Search

A Quick Sprint Through the LGBTQ History of the Lower East Side

Updated: May 20


"This was the Lower East Side—a place where gifts were laid at your feet, given by those who seem to have nothing yet carrying in their eyes and on their hands a broken radiance.” -Joan Nestle


Over 150 years before Roger, Mark, and Mimi danced on the tables of the Life Cafe, the bohemian lifestyle they revered took off in the dark corners of the Lower East Side. Don’t get us wrong, the LES has faced so much economic struggle that the area inspired some of today’s most common housing laws. It was not—until the past 20 years—the easiest place to live and thrive. But somehow, against society’s attempts to quiet LGBTQ voices, the LES remained an ever-changing haven for creative thinkers, determined immigrants, and social icons.


For a couple of hundred years, the Lower East Side housed wave after wave of new immigrants, concentrating all the diverse ideas and stories from around the world into a few square miles. It was here that some of the first written-about gay bars appeared, where the country’s second gay rights protest took place, and where endless LGBTQ artists, writers, and performers sparked movements.


Since prejudice erased so many LGBTQ stories, we may never know every detail of the Lower East Side’s history of its oppressed groups, but we can piece together a tapestry of events that created the spirit of the neighborhood we still adore.


If you want to make a neighborhood sound fancier than it is, give it a new name. The Lower East Side originally included what is now the East Village, but the northern streets split off in the 60s to highlight its new artistic and slowly gentrifying status. Our LGTBQ stories about the LES span the whole original area and go a little out of the confines of the typical city blocks.


Hanging with the Bohemians

From the middle of the 19th century—and surely earlier—the LES attracted members of the LGBTQ community looking to celebrate, live, and love with less restraint, even if it was not in the public eye or at the center of history books. It slowly became common knowledge that heading to the Village or the LES was a chance to rub elbows with the “wilder” city crowd, especially those who—gasp!—might love the same gender or not present as the gender society chose for them.


In the 1860s, bars like Pfaff’s—right on the cusp of the LES and Greenwich Village—became one of the first commonly known hotspots for the “bohemians.” Walt Whitman and his partner Fred Vaugn were said to hang with the crowd of free thinkers. This group of early cultural revolutionaries drank and debated ideas in the vaulted space beneath the sidewalk of 647 Broadway.




According to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, the mid and late-19th century was a surprising time of visibility for the community because of these growing spaces. Webster Hall on East 11th was perhaps the most prominent meeting spot, holding masquerade and drag balls for the LES community as well as pivotal rallies and political meetings for local residents. This is not to say that homosexuality was not still illegal and highly stigmatized, but these common spaces, art movements, and general discussion about the LGBTQ community had a brief moment in the light during this time.




Outside of its nightlife, prominent LGBTQ figures also improved the health and safety in the neighborhood. Lillian Wald and Mary Brewster founded the Henry Street Settlement on the LES in 1893. The center provided low-cost health and community services to the poor area and eventually built NYC’s first public playgrounds.

Wald—who was known to have relationships with other women—made massive strides for public health for the country. Additionally, up on East 13th Street, the revolutionary Emma Goldman lived and ran her magazine, Mother Earth. Revolution was brewing as the city headed into the 20th century.


Fighting for Community

Prohibition and the Great Depression slowed the progression of the public gay community as society turned toward more conservatism and began more strictly policing LGBTQ spaces.


However, World War II played a fascinating role in helping LGBTQ members find one another. In the 1984 documentary Before Stonewall, WWII veterans celebrate meeting huge groups of LGBTQ members when serving at home or abroad for the cause. After the war, It didn’t sound appealing to head back to your small hometown where you would have to hide your identity. Instead, many gay and lesbian veterans re-established their lives and found anonymity in the cities—especially the village and the LES.


Sadly, , the ultra-conservative American society back home was far from welcoming. Events like the 1950s “Lavender Scare”, a horrific ousting of LGBTQ members from federal jobs, set the country back even further. Down on the LES, LGBTQ spaces had to step back into the shadows, often turning to members of the mafia to keep gay establishments in business outside the eye of the law.



During this time of underground development of the culture, Lower East Side spots like the 181 Club and Club 82 gave rise to elaborate drag reviews, cabarets, and concerts. But the mob’s management of gay spaces was rarely in the best interest of its patrons. The owners weren’t the biggest fans of keeping these places safe and hygienic, and let’s just say profits didn’t exactly support the local community.



In spite of this eruptive time for the community, prominent LGBTQ members living on the LES fought for peace and acceptance for all communities, particularly Igal Roodenko and Bayard Rustin who lived at 217 Mott Street.

These two gay men—one Jewish and the other African American—were part of The Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, which is recognized as the first Freedom Ride against segregation. You can also visit and pay homage to the East Village home of groundbreaking gay writer W.H. Auden, who resided at 77 St. Marks Place with his partner from the 50s to the early 70s. Countless others from the neighborhood kept up the fight despite the panic against LGTBQ rights that emerged after World War II.




The Long-Awaited Uprising

Beneath all of this, a counterculture of LGTBQ rights activists began to form publicly for the first time—leading to groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis from San Francisco. Both organizations eventually opened major chapters in NYC.


Supported and inspired by the organization of the Civil Rights Movement across the country, LGBTQ people began loudly fighting for their voice. In 1964, four brave souls picketed a homophobic lecture outside of Cooper Union, an event that is now considered the second gay-rights protest in the US.


The majority of the key spots in the LGBTQ just before and after Stonewall happened west of the LES, but its community was vibrant and active. Over the next 40 years, the LES became the home turf for some of the most prominent LGBTQ writers, artists, and activists of the 20th century.

Artist Jasper Johns lived on East Houston Street for 20 years, Martin Wong lived at 141 Ridge Street throughout the 80s and 90s, and Allen Ginsburg lived with his partner Peter Orlovsky on East 2nd from 1958-1961, just to name a few.


Much like the Henry Street Settlement a century prior, the LES also became home for another pioneering health center in 1995—Rivington House. Located at 45 Rivington Street, the transformed schoolhouse became the largest hospital in the nation specifically for AIDS patients. Rivington House acted as a beacon for healthcare and hospice with 219 beds at the peak of the outbreak.


20th-Century Spots

Returning to its roots, the Lower East Side became a destination for gay bar owners, the arts scene, and safe LGBTQ spaces, even as the neighborhood so radically change between the 80s and today. Here are just a few spots to add to your LGBTQ walking tour of the LES.


Theatres

Women’s One World Café (WOW Cafe) Theatre launched in 1980 and has presented decades of groundbreaking women’s, transgender, and lesbian works. Right down the street, you’ll also find La Mama Experimental Theatre Club.

This prominent off-off-Broadway space has celebrated an endless list of LGBTQ writers and artists on 74 East 4th Street since 1969. Founded by famous producer Ellen Stewart, La Mama helped launch some of the most iconic and socially driven plays of our time.


Groundbreaking Gay Bars

Famous spots like the Pyramid Club on Avenue A and Boy Bar on St. Marks became iconic gay spots in the 80s and 90s. The Saint, originally at 105 Second Ave, was a members-only underground gay dance club in a space originally housing a famous theatre. You also had the well-known lesbian bar Meow Mix lived on East Houston, promoting lesbian artists in a sex-positive setting.


Bookstores and Cafes

Head west toward 291 Mercer Street and you’ll find the original site of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop—the first LGBTQ bookstore and community meeting center. And—just to bring this full circle—the Life Cafe on 10th and Avenue B, which served as one of the many artistic havens for modern Bohemians, including young playwright Jonathan Larsen, who it’s said scribbled down early script notes for Rent here.


Though the cozy wooden coffee shops and skyrocketing rents would leave past tenants in shock, we like to think they’d be proud to find the long list of welcoming gay spots—both underground and above ground this time. Our beloved Boiler Room celebrates what our Bohemian contemporaries were setting out to achieve—a home to share ideas, celebrate who you are, and spark movements in a neighborhood that has seen all the ups and downs of a long movement still making history.


Written by our friend Ginny Bartolone 2021