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Boston's LGBTQ Equality Trail

Posted by Jim Lopata  May 7, 2012 12:51 PM

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The LGBTQ Equality Trail. For a full, interactive map, click here.

With the country's first civil marriages for same-sex couples, the first openly gay elected state official in the U.S., the first gay newspaper to go national, the first gay youth prom, and the place where the transgender day of remembrance traces its roots, Greater Boston is the cradle of equality for American LGBTQ citizens.

And with the warm spring weather upon us, it's an ideal time to get out and explore where the history happened.

A couple of years ago, Boston Spirit magazine consulted The History Project, Boston's LGBT archive, and others in order to map out a historical trail encompassing the incredible array of LGBTQ achievements of the area.

This Equality Trail commences at the Boston Common, where some of the city's first gay rights rallies were held. The path winds through much of Beacon Hill and the South End, where so many gay people gathered, lived and rallied in the 20th century. Then the trail ventures out to places like Cambridge, site of the nation's first civil marriages for same-sex couples, and on to Allston, where the Rita Hester was murdered, an event that has been called a Transgender Stonewall because it led to the international Transgender Day of Remembrance. It's all here in the Greater Boston Area.

The full list of places with commentary is below. An interactive Google map can be accessed here.

Hike as much or as little as you like. And while you enjoy the fresh spring air, enjoy your equality too!

1. Boston Common:  Begin at America’s oldest public park, which has been home to countless public rallies reaching back to pre-American Revolution times. Here in 1970, gay-identified groups such as the Homophile Union of Boston (HUB), Boston Daughter of Bilitis (DOB), Student Homophile League, and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) congregated to commemorate the Stonewall riots of New York City one year earlier—Boston’s first Pride.

2. Massachusetts State House, corner of Beacon and Park streets: Home to three LGBTQ landmark events. First, in January 1975, the swearing in of the first openly gay state legislator in the United States, Massachusetts state Representative Elaine Noble. Second, in 1989, when the Massachusetts Legislature passed the nation’s second comprehensive anti-discrimination law for gay people. Third, during a June 14, 2007, meeting at the Constitutional Convention, Massachusetts lawmakers defeated an amendment that would have banned civil marriage for same-sex couples, leaving intact legal marriage recognition of gay couples for years to come.

3. Charles Street Meeting House, 70 Charles Street: Originally built in 1804 as the Third Baptist Church, this historic building became a gay literary haven in the 1970s after a Unitarian Universalist congregation took up residence. Within these walls, the first issue of the Gay Community News was published. A weekly paper from 1973 until 1992, GCN was one of the first and most influential LGBT newspapers not only in Boston, but throughout the entire country. Its readership grew exponentially as its politically forward coverage attracted a more involved audience that included activists of all causes.

4. Beacon Hill: Before the South End became the Hub’s gay center, Beacon Hill was the neighborhood of choice for Boston’s “bohemians.” Here, businesses, restaurants, nightclubs, and bathhouses catered to the “pansies” of the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.

5. Old West Church, 131 Cambridge Street: In 1974, the parishioners of the United Methodist Old West Church, founded in 1737 colonial New England, provided a home for one of America’s first LGBT Jewish congregations, B’nai Haskalah, and a few years later, Am Tikva.

6. St. John The Evangelist, 35 Bowdoin Street: The current meeting place of Dignity/Boston, a progressive community of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Catholics, St. John’s has a long history of providing “open” spaces.

7. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, One Pemberton Square: Here, on November 18, 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in favor of Julie and Hillary Goodridge and six other same-sex couples, in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, allowing them to marry. After a six-month stay by the court, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to enact equal marriage, on May 17, 2004.

8. JFK Federal Building, City Hall Plaza: On Tax Day 1970, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) gathered here to protest the Vietnam War, marking one of the first instances in which self-identified homosexuals rallied in New England.

9. Boston City Hall,  City Hall Plaza: Here, in 1984, the Boston City Council passed the state’s first legislation protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination, the Boston Human Rights Ordinance, which was proposed by out city councilor David Scondras.

10. Saints (former home of), 112 Broad Street: After opening in 1974, this nightclub attracted a multi-racial, homosexual clientele. Lesbians, in particular, flocked to Saints for the atmosphere until its closing in 1982.

11. 22 Bromfield Street:  Boston Asian Gay Men and Lesbians, the nation’s first LGBTQ Asian organization; the Black Men’s Caucus; the Committee for Gay Youth; Lesbian and Gay Media Advocates, and the offices of the radical queer newspaper the Fag Rag, all called this address home, making it Boston’s gay community center until a fire of mysterious origin gutted the building in 1982.

12. Other Voices (former home of), 30 Bromfield Street: The site of Boston’s first gay bookstore.

13. The Other Side (former home of), 76 Broadway: Established in 1965, The Other Side was the first Boston nightclub to allow same-sex dancing. In the years prior, contact dancing (or lap dancing) had lost sway in nightclubs, which meant less police attention, and an easier transition into dancing between people of the same sex. The Other Side closed its doors in 1976.

14. The Punch Bowl, Park Square: A Bay Village haunt, the Punch Bowl was one of the most recognized gay bars in Boston. Like other pre-Stonewall gay bars, the Punch Bowl was subject to frequent raids by police; then, employees on the upper level would flash a light to let those on the basement dance floor know that it was time to switch dancing partners to someone of the opposite sex. One member of the staff, Sidney Sushman, went on to drag queen fame under her stage name, Sylvia Sidney. 

15. The Napoleon Club, (former home of) 52 Piedmont Street: This former speakeasy opened in 1929 as “Nappies.” It began attracting male clientele a mere decade later, and by 1952, The Napoleon Club became exclusively gay.

16. Arlington Street Church,  351 Boylston Street: In this sanctuary, the nation’s first state-sanctioned wedding for a same-sex couple took place on May 17, 2004. Three days later, 55 gay couples legally married here in one day. In addition, the congregations’ belief in citizens’ freedom to assemble made it a popular meeting spot for organizations like the Homophile Union, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, and Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). In 1977, the Arlington Street Church became home to the local gay Catholic group Dignity-Boston, after it became one of the first Dignity chapters to be banned from meeting on Roman Catholic Church property. Here too was held the nation’s first gay high school prom in 1981, put on by the nation’s first student-run LGBT youth organization, BAGLY, founded in 1980.

17. 419 Boylston Street:  Conveniently located around the corner from the Arlington Street Church, 419 Boylston Street played host to a number of LGBTQ organizations, including the Homophile Community Health Services and Boston Gay Youth.

18. Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston Street: In March 1978, a routine police sting against men having sex in the BPL bathrooms was thwarted by a young lawyer named John Ward, who had the audacity to defend the men in court. Though the plainclothes operation led to 103 arrests in only two weeks, only one man was found guilty; his conviction was later overturned. Thus was born Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the organization that, years later, argued and won the case to allow legal same-sex unions in Massachusetts.

19. AIDS Action Committee (AAC), 131 Clarendon Street: Former, long-time, sentimental home of the AIDS Action Committee.

20. Boston Living Center (BLC), 29 Stanhope Street: As New England’s largest community resource center for people living with HIV/AIDS, BLC remains a model for similar centers as far away as South Africa. In the late-1980s, to help counter the fear and stigma surrounding those with HIV/AIDS, a small group gathered for Thanksgiving Dinner. These became weekly gatherings that would lead to the formation of the BLC in 1989.

21. South Boston: St. Pat’s day parade: Here, in 1993, in this great Irish-American immigrant enclave, organizers of the region’s largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade tried to ban a gay Irish group from marching. Obscenities and insults were launched at the gay marchers. Things got so ugly that the parade was canceled the following year. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that organizers could in fact ban the gay marchers from participating. Since then, the parade has remained hetereo-centric, though its attendance has dwindled.

22. The South End: The South End started becoming a gay haven when, during the 1940s, as gentrification swept Beacon Hill and alternative nightlife was on the decline, gay and lesbian residents relocated. Attracted by numerous same-sex rooming houses, unmarried men and women flocked to the area for social cover.

23. Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue: Club Café opened in 1983 and quickly became one of the primary gathering places for lesbian and gay Bostonians—and not just for the good food, flowing libations, and drag-tastic entertainment. Club Café served as a meeting place for many LGBT community organizations, including those involved with sports, politics, and activism.

24. In Newsweekly (former home), 544 Tremont Street: In print from 1991 through 2008, In Newsweekly was a mainstay newspaper of New England news, nightlife, party pictures, and, yes, gossip, too. 

25. Bay Windows (former home), 631 Tremont Street: Founded in 1982, the weekly newspaper is a leading political voice in LGBT activism. Its office here was a community landmark for years.

26. Fenway Health (former home), 16 Haviland Street: Originally operating as a one-day-a-week health center run by volunteer college students in the basement of the Christian Science Church, the fledgling health clinic was, in 1971, named Fenway Community Health Center. Two years later, fueled by an increase in demand for services, the center relocated to 16 Haviland Street, where it remained until March 2009. Here, too, in November 1982, group meetings called “AIDS Forums” began. By February 1983, membership had grown substantially and New England’s first and largest AIDS organization, AIDS Action Committee, was formed.

27. 338 Newbury Street: Years before the salon invasion of upper Newbury Street, the space above Trident Booksellers & Café housed a community center from 1988 to 1991. At a loss for available space, Boston’s newly formed, though yet unnamed, gay chamber of commerce held its first meeting there in 1990—and with that, the Greater Boston Business Council (GBBC) was born.

28. The Back Bay Fens : This marshland swamp birthed one of the first and longest-running—not to mention most subversive—queer theater companies in the country, The Theater Offensive. On a summer’s night in 1989, somewhere within the forestry of this infamous cruising spot, a few men gathered and, under the name of the United Fruit Company, performed gay guerilla theater for the first time. The troupe remains as avant-garde today as it did over 20 years ago.

29. Fenway Health, 1340 Boylston Street: This ten-story, 100,000-square-foot building is the largest facility ever constructed with a specific mission to serve the LGBTQ community. Fenway began providing services here in 2009. Since its start in a basement in 1971, Fenway Health has treated more than 70,000 patients.

30. Cambridge City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge: Here, at 12:01 a.m. on May 17, 2004, the city of Cambridge became the first municipality in the United States to legally offer “Notices of Intent to Marry” forms to same-sex couples. Of the more than 1,000 same-sex marriages registered in Massachusetts in its first days of legalization, Cambridge-registered nuptials accounted for over 250 of them. Look for the plaque commemorating the event inside. The liberal mecca of Cambridge also lays claim to having the first openly gay, black mayor and first out black, lesbian mayor.

31. Parkvale Avenue, Allston: On November 28, 1998, two men followed transgender woman Rita Hester to her apartment on this street and stabbed her to death inside. One year later, transgender activists in San Francisco remembered the event with a candlelight vigil, which has become an annual, globally commemorated observance known as the Transgender Day of Remembrance. 

Originally created for Boston Spirit magazine (www.bostonspiritmagazine.com). Special thanks to The History Project.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author: Boston Spirit Magazine’s daily blog brings you all of the information you need on New England’s LGBT community. In addition to highlighting local and national LGBT news, we will also highlight local leaders from the worlds of business, politics, fashion and entertainment and keep you up-to-date on all the latest events and parties, hot spots for travel, shopping, dining, and more!
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