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Tracing Queer History in Boston

The architecture of a community goes far beyond buildings. As Pride month draws to a close, we’re spotlighting some of the historical places in and around Boston that comprise this city’s rich and vibrant LGBTQ culture. From bars to churches, from libraries to law firms, the importance of physical space to marginalized groups has had an immense impact not only on the ways that Boston’s LGBTQ communities have organized, but how they’ve built culture upon foundations of strong heritage. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, many of Boston’s most beloved and important historically queer spaces have been demolished, abandoned, or repurposed. Many of us, even with connections to the LGBTQ communities in and around Boston, are unaware of our city’s rich and vibrant history; when we walk past vacant or gentrified buildings or lots where these establishments once stood, it is easy for us to unconsciously erase important American history from our collective minds. In recognizing where these places stood and by educating others about their importance to American history, we can trace the social geography of Boston’s LGBTQ heritage and perhaps become inspired to preserve other non-traditional yet culturally significant spaces.

Places of Worship
Standing adjacent to the Otis House, home of the Boston Preservation Alliance and Historic New England, stands the Old West Church, a Federal-style masterpiece designed by Asher Benjamin and built in 1806. For hundreds of years, the Old West Church has served Boston and its Beacon Hill community through acts of social service. In the late 18th century under the direction of its staunch abolitionist minister, Cyrus Bartol, the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1970, the Old West Church became one of the first Boston churches to open its arms to the LGBTQ community, serving as a meeting spot for the city’s fledgling queer organizations and hosting a range of supportive and informative events, from teach-ins to support groups. The church was a frequent meeting place for the G.L.A.D. Legal Advocates & Defenders group as it began its mission to bring legal aid to Boston's marginalized communities in the late 1970s, a project it continues to this day. Today, the Old West Church proudly supports social organizations ranging from Black Lives Matter to contemporary LGBTQ advocacy networks, taking a strong stance in favor of human rights in the face of a widespread, darker history of religious intolerance.

The Old South Church, located on Boylston, has stood at the heart of historic Back Bay for 350 years. Despite being one of the city’s oldest landmarks, the church has actively responded to today’s social and cultural needs by working as a resource center for all Bostonians. In the 1980s, Old South responded to the AIDS epidemic by offering healing sessions and group counseling, hosted both in the church and in the private homes of members. Recently, the church became designated as “open and affirming” by the UCC (United Church of Christ), a status that is given to churches that undergo a full and comprehensive process of LGBTQ inclusion. From 2005 to 2010, Quinn Caldwell served as the church’s first openly gay minister, and he returns yearly to give the annual Pride sermons in June.

Bars & Clubs
Patrick Sisson of Curbed writes, “While the protests and marches at The Stonewall Inn turned the bar into a symbolic headquarters for the Gay Pride movement, gay nightlife has always served as vital space for community building and escaping societal persecution.” Boston is the home of a number of well-known, long-established bars that have played host and home to generations of LGBTQ youth. Considered the first bar by and for gay Bostonians, Twelve Carter opened its doors in 1958. Sitting just off of Boylston Street in the Theatre District, the bar soon became a popular hangout spot for the city’s queer performers. Due to the time, Twelve Carter did not explicitly label itself as a space for the LGBTQ community; yet local politicians and prejudiced citizens quickly and vehemently decried the establishment. City Council member Frederick Langone advocated for the remodeling of the space, remarking that “we will be better off without these incubators of homosexuality and indecency… we will uproot this cancer in one area of the city.” Despite a twenty-year stint as a safe and supportive space for Boston’s queer community to gather, dance, and drink, Twelve Carter finally buckled under political pressure and was demolished along with the rest of Carver Street during the 1979 neighborhood renovation that made room for the Park Plaza Hotel, greenlit by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (now the BPDA). 

While bars like Twelve Carter and Buddie’s in Back Bay, known for its shirtless bartenders and annual Thanksgiving dinners, cultivated a crowd of mainly younger, white gay men, Boston has a long and complex history of bars catering toward women, people of color, and the transgender community. Vicki’s, a butch lesbian bar, was located in the Hotel St. Moritz on Tremont Street for several decades before its demolition in the 1970s. Jacques Cabaret on Broadway in Bay Village has served as a popular spot for gender expression and experimentation from its opening in 1938 to today, challenging criticism from local neighborhood associations and remaining a safe and fun place for drag queens, female impersonators, and Boston’s trans community. Before its demolition and denouncement as a spot of degeneracy in 1998, Playland Cafe, an infamous bar on Essex Street, was well known for its acceptance and support of severely marginalized communities, including trans women of color and sex workers. 

Resource & Support Centers
Many members of Boston’s queer community benefited from the communal resources offered by bars and nightclubs while, simultaneously, sites for the distribution of other types of resources bloomed all over the city. 22 Bromfield Street served as the home of Gay Community News and GLAD Day Bookstore, two vital community organizations that sought to promote queer literacy. BAGLY, the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth, has been located at 28 Court Square since 1980, and functions as a youth-led social support organization dedicated to creating, sustaining, and advocating for resources benefitting LGBTQ youth in and around the city. Since 1985, the Bisexual Resource Center has stood at 29 Stanhope Street, offering resources and support for bisexual, pansexual, and sexually fluid Bostonians. The Cherrystone Club, on 500 Columbus Avenue, began in 1975 with the leadership of trans activist Marissa Sherill Lynn, and now functions as the Trans Club of New England. K Street Facilities Committee, located just blocks from Fenway Park, has housed 12-Step meetings for Boston’s LGBTQ recovery community since 1987; Fenway Health, located only two blocks away, has been a world leader in LGBTQ health research since its founding in 1971. Finally, Boston City Hall stands as a reminder of May 17, 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state in the United States and the sixth jurisdiction worldwide to legalize and perform same-sex marriages.

In the nearly 50 years since many of these establishments have closed, immense progress has been made in the attitudes of Bostonians to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community members. One can only hope that by extending an understanding of what has been lost, we can not only preserve these locations and bring them back into the collective consciousness, but we can make an effort to preserve and rally behind places that support the Boston LGBTQ community today.

Note: Much of the information recorded in this blog post was sourced from The History Project, an organization that documents LGBTQ Boston. For more information on their mission and projects, including a map featuring many of these locations, please visit historyproject.org. 

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