Checkpoints: Must-See NYC Gay Landmarks

David Sokol

New York City boasts an abundance of destinations that not only shed light on the LGBT community's past, but also offer entertainment, education and opportunities for volunteer work. By exploring key locations and resources in the City—including landmarks, exhibitions and library archives—visitors and residents can discover the tangible traces of history while also experiencing the movement's vibrant present. The numerous sites in the five boroughs—The Stonewall Inn; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center; Harvey Milk School; and the Lesbian Herstory Archives, among others—have profound significance to the LGBT community, representing historical milestones, seminal struggles and present-day triumphs. The following is a list of vital checkpoints to consider while planning your visit.

Any number of Broadway sites demonstrate the thriving Theatre District's extensive legacy of cultivating rising gay talents and portraying issues and stories that resonate with the LGBT community. For example, A Chorus Line, one of Broadway's longest-running shows and the first musical to highlight a gay narrative, premiered at the Shubert Theatre in 1975. From 1979 to 1980, the New Apollo Theatre, which was located at 223 W. 42nd St., staged the Martin Sherman play Bent, in which a gay man discovers love and self-acceptance in the midst of Nazi persecution at a concentration camp. La Cage aux Folles opened in 1983 at the Palace Theatre and would stay there for more than four years. Harvey Fierstein now stars in a Tony Award–winning revival of La Cage aux Folles, for which he wrote the book.

Christopher Street is a veritable textbook of gay history. As early as the 1920s, Stewart's Cafeteria and Life Cafeteria, which faced one another across Sheridan Square, were well known as gay hangouts. In 1955, the Los Angeles–based Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States, opened a New York office on Christopher Street. Caffe Cino served as a nexus for gay-themed and Off-Off-Broadway theater during its run from 1958 to 1968; a plaque at the location, which is now the restaurant , acknowledges its significance. While these outposts of LGBT history are no longer present at their original locations, there are numerous landmarks visitors and locals can experience today. Although The Stonewall Inn closed a few months after the namesake riots that officially fomented the gay rights movement in 1969, another gay bar using the same name has operated in the spot since the early 1990s. Julius, which opened in 1863, is the City's oldest gay bar and one of its oldest taverns, period. At Sheridan Square itself, Pop Art sculptor George Segal's Gay Liberation was installed in 1992; completed in 1980, this series of bronze figures commemorates the Stonewall Riots and ranks as the first public artwork commissioned to honor the LGBT movement.

Students and enthusiasts of LGBT history will want to devote a day to the New York Public Library’s Gay and Lesbian Collections and AIDS/HIV Collections, which opened in 1988 when the International Gay Information Center donated its archives to the library. Located within the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and West 42nd Street, the collections include the records of the Mattachine Society of New York, 4,000 books covering genres from nonfiction to erotica, and visual ephemera such as flyers, posters and programs. Most of this material is accessible to visitors. For additional references, check out the library's Manuscripts and Archives Division, which includes treasures such as the records of the AIDS organization ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—covering a span of 16 years. The division also maintains the Vito Russo Papers, which contain the writings and research materials of the LGBT activist and author. In the Lincoln Center area, the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts houses the John Heys Papers, an archive of correspondence, journals, scripts, playbills and clippings relating to the actor/performer.

Harvey Milk School, established as a safe space for LGBT teens, drew little public notice when it opened with a single teacher and about 20 students inside the Washington Square United Methodist Church in 1985. (The New York Times broke the story several months later.) Despite various protests from those opposed to it, a spirit of tolerance and acceptance has characterized the high school, with total enrollment hovering around 100 students, and it achieves a graduation rate that trumps the City average. Though run by the New York City Department of Education, Harvey Milk is now housed at The Hetrick-Martin Institute. The institute was founded in 1979 as the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth, and it offers after-hours programs and supportive services to students or any young person who has found his or her way to the Astor Place facility.

In December 1983, the New York City Board of Estimates approved the $1.5 million sale of an 1844 schoolhouse to the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, which opened at the Greenwich Village location several months later. Now known as The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, or just "the Center," this community landmark has unwaveringly pursued a mission of civic service, inventing a variety of programs geared toward youth, family, cultural events and the preservation of historical documents. The Center is equally notable for the safe, affordable meeting places it provides to other organizations. On a daily basis, the location hosts programs that respond to a multiplicity of community needs, including LGBT media projects, learning to live with cancer, creative writing workshops, life coaching for gay men and support groups for prospective parents. Organizations such as Lesbian Cinema Arts; the SmokeFree Project, which helps smokers quit cigarettes; and the Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies meet at the building. The extensive Center CARE (Counseling, Advocacy, Recovery and Education) health program comprises such initiatives as yoga classes and the Gender Identity Project, which fosters the well-being of transgender people. In addition to these ongoing initiatives, the building has provided a cornerstone for key historical developments: inside the Center's walls in 1987, activist Larry Kramer proclaimed the urgency of responding to the AIDS epidemic, and shortly thereafter ACT UP was born. The advocacy organization Queer Nation also got its start here, as did the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The Center is also significant for housing the Keith Haring mural Once Upon a Time, which depicts gay sexual activity in the pre-HIV/AIDS era. Haring originally created the art for a bathroom, though the space was later converted to a meeting room.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives was launched by Joan Nestle and Julia Stanley with Sahli Cavallo, Deborah Edel and Pamela Oline in 1974; the following year, the group began assembling lesbian-oriented documents in Nestle's West 92nd Street home. No visitor was refused a tour of the collection, and myriad volunteers showed up every week to organize the letters, photographs, novels and other artifacts that were sent in as donations. This Upper West Side apartment would house these materials for 15 years, until 1993, when the group officially opened its permanent archive in Park Slope, Brooklyn. A caretaker keeps a close watch on this well-preserved, turn-of-the-last-century town house, but there are no restrictions on access during the Archives' open hours. Casual visitors as well as researchers are invited to grab a spot on the couch or at a second-floor laptop station and peruse the ever-growing collection of printed lesbiana as well as audiovisual files, paraphernalia and clothing. Those interested in exploring this material should check the website calendar to find out when the Archives are open—the schedule varies throughout each month and week.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives are less than a half-block away from Prospect Park, a 585-acre paradise that includes miles of walking and biking paths, a zoo, an Audubon Center and outdoor performances during the summer months. The location also serves as a great entrée to exploring Park Slope, a neighborhood that features the lesbian (and straight-friendly) establishment Ginger's Bar and the Prospect Park Women's Softball League.