Experiencing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Boston—Past and Present
Boston has a long history of being one of the queerest cities in the United States. Not only does it still have a vibrant LGBTQ political and social culture—the colleges and universities turn out new streams of activists each year—but Boston’s history is filled with queer figures both noted and obscure.
Consider starting your visit to Boston and its environs—which include Jamaica Plain and Cambridge—at Calamus Bookstore (92B South St., one minute from South Station, 617-338-1931, ). Calamus is one of the few remaining women’s or LGBTQ bookstores in the country and has a wide selection of LGBTQ books (including a great history section and a large used-book section), magazines, DVDs, and local and international guides. You can also pick up local newspapers to read about what is going on around town. Be sure to pick up a copy of The Improper Bostonians by The History Project, one of the oldest LGBTQ community-based history projects in the country. It will tell you everything you need to know about Boston’s queer past. (The book is worth picking up online if the bookstore is sold out.)
Boston is a wonderful walking city, and you may want to start exploring in the North End, Boston’s Little Italy. In addition to great restaurants and bakeries, the neighborhood is the birthplace of Charlotte Cushman (110 Richmond St.), the famous 19th-century actor who lived openly with her female lovers, including noted sculptor Emma Stebbins. At the turn of the 20th century, educator Edith Guerrier founded the Saturday Evening Girl’s Literary Club for working women at the North End branch of the public library. (Guerrier later lived in nearby Brighton with her lover, the noted potter Edith Brown.)
From the North End you can easily walk to Beacon Hill. Several women lived together in famous long-term Boston marriages in the neighborhood, including Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields and Alice James and Katherine Loring. Louisa May Alcott (if not a lesbian, she was beloved of millions of lesbian readers) also lived here (at 10 Louisberg Sq.), as did F. Holland Day, the photographer who exhibited the first frontal male nude in Boston in 1896.
Beacon Hill was Boston’s gay neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Charles Street and the Esplanade (which runs along the Charles River) were popular cruising territory. Prescott Townsend, the noted Boston Brahmin and eccentric, lived in the neighborhood. He attempted to establish a Boston chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1957 and founded the Boston Demophile Center in 1963.
The Charles Street Meeting House (70 Charles St.) functioned as the city’s first gay community center in the early 1970s, when it was a Unitarian church. Gay Community News published its first issue there, the Gay Liberation Front sponsored weekly dances, and one of the country’s first programs for gay teens, Project Lambda, met there. The coffeehouse on the first floor was a popular spot among mid-1970s gay libbers.
While you are on “the Hill” you may want to stop into the famed Boston Athenæum (10 ½ Beacon St., 617-227-0270), a membership library with collections in the humanities, art, and Boston history.
As you walk through the Boston Common on your way to the Boston Garden and the Back Bay, look for the statue of Mary Dyer, who was executed for being that other “q word” (Quaker) in 1660. The statue is outside the Massachusetts State House (Beacon St.), where in 1974 State Senator Elaine Noble became the first openly gay person in the nation to hold an elective state office. She and (then) Representative Barney Frank subsequently sponsored a gay rights bill, which the legislature rejected. Over the years, the state house has been the site of numerous protests and rallies for LGBTQ rights.
In 1970, lesbian and gay activists gathered outside the JFK Federal Building (City Hall Plaza) on Tax Day to protest the war in Vietnam. The protest was one of the first times that self-identified gay people rallied in Boston.
In 1984 at Boston City Hall (City Hall Plaza), the City Council passed the Boston Human Rights Ordinance, authored by openly gay city councilor David Scondras. It was the first legislation in the state to protect the civil rights of lesbians and gays.
22 Bromfield Street was another mid-1970s community center. This building housed such diverse groups as Glad Day Bookshop (before its move to Copley Square), Boston Asian Gay Men and Lesbians (the first gay Asian group in the nation), the Black Men’s Caucus, the Committee for Gay Youth, Gay Community News, and Fag Rag. A fire of mysterious origin gutted the building in 1982. Across the street at 30 Bromfield was Other Voices, Boston’s first gay bookstore.
The original Boston Public Library building (700 Boylston St. at Copley Sq.), the first municipally funded library in the United States, features John Singer Sargent’s elaborate, and often homoerotic, famed mural complex “The Triumph of Religion.”
From the library you can easily walk to Bay Village, a charming nook of a neighborhood that harbored some of Boston’s most famous gay bars including Cavana’s, The Other Side, and The Punch Bowl, all of which closed in the late 1960s. The Napoleon Club (52 Piedmont St.) opened in the 1920s and began catering to a gay clientele in the 1950s. Napoleon’s closed in 1998. Jacques Cabaret is still open for business at 79 Broadway. Jacques has been a gay bar since the mid-1940s and is well known for its drag performances. Colorful local celebrity Sylvia Sidney (1930–98) was a performer at the bar from the age of 17. Near Jacques (on Broadway) was the Empty Barrel (99 ½ Broadway)—for many years a speakeasy frequented by lesbians. Visitors can still see the stairs leading down to the entrance of the basement bar. The Kit Kat (26 Fayette St.) was also a speakeasy, known by the cat silhouette cut into the shutters. The shutters were moved a number of years ago to the house next door.
Other important bars in the city’s LGBTQ history include Playland (21 Essex St.), which opened in 1938 and, until it closed in 1999, was Boston’s longest continually operating gay bar. One of the most successful lesbian bars from Boston’s past was the Saints (112 Broad St.), which operated from 1972–80. Located in Boston’s financial district, the Saints was run by a collective and only open in the evenings.
From Bay Village you can walk into the South End, Boston’s current LGBTQ neighborhood, have a drink at Club Café, and admire the beautiful parks and architecture. This is the neighborhood where Henry James’s feminist and reformers lived in The Bostonians.
From the South End you can walk back toward a Red Line station and take the subway to Cambridge’s Harvard Square. Harvard University is the home of numerous archives, but the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America is of enormous interest to feminist and queer historians. Located in Radcliffe Yard, it is an invaluable resource. (Check for hours and specifics at 617-495-8647, www.radcliffe.edu/schles.)
Just north of the Harvard Square stands a statue of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, who was involved in a passionate romantic friendship with reformer Samuel Gridley Howe. Their relationship caused problems in Howe’s marriage to feminist Julia Ward Howe, and her unfinished (and unpublished during her lifetime) novel, The Hermaphrodite, charts her attempts to understand her husband’s sexuality. If you venture into Harvard Yard look for Wigglesworth Hall—a first year dormitory—named after minister Michael Wigglesworth, who famously noted in a 1653 diary entry that “if the unloving carriages of my pupils can go so to my heart as they do; how then do my vain thoughts, my detestable pride, my unnatural filthy lust that ... even this day in some measure stirring in me.”
The Women’s Center, in the Cambridgeport/Central Square section of Cambridge (46 Pleasant St.), is the oldest community-based women’s center in the country, founded in 1972. The center houses many different groups and activities, including Lesbian Liberation, which began meeting in March 1971 during a 10-day occupation of a Harvard University building by several hundred women—an event that led to the founding of the Women’s Center. The women had several demands including that Harvard fund a community-based women’s center.
Also in Central Square is Cambridge City Hall (795 Massachusetts Ave.) where, one minute past midnight on May 17, 2004, the City of Cambridge became the first in the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
A very short bus ride from Harvard Square will take you to Mount Auburn Cemetery, which aside from being lovely, contains the graves of many of the most notable figures in Boston’s LGBTQ history. Charlotte Cushman, Annie Fields, and Samuel Gridley Howe are buried there, as is poet Amy Lowell, collector and patron of the arts Isabella Stuart Gardner, painter Winslow Homer, and feminist Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt (whose grave marker was sculpted by lesbian artist Edmonia Lewis). A cenotaph honors Margaret Fuller, who perished at sea. After viewing their graves—many of which are quite beautiful—take the bus back into Harvard Square or Beacon Hill and have a drink to toast them all—they are the very soul and spirit of Boston history.
Michael Bronski is a senior lecturer at Dartmouth College. He is the author of numerous books and essays. His A Queer History of the United States is being released in spring 2011 by Beacon Press. Additional text and information contributed by The History Project: Documenting LGBTQ Boston, www.historyproject.org.
About The History Project
Founded in 1980 by a group of activists, archivists, and historians, The History Project (or THP) documents and preserves the history of Boston’s LGBTQ communities, and shares that information with LGBTQ individuals, organizations, allies, and the public. The organization’s first project was the development of a one-and-a-half-hour narrated presentation on Boston’s lesbian and gay history.
In 1998, Beacon Press published Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland, based on THP’s groundbreaking 1996 exhibition at the Boston Public Library, Public Faces/Private Lives, which drew 55,000 visitors. Today, THP produces exhibitions and regularly sponsors readings, lectures, historical tours, and other events that shed light on the multifaceted histories of Boston’s LGBTQ communities.
Submitted by The History Project: Documenting LGBTQ Boston www.historyproject.org.
Last Updated: December 30, 2010 9:42 AM