Where the First Brick was Thrown: Discover New York’s Fascinating Queer History in Six Spots.

The question “who threw the first brick at Stonewall?” is something of an inside joke for the LGBTQ+ community, a characteristically campy and humourful homage to what is seen as the pivotal moment in queer history: New York City’s 1969 Stonewall Riots, seen by many as the starting point of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. New York, a beacon for outcast queers long before then, established itself at this turning point as a genuine mecca for queer people from all walks of life who brought with them their outspokenness, creativity, boldness, and desires to be seen and heard. Marsha P. Washington and Sylvia Rivera, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Zoe Leonard are just a few of the trailblazing queer figures who have shaped the city’s landscape both at and beyond the Stonewall, and so today we’re inviting you on a short walking tour of New York’s fascinating queer history with six spectacular stops.

New York’s annual pride parade.

- © lev radin / Shutterstock

Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Emerging from the private queer art collection of two gay rights activists, J. Frederic "Fritz" Lohman and Charles W. Leslie, who held their first exhibition in their Prince Street loft apartment in 1969, the museum’s current space at 26 Wooster Street in SoHo opened in 2006 after over a decade of campaigning for recognition. Possessing a permanent collection of some 1300 art objects by as prominent queer artists as David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Tom of Finland, Jean Cocteau, David Wojnarowicz, and Robert Mapplethorpe, it remains the only museum in the world dedicated to LGBTQ+ artwork.

Crack is Wack Playground

Street art legend and social activist Keith Haring’s most famous mural, it originally appeared on an abandoned handball court at 2nd Avenue and East 128th Street in 1986, the height of the city’s crack epidemic. Haring’s personal denunciation of the drug and a manifestation of his anger towards an apathetic federal and city government after his flatmate Benny became addicted to the substance, he was arrested by the New York City Police after the mural’s completion and threatened with jail time. However, after protest from the local community, The Washington Post, and The New York Post, Haring was let off with a slap-on-the-wrist fine. Although the original was subsequently painted over, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreations would commission Haring to recreate the mural with support from city authorities, this second version being completed in its current spot off the Harlem River Drive, at Second Avenue and East 128th Street, in October that same year. Haring’s pop art revolutionised public awareness of LGBTQ+ issues like the HIV pandemic and the prevalence of crack abuse within the community and can be found elsewhere in New York City at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Centre in Lower Manhattan, the Carmine Street Pool in West Village, and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights.

Fire Island

About one-and-a-half hours out of New York City is the mythical Fire Island, a sandy, sun-drunk safe-haven that has since the late nineteenth century harboured a reputation as a sanctuary for holiday-going queers thanks to a flying Oscar Wilde visit. Popular for their proximity to New York and away-from-the-spotlight status during most of the twentieth century, this was a place where gay people were able to fully express themselves and what became one of the U.S.’s oldest LGBTQ+ communities subsequently developed centred around the neighbouring hamlets of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, the former being known as “America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town”. Fire Island today remains a popular beach and party destination for New Yorkers: go to Pines Beach or Cherry Grove Beach to catch some rays on cashmere sand, or visit the Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre, the historic venue that helped birth the island’s queer reputation and one of just a handful of sites on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance to the LGBTQ+ community.

The New York City AIDS Memorial

Opened on 1 December 2016 to commemorate World AIDS Day, Twelfth Street and Greenwich Avenue, New York’s poignant AIDS memorial, one of just a handful of its kind in the world, “honor[s] New York City's 100,000+ men, women and children who have died from AIDS, and to commemorate and celebrate the efforts of the caregivers and activists." New York was the American city worst hit by the crisis due to its large queer community and the prevalence of intravenous drug use caused by the concurrent crack epidemic, leading to a human tragedy of unparalleled scale. "It is impossible to convey the horror of such an epidemic and the injustice and stigma experienced by those directly affected,” architect Stephan Jaklitsch said of the memorial upon its opening, “but public memorials serve as important reminders of our history, our shared values and the actions and attitudes we put forth as a public body during moments of crisis.” New York City is also where the group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was founded, a grassroots organisation that mobilised in response to the pandemic and were crucial in transforming public and government attitudes.

Lesbian Herstory Archives

Founded in 1974 by members of the Gay Academic Union wanting to create a space to preserve and empower queer women’s voices against the sexism they frequently faced within the institution, the Lesbian Herstory Archives is the world’s largest collections of material made by and about lesbians. The collections include 11,000 books and 1,300 periodical titles, as well as an unknown number of photographs. Open to the public if would-be visitors book in advance, it contains works by the likes of its founder Joan Nestle, Audre Lorde, Martina Navratilova, and Eva Le Gallienne, as well as marginal and everyday figures whose lives are now immortalised through the archiving of personal writing and photos.

The Stonewall Inn and Christopher Street

And then where it all started. So the legend goes, it was early in the morning of 28 June 1969, a few days after the death of beloved icon Judy Garland. As was routine at the time, the police arrived to jostle the predominantly queer clientele at the then-clandestine bar. However, that night something felt different and the crowd started to fight back. What resulted was several days of rioting against the systemic discrimination, homophobia, and transphobia that queer Americans had long been faced with, the watershed that made it clear that something had to, and something could, change. Still operating as a bar today, the building was the first LGBTQ+ National Historic Landmark designated in the U.S. One year after Stonewall, meanwhile, the first ever Pride Parade was held along Christopher Street to commemorate the event’s one-year anniversary, beginning the now-international tradition of the late-June Pride Parade, known still in many countries as Christopher Street Days. Christopher Park, just across the road from the Stonewall where activists and protesters gathered following the riots to discuss the events, is now home to the Gay Liberation Monument, a sculpture of two couples - one gay, one lesbian - made by artist George Segal to commemorate the riots in 1980. It was the first piece of public art dedicated to gay rights and solidarity for queer individuals.

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by Jude JONES
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