Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

To walk the streets of New York is, inevitably, to walk in the footsteps of America’s queer past. Whether it is to stand where Walt Whitman waited for the ferry to Brooklyn, stroll where Audre Lorde studied and taught at Hunter College, sit where James Baldwin served curry in Washington Square, or listen where Marlene Dietrich sang at Carnegie Hall, on every corner you can find traces of the evolving history of queer America.

The weekend of the AHA meeting is an excellent moment to think about and dabble in that history. U.S. history surveys commonly cover gay history though the June 1969 Stonewall Riots, a confrontation between New York City police and the late-night patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run gay bar on Christopher Street in the West Village (just a quick ride from midtown Manhattan on the 1, 2, 3 train). Commemorated in many American cities with a June gay pride parade, the riots helped inspire the expansion of gay liberation politics and culture. A stroll down Christopher Street today still reveals the roots of that movement. The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (15 Christopher St. near 6th Ave., 212-255-8097, opened in 1967 as the first gay bookstore—and community center, really—in the country. Around the corner, on 10th Street and Waverly, Julius’ bar served as launching pad for a successful 1966 effort to challenge the ban on serving homosexuals liquor. (Allegedly, Julius’, a former speakeasy, was also a favorite watering hole for Truman Capote, Rudolf Nureyev, and Tennessee Williams.) Although the West Village has been replaced by Chelsea and other neighborhoods for queer living today, Christopher Street still hosts a smattering of gay bars and stores and attracts the foot traffic of queer kids.

While the West Village is famous for its historic events, queer life and history is much more deeply woven into the fabric of New York life. Indeed, take a short walk from the meeting hotels and you’ll find that looking at the city with a queer eye is something of a revelation.

Walk 10 blocks downtown, and you will be in Times Square and the heart of the theater district. Michael Sherry recently wrote about a “queer moment” in the midst of the Cold War when queer imaginations shaped the arts in America. The plays of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Edward Albee produced in the theaters along these streets made American theater queer theater. West Side Story, the great American portrait of romance and ethnic strife that opened at the Winter Garden on Broadway and 50th Street in 1957, was the combined queer creation of composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, director Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In truth, American popular culture has long had a queer influence. My own favorite discovery in the Times Square area is the former Eltinge Theater, now an AMC multiplex on 42nd Street near 8th Avenue. At the start of the 20th century, Julian Eltinge was such an international star that he and his backers built a theater with his name on it that quickly became a fixture on the vaudeville circuit. The surprise about Eltinge, 100 years later, is not simply that the star had affairs with other men, but that he was celebrated for being a female impersonator, the country’s first RuPaul. If you enter the AMC lobby and ride the escalators up, you can see the three figures painted on the ceiling depicting Eltinge in costume.

Heading east from the meeting hotels, you will pass the Museum of Modern Art, where the works of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and many, many other queer artists reside. A couple of blocks south lie Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, which have echoed with queer voices from Liberace to Johnny Mathis to k.d. lang. Most intriguingly, along 3rd Avenue you will find yourself in the midst of what was once “The Bird Circuit,” a clutch of gay bars dating to the 1950s that had names like the Swan, the Blue Parrot, the Golden Pheasant, and the Yellow Cockatoo. The Swan was on the corner of 48th, Red’s was on 50th, and the Parrot was just off the avenue on 52nd. For a certain type of fellow in the postwar years, a night out was a night among the birds, strolling from cocktail to cocktail.

Every part of this city boasts a rich and intriguing queer past if you are paying attention. There is even a story that in the early 1700s the British colonial governor paraded the ramparts of his fort at the tip of Manhattan dressed in woman’s garb, hoping, it seemed, to prove how much he looked like his cousin, the Queen. So queer life in various forms has long been a part of the city’s blood (and continues to circulate here). My suggestion: seek out that past—it will change how you see New York.

Daniel Hurewitz is the author of Stepping Out: Nine Walks through New York’s Gay and Lesbian Past and Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, and is an assistant professor of history at Hunter College.