area for jobs left vacant when the mostly white male military fought overseas. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who had left rural parts of the country found it easier to be open about their sexuality in the gay mecca that San Francisco was starting to become, Graves said. Many chose to stay after the war ended.
“For many LGBTQ people, that migration opened doors that allowed people to assume their more full identities,” she said. “We’re trying to explain that today you know that queer people are here and demanding rights — but they’ve always been here.”
These small, independent efforts are unusual in that they have spread without any national coordination or guidance.
At the same time, the National Park Service has been working on a study of LGBT social history, identifying sites community groups and preservationists could consider nominating for official historic recognition. The survey, and its map of sites with LGBT ties, is expected to be completed this summer.
Sites already on the National Register of Historic Places whose LGBT ties aren’t mentioned include Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where the nation’s first racially integrated drag production was performed; Alcatraz Island, where one-third of the prison’s earliest inmates were incarcerated for sodomy; and Kealakekua Bay District in Hawaii, where explorer James Cook discovered a group of men who had sexual relations with the king.
Among the dozens of new sites that could be considered for national historic status is the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, where 32 people died in an arson in 1973.
In the aftermath of the fatal shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the UpStairs Lounge fire — until two weeks ago the largest mass killing of gay people in U.S. history — received renewed attention. At the time of the arson, anti-gay feelings ran high in New Orleans. Politicians ridiculed the victims, churches refused to bury them and the tragedy was largely forgotten in the ensuing decades.
Ricky Everett, 68, survived the fire when the UpStairs Lounge’s bartender grabbed his arm, yanked him out of his seat and led him toward a door to the roof. He made his way to the street and the chaotic scene of weeping customers staggering out of the bar while firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Nightmares tormented him for months. To this day, he always scans for an exit when he enters a room. Only in the past two years has he been able to talk to groups in public about the calamity.
The UpStairs Lounge should be designated a historical landmark “to let people remember what happened and why it happened,” said Everett, who works as a security guard and a prayer leader at a church in Dallas. “I don’t know if they understand how hard it was for us. We’d been told for decades that God didn’t love us, that he hated us. What happened in those times can’t be left under the carpet.”
Also expected to be under consideration is the District’s Whitman-Walker clinic, a leader in administering HIV tests and educating patients about AIDS. The clinic’s offices were located in a graceful rowhouse whose blinds were always shuttered to discourage prying eyes, said its former director, Jim Graham, who later was a D.C. Council member. Testing was done in a small lab downstairs, where volunteers spoke in hushed voices because the walls weren’t soundproofed.
Graham was the first person at the clinic to be tested for HIV — on June 1, 1985 — and he remembers how nervous he was as he sat in one of the clinic’s phlebotomy chairs. “Please, God, please, God, make me negative,” he recalls thinking. “I had seen enough of the disease so that it frightened the hell out of me.” Two weeks later, he got the results: HIV-negative.
Some sites may be destined for historical designation, but in many cases preservationists are racing against time. A proposal to tear down the oldest gay bars in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and replace them with housing, shops and a hotel drew outrage from LGBT historians. In San Diego, the Michels-Carey house, which hosted one of the nation’s first providers of social and health services for LGBT people, was scheduled last year for a hearing for placement on the National Register of Historic Places — but it was torn down before the hearing took place. In New York, despite pressure from state and local lawmakers, demolition permits were issued for a Greenwich Village house whose residents played key roles in the gay rights movement and in HIV/AIDS activism during the 1970s and ’80s.
Another challenge is the difficulty of making a case for protecting bars and bathhouses in a gentrifying area when a building is rundown and not architecturally significant, said Adrian Scott Fine of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group. Much of LGBT history took place on the margins of society because gay people had to keep themselves hidden, he said, so the written record for gay-friendly locations is thin.
As a result, Fine said, developers often dismiss the importance of those spots.
“They say, ‘Well, that’s just a bar,’ ’’ he said. “They don’t understand the total significance of these places to a community that was underrepresented and disenfranchised for years. Those places were so much more than just a bar.”