From Mount Vernon Ladies to LGBTQ Heritage: Bringing Our Stories to the Field of Preservation

by Shayne E. Watson

LGBTQ heritage preservation — and place-based history more generally — anchor the stories and experiences of queer people to the physical spaces where the history unfolded: the home of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the Black Cat Café, the Turk Street Baths, Compton’s Cafeteria, Folsom Street Barracks, the Women’s Building of San Francisco, Buena Vista Park, the men’s room in the basement at Macy’s. These places don’t exhibit extraordinary design; they are significant to us because they embody our histories.

Upper-class white women founded the first historic preservation organization in the United States in 1853. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union saved George Washington’s Mount Vernon and sparked a national fervor for preservation based largely in patriotism. Over a century later, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 put the National Park Service in charge of place-based history at the federal level and established the National Register of Historic Places, the foremost list of historic sites in the United States.

Queers on the National Register

For most of its history, the National Register foregrounded architectural history and essentially disregarded places important for their social or cultural heritage. In 1999, more than 30 years after the creation of the register, the Stonewall Inn in New York City was the first LGBTQ-associated site added to the list. For more than a decade, the Stonewall stood alone as the only queer listing out of nearly 90,000 properties recognized on the register.

We’ve made great progress in addressing the invisibility of the LGBTQ past in the field of preservation in the last five years, especially in San Francisco. In 2015, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission adopted the Citywide Historic Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco, the most comprehensive local study of LGBTQ historic sites ever completed. In January 2017, San Francisco launched the Citywide LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy to preserve and promote queer heritage — the first city-sponsored LGBTQ cultural heritage preservation program in the world.

The GLBT Historical Society has been instrumental in both of these projects, serving as a fiscal sponsor for the first and as a member of the task force for the second. We’re currently encouraging everyone interested in San Francisco’s LGBTQ cultural heritage to complete the city’s survey on the subject. In addition, we recently launched our own Historic Places Working Group to make queer place-based history and site preservation an integral part of the Historical Society’s mission. As chair, I’m eager to hear from people interested in getting involved. You can contact me via e-mail.

Shayne E. Watson
 is an architectural historian and preservation planner specialized in LGBTQ heritage. She serves as an administrator of Preserving LGBT Historic Sites in California on Facebook.



NOTE: Reprinted from the July 2017 issue of History Happens, the monthly newsletter of the GLBT Historical Society. To read the full issue, click here. For a free subscription to the newsletter, click here.