Red, Green and Blue: Identifying Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ Historic Places

A multi-story brick home sits among the city buildings.
Barbara Gittings residence.

NPS photo

The National Park Service is committed to preserving and interpreting the history of all Americans in all of its diversity and complexity. However, even some of the nation’s most important historic sites have found their history leveled by the wrecking ball. How, then, can communities preserve sites that witnessed the history of minority groups, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer persons (LGBTQ+)* or others struggling for equality?

One major step along the road to preservation is to have a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) or designated as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). Derek Duquette, a second-year graduate student in Temple University’s Public History program, began the first step in the process by assembling a list of 63 places in Philadelphia that are associated with LGBTQ+ history as part of his nine-month internship with the Northeast Regional Office through a partnership with the Organization of American Historians.

Philadelphia may not be as well-known for advances in gay rights as New York City, but it has its own wealth of groundbreaking LGBTQ+ history. Thanks to Bob Skiba, head curator at the William Way Center, and Dr. Hilary Lowe of Temple University, Duquette began his task with a list of about 1,000 potential sites in the area. Secondary sources, such as City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves by Marc Stein, were also used.

Red brick historic building sits among the trees.
BEBASHI offices. Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues founded in 1985 as the first African-American organization in the United States to address the AIDS crisis.

NPS photo

To hone down the list, Duquette applied several criteria. He stuck to sites within Philadelphia city limits. Because the NRHP and NHL programs are place-based, he made site visits to see if the buildings or structures were still standing and had maintained their historic integrity. He also selected a more recent cutoff date of 1990, which allowed sites with early AIDS activism to be considered, such as BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues) founded in 1985 as the first African-American organization in the United States to address the AIDS crisis. BEBASHI-Transition to Hope still serves low-income people of color with HIV disease.

Duquette conducted both internal and external reviews for this list. External reviewers included local preservationists with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Historical Commission and LGBTQ+ historians like Bob Skiba. Duquette finalized the list with 63 sites, which he color-coded as blue, green and red. “Red” sites had mainly local significance and the lowest degree of integrity by NPS standards; they were best suited for local preservation. “Green” sites had moderate to high integrity, making them best suited for NRHP status or state recognition. “Blue” sites had the greatest potential to be nominated for full NHL status. Duquette’s research determined that 20 sites qualified as “blue.”

Listing a site on the NRHP or designating it as an NHL recognizes its historic value to the nation and the local community. It does not, however, offer protected status by itself. Designation places no restrictions on what an owner may do with their property, unless there are federal funding or permits. While Duquette’s list recommended sites for recognition, additional protections at the local level would be needed to protect these sites.

The NPS has acknowledged that important histories and stories of many Americans are underrepresented in the NRHP and NHL programs. Writing and submitting a nomination, however, can require years of research and sustained support. It is hoped that Duquette’s list, along with its wealth of information, will help community members move quickly if they choose to nominate and preserve a site.

“There remains an agenda of urban renewal in Philadelphia that threatens many of its historic spaces, including those with significance for LGBTQ+ historic themes. My hope is that this list will provide the necessary, if preliminary, documentation needed to work towards protecting those spaces.”

*The plus sign in “LGBTQ+” includes additional groups not often recognized, such as asexual and intersexed persons.