Preservation Virginia Blog


Preserving LGBTQ Historic Sites in Virginia

In 1999, the Stonewall Inn located at 51 and 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, became the first LGBTQ site of significance listed to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2000, the site was named a National Historic Landmark, and in 2016, President Obama announced the establishment of the Stonewall National Monument to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots―a major moment in the gay civil rights movement when gay men and women stood up to the constant police harassment they had faced for years. As the uprising progressed, a gay rights movement was born, and Pride Month began to be celebrated to mark the occasion.

Organizations including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service have worked to advocate for and preserve LGBTQ historic sites across the country. The National Park Service’s LGBTQ Heritage Initiative was designed to explore how the legacy of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals can be recognized, preserved, and interpreted for future generations. The Rainbow Heritage Network, a national organization for the recognition and preservation of sites, history, and heritage associated with sexual and gender minorities in the United States, was formed in 2015.

DHR’s Virginia LGBTQ Heritage Map allows visitors to see historic LGBTQ-affiliated places and to share location information about historic sites via social media.

As awareness on historic LGBTQ sites has grown in the United States, Virginia’s interest has also increased. Even so, many places of LGBTQ significance in Virginia and the nation are closing or being demolished. After months of community efforts to save it, the Hershee bar in Norfolk― the last of its kind in Norfolk and one of the oldest lesbian bars on the East Coast― was demolished in 2019.

To help raise awareness and preserve LGBTQ historic sites in Virginia, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources has a number of resources on LGBTQ historic sites in Virginia, including an online form to receive suggestions, stories, or other facts about the LGBTQ movement in Virginia, a Timeline of LGBTQ related events in Virginia, information on Virginia Persons of Note in LGBTQ History, and a map of LGBTQ historic sites.

A few LGBTQ people connected to Virginia, or from Virginia, who come to my mind include the activist and Emmy-nominated writer and poet Rita Mae Brown, who has lived in Virginia for over 40 years; Jason Mraz, bisexual singer-songwriter from Mechanicsville; the Portsmouth-born American fashion designer Perry Ellis; Lucy Dacus, singer-songwriter from Richmond; and suffragist and artist, Nora Houston.

A short interview with Jeffrey Harris

Jeffery “Free” Harris

As to recognize Pride month, I had the pleasure of talking to Jeffrey Harris, historic preservationist from Hampton, and ask him a few questions about LGBTQ historic sites in Virginia. Harris is a Hampton based historian and historic preservation consultant. He currently serves on the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, and he is also the current Board Chair of the Rainbow Heritage Network. In a past life, Harris served as the first Director for Diversity of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Harris: “I’ve had the privilege of consulting with preservation organizations and historic sites around the country on issues related to diversity in the preservation movement, African American historic places and LGBTQ historic places. I’ve been doing research on music related historic sites across the country, both to get a snapshot of what we have out there, but also as a way to think of how to engage music fans, and move them toward becoming preservation advocates through their love of music- related historic places.”

Question: Are you involved, or are you a member of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer (LGBTQ) Heritage Advisory Group?

Harris: I was a member of the Advisory Group for DHR, though the group hasn’t gathered in a long time (most likely tied to the pandemic).

Question: There was an architectural survey of LGBTQ places in Richmond a few years ago, but do you think there are more LGBTQ historic sites in Virginia that haven’t been recognized?

Harris: There’s no question that there are other LGBTQ historic places around the Commonwealth that have yet to be surveyed. With that said, I can understand the move to document Richmond first. Of course, I hope that that survey becomes a template for other Virginia communities to emulate. For example, the home of the late Leonard Matlovich is here in Hampton, VA (where I live). Matlovich came out to his superior officer, while he was stationed at Langley AFB in 1975. His goal was to challenge the ban of homosexuals serving openly in the military. The episode was included in the Randy Shilts book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. That is just one example here in Hampton Roads. So, I think that the survey from Richmond was a good starting point, but certainly shouldn’t be the last survey of VA LGBTQ historic places.

Question: Do you think there has been more interest recently in recognizing LGBTQ historic sites in Virginia?

Harris: Though I’ve not had people come to me directly saying that they wanted to see more recognition of LGBTQ historic places in VA, I am more than sure that people are more than interested. And I think the exciting aspect will be in the discovery of LGBTQ historic places throughout the Commonwealth that we don’t know. There haven’t been, as far as I know, Virginia events in US LGBTQ history that are akin to Stonewall or the founding of the early LGBTQ civil rights organizations (though I think the Leonard Matlovich House in Hampton is a potential site). So, there will be excitement surrounding the historic places we will identify, or the historic places we already know about, but may not have known of a LGBTQ historic tie.

Leonard Matlovich an American Vietnam War veteran, and recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, was the first gay service member to purposely out himself to the military to fight the ban on gays. In March 1975, while serving at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Matlovich challenged Air Force regulations by informing his commanding officer that he was gay.

Preserving LGBTQ historic places provides a tangible link to history that has often been overlooked, and it helps LGBTQ people see themselves reflected in the past. It can also help educate the public about the struggles and successes of LGBTQ people everywhere, and encourage people to be inclusive and accepting, so that homophobic attacks never happen again.

I was glad to see that earlier this month, on the fifth anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting― the deadliest attack on the LGBTQ community in U.S. history in which 49 people were killed and 53 wounded in Orlando― President Biden announced that he would sign a bill naming the site as a national memorial, but, the fact that he had to do so remains heartbreaking, and it remains a stark reminder of the minds that need to be educated, and hearts that need to be opened.

–Sonja Ingram is Preservation Field Services Manager for Preservation Virginia. She lives with her wife and their son in Danville.