HOST INTRO: The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project retraces the steps of the city’s gay influencers, literally. The project is part geographic archive, part campaign to nominate sites to the National Register of Historic Places. The honorary federal list includes more than 90,000 sites. Yet LGBT representation is largely missing. Their next nomination has roots at Columbia University. Heather Schroering (SHRUH-ring) reports.
SCHROERING 1: American history is often taught to us through a particular lense, and a lot of voices get left out. Or the history is harder to find. That’s the case with much of New York’s queer history.
SHOCKLEY 1: It’s hidden for so many reasons, we were criminalized, we were prosecuted, repressed, depressed… (0:09)
SCHROERING 2: Jay Shockley is the co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. He’s made it his mantra to “make an invisible history visible” by mapping cultural sites important to New York’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
Since the group officially started almost 2 years ago, they’ve mapped more than 100 locations in all five boroughs. They’ve even managed to achieve National Register of Historic Places status for three New York locations. Andrew Dolkart says the next nomination is Columbia University’s Earl Hall, the birthplace of the school’s LGBT-focused student group in the 1960s.
DOLKART 1: This was the site of the first collegiate gay group in America and probably in the world. (0:05)
SCHROERING 3: Dolkart recited the history of the student group to a crowded room full of mostly visitors to Columbia’s campus late last month. He says in the ’60s, talking about gay issues was still considered taboo, even in New York, a liberal leader in gay civil rights. Though it took a few months to get off the ground, the first known Student Homophile League formed on Columbia’s campus in April 1967, 50 years ago. They held meetings in Earl Hall, with one promise: no gay dances.
The administration received a slew of nasty responses from alumni and local newspapers, like the New York Times. But they got a few pats on the back too. Perhaps most profound was gay activist Foster Gunnison Jr., a 1949 grad who wrote to the administration saying this:
DOLKART 2: I’d rather think the day will come when Columbia will be generally recognized as having done the right thing and having been the first to do it. (0:08)
SCHROERING 4: The group kept its promise of no gay dances for three years. But after the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay and lesbian activists grew more demanding. So in 1970, the group rebranded as the more activist focused Gay People at Columbia. They began hosting dances in Earl Hall the first friday of every month, and they were a hit. Let me set the scene.
DOLKART 3: It was a place where gay people could feel normal just having an open experience among other gay people. (0:06)
SCHROERING 5: The LGBT community just didn’t have much of that at the time. Some of the only gay gathering places were bars and nightclubs. Most were mafia run then, and in general, could be scary for some. The dances were created as an alternative to drinking establishments. Another space where people could let their hair down.
DOLKART 4: One person that I spoke to said he had never seen men dance together, and he danced with a man for the first time to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” (0:07)
SCHROERING 6: After a few years, the events at Earl Hall got more sophisticated. The dances not only became the center for gay culture at Columbia, the entire city wanted to come.
DOLKART 5: The peak was they had 1,600 people once. Actually security had to come and tell them to thin out the crowd because it as too much.
SCHROERING 7: The idea of space and who owns it has always been a contentious issue. That was no different for gay students at Columbia. But they not only found a home for themselves, they inspired other campuses across the city to do the same.
DOLKART 6: Earl Hall’s auditorium is not a gay space, but gay people made it their space during the times they were having those dances.
SCHROERING 8: If added, Earl Hall would join four other Columbia buildings already on the National Register. Heather Schroering, Columbia Radio News.