Taking a walk, especially during quarantine, may have become part of your new daily routine. While we long for the days of drinking in crowded bars next to leather-clad lesbians, we venture to nature trails or, more likely, to our own sidewalks to find peace during the new normal. For us urban adventurers, we’ve likely rambled our own neighborhoods so many times that we think there’s nothing new left to discover.
However, no matter where in the world you live, most cities have a rich and vibrant LGBTQ+ past which have been preserved by historical societies and foundations are just waiting for you to discover. Many organizations in cities across the country — and world-wide — have created self-guided walking tours, allowing you the chance to explore your local queer history independently and safely. Get outside, grab your smartphone and a mask, and head out on these delightfully educational strolls.
In the UK, places of historical significance are marked by a blue plaque. Naturally, the queers created pink plaques to show queer historic sites. In Brighton, there is a mobile app for iPhones and iPads that will take you on a self-guided walking tour around this city’s pink plaque sites called Brighton Pink Plaques. It’s available for £1.99 in the Apple App Store. If you’re not in Brighton, you could still download it from anywhere and take a virtual tour without physically walking it to learn about places like the pub that was stomping grounds for The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, and the hotel where Anne Lister spent a “dirty” weekend. Who wouldn’t want to learn about that?
Charleston is home to one of the smallest of the tours, encompassing five stops over just a dozen blocks. The tour is covered in a two-page PDF, so you can easily follow the map and read about the sites on your browser. Sites include the former home of Laura Bragg, a Charleston feminist and lesbian icon, and the parking lot that once housed Club 49, a vibrant LGBTQ+ nightclub and bar until 1985. Charleston is a beautiful cobblestoned seaside city worth a day trip for just walking along the streets in a mask without going inside anywhere.
Ithaca College’s Center for LGBT Education has put together a map, audio tour, and mobile app version for exploring 32 different points of interest to the LGBTQ+ community in Ithaca, NY (a four-hour drive northwest of the city). These spots include the location of the city’s first peer-led trans support group in 1995 and the 1984-1999 office of Firebrand Books, a publisher of feminist and lesbian writing by such names as Alison Bechdel, Audre Lorde, Lesléa Newman, and Leslie Feinberg.
The one-mile walking tour of Lexington, Kentucky will take you around 12 sites of historical significance including the Lyric Theater, the city’s first Black performance house and stalwart of the Black drag scene; the Bar Complex, Kentucky’s oldest LGBTQ+ gathering place; and the home of artist Henry Faulkner.
“Through his national reputation as a painter, Faulkner befriended many well-known LGBTQ people, including writers Tennessee Williams and James Herlihy and actor Vincent Price,” says the tour. “Faulkner was unashamedly gay in a time when many LGBTQ people lived closeted lives. Faulkner’s openness cost him dearly, including a police raid of this house. His home became a refuge for many young people, both gay and straight, in search of a freer way of life.”
Los Angeles, CA
You’ve got two choices for exploring Tinseltown.
The Lavender Effect has a free mobile app called PRIDE Explorer for Apple and Android that has an audio walking tour of Hollywood. “From the historic & haunted Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to the hustler-laden intersection of Hollywood & Vine, you’ll uncover a century of closeted stars, underground pansy bars, and Gay rights battle scars.” You can also view the over thirty points of interest on a Google Map within the app. When you click on a location you can play the narration and see old photos of the location. The app is available in both English and Spanish!
The other is not so much a walking tour as much as it is a map with information on several points of interest that are mostly not within walking distance of each other (that’s classic walkable LA for you). Spread over LA, West Hollywood, Silver Lake, and even Santa Monica, the LA website gives interesting background info on locations like the famed Black Cat bar where a 1967 demonstration was one of the earliest LGBTQ+ rights events in the U.S.
The LGBT Heritage Trail through Manchester has beautiful mosaic paving stones embedded in the sidewalks in front of 18 LGBTQ+ historic sites around the city, including a statue of the city’s beloved computer scientist Alan Turing. There is no official tour to follow around the trail, but you can find out about how to follow it on your own on these two webpages. Sites include the city’s Village, longtime home to LGBTQ+ folks, and Temperance Hall, which held Manchester’s drag ball in 1880.
New York City, NY
Of course, there are multiple options for the home of the Stonewall Inn. The three options below will show you the Stonewall Inn and more, like the kickoff location for the first Gay Liberation March and the homes of James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Christine Jorgensen.
The National Parks Conservation Association has put together a beautiful 45-minute self-guided walking tour of 17 points of interest in the Stonewall area for visitors to the historic area. View their map as a PDF or in Google Maps.
The New York Historic Sites Project has put together an extensive listing of hundreds of LGBTQ+ historic sites in New York City in the free VAMONDE mobile app (for Apple and Android devices). Just download the app and search “LGBT” to find their eight tours. There are different ones for Harlem, Brooklyn, Theater District, Upper West Side, Washington Square Park, and Greenwich Village.
The Lavender Effect’s PRIDE Explorer free bilingual app for Apple and Android that has a Hollywood tour also has one for NYC’s West Village with over twenty points of interest with audio narration and photos.
San Francisco, CA
Using the same PocketSights app as for Ithaca, NY, you can access “Beyond the Binary: Self-Guided Tour of San Francisco.” This one doesn’t have audio narration, but the background on all 17 points of interest is in-depth. You’ll visit sites like where the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots took place three years before Stonewall.
The free app for Apple and Android called GPSmyCity has a walking tour of the Castro district, the world-famous heart of LGBTQ+ San Francisco. There are just five stops, but the app will use GPS to guide you from one to the other even if you’re offline. It says it will take one hour, but you’re only walking six blocks.
Sydney’s option is unique because it is narrated by drag queens from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence! There are three separate 44-minute narrated audio tours to take within the city: Sydney’s CBD, Kings Cross and Paddington, and Oxford Street and Darlinghurst. Together, the three tours offer an extensive look into gay life in the city throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, taking you through the storied gay bars, cafes, and cruising sites.
These audio clips in .ram format are 20 years old, so make sure your mobile device is able to download and play them.
The Rainbow History Project in Washington, D.C. is a wonderful resource and would regularly hold guided walking tours around different parts of the city pre-pandemic, educating on the LGBTQ+ historical significance of various places. Thankfully, they also have all eight of their tours online for all to do on their own. Some are neighborhood-based, like Dupont Circle’s, and others are identity-based, like the African-American LGBTQ+ history walking tour. The Women’s Tour takes you to the site of Sophie’s Parlor, a coffee shop that was once a major gathering spot for lesbians and gay women, and the current Women in the Life, a center and safe space for women of color. All are available as PDF brochures on their website.
Even if you can’t safely get to one of these cities right now, there are plenty of ways to learn more about LGBTQ+ history online. Check out the GLBT Historical Society’s online exhibits or the free Quist mobile app (created by yours truly) that gives you a tidbit of queer history every day of the year; it also has a Google Maps feature with hundreds of global LGBTQ+ historic sites mapped and described. My series Quistory in your Neighborhood also gives some insight into the queer history of Cologne (Germany), Manchester (UK), Washington (DC, USA), San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Amsterdam, and Tucson (AZ, USA).
Whether you are re-exploring your own neighborhood on foot or diving into the wealth of archived information available online, learning about your local queer history is an enlightening way to pass time in queerantine. Taking the time to explore the past can help you gain a newfound appreciation for all the queer folks who have come before us, helping to break the barriers so that our lives today could be a little easier. What better way to honor them than by remembering and continuing to build on their legacy?