Queer All Along - A Short History of LGBTQ Life in Lower Manhattan

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Queer All Along A short History Of Lgbtq Life In Lower Manhattan

Written by Benjamin Serby

ew New York City neighborhoods are as steeped in history as Lower Manhattan. Long defined by its relationship to the sea, commerce and New York’s restless spirit of change, the one square mile at Manhattan’s southern tip is where the city began, where it continues to flourish today and where any story of New York’s LGBTQ community must begin. As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, there is no better time to reflect on the vital, if long overlooked, role that LGBTQ people have played in this area’s fascinating past. While the Village, Chelsea and parts of Brooklyn can lay claim to rich and central dimensions of the New York’s gay history, for over four centuries, gays, lesbians, and trans and queer people have faced down adversity, struggled for their civil rights, and built their lives in Lower Manhattan. During that time, they have gained recognition and acceptance for their distinctive contributions to the neighborhood. Today, Lower Manhattan is a welcoming place of residence, work, and leisure for LGBTQ New Yorkers from all walks of life.


1609-1789 Lower Manhattan was a refuge for nonconformists from the very beginning of its recorded history—and likely even earlier, though we have limited documentary evidence of the lives of the indigenous people who settled the area prior to the arrival of the Dutch in 1609. While other seventeenth-century European colonies in the New World tended to be religious communities, New Amsterdam was a trading outpost that drew a cosmopolitan mixture of economic migrants who by 1646 spoke an estimated eighteen languages. The burgeoning port’s male-dominated culture of heavy drinking soon earned its denizens a reputation for relaxed social mores and a propensity for “much mischief and perversity.”1 By 1648, the southern tip of Manhattan’s liberal atmosphere had become a matter of concern to colonial officials, who anxiously observed that the “seriously debauched” inhabitants were too frequently “drawn from the path of Virtue and into all sorts of irregularity.” 2 Among the vices that most alarmed Dutch authorities were interracial, extramarital, and homosexual intimacy, all of which appear to have been practiced as a matter of course. Nonetheless, on at least two occasions, men were brutally tortured and put to death for the “abominable crime” of sodomy. Both known executions, occurring in 1646 and 1660, took place near the present-day intersection of South and Water Streets 3. Of note, the 1646 execution was of an adult slave who had sexually assaulted a 10 year old slave and was turned over to the authorities by fellow slaves. The 1660 execution was of a man who was charged with sodomizing his servant who was also a boy. The victims were also punished - the 10 year old slave, named Manuel Congo, was flogged. The servant, Hendrick Harmensen, was whipped and sent out of the community. 2


While sodomy laws remained in effect until after independence, they appear to have been rarely enforced, and the city’s rich and famous residents were especially free to do as they pleased. 4 One remarkable example is Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a celebrated Prussian military officer who served as inspector general under General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Von Steuben first arrived in the British colonies in 1777— accompanied by his Italian greyhound, Azor—seeking an appointment in the Continental Army while fleeing prosecution in Europe for sodomy. Despite the outstanding charges and his inability to speak English, von Steuben was awarded his desired post, and eventually rose to the rank of major general on the strength of his administrative competence and rigorous training protocols (his drills and tactics manual set standards for the United States armed forces that remained in effect until the 1840s).

Baron friedrick wilhelm von steuben Inspector General Under General George Washington 4

While in the service, the flamboyant disciplinarian openly courted and cohabited with younger officers, adopting several as his legal heirs at the end of the war—with no demonstrable effect on his record. He received an honorable discharge, American citizenship and a congressional pension for his service. Indeed, von Steuben’s homosexuality appears to have been accepted without reservation. At Washington’s request, he attended the first presidential inauguration at Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789 as an honored guest, and to this day, German-Americans celebrate Von Steuben Day every September. 5 5

1789-1865 With independence came legal reform and an expansion of personal freedom in Lower Manhattan. In 1796, New York became the fourth state to eliminate the death penalty for sodomy. In the early years of the new republic, Hocquet Caritat, a French émigré and owner of a library and salon at the City Hotel just north of Trinity Church, attracted controversy for publishing erotic illustrated novels that included frank depictions of lesbian orgies.6

some to build a private life around their homosexual desires and to enjoy casual same-sex encounters with relative anonymity.

In the less respectable quarters of the area, particularly the wharves lining the East and Hudson Rivers, sexuality met with even fewer constraints. As Lower Manhattan’s commercial seaport boomed in the 1820s, these areas became infamous vice districts where prostitution and unregulated sex flourished. The term “hooker” allegedly originated as a reference to the sex workers of Corlear’s Hook, just south of what is today the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge. 8 No area had a higher concentration of brothels, however, than Five Points, the city’s worst slum, near what is today Foley Square (just north of Chambers Street along the East River).

One particularly scandalous figure of the times was Peter Sewally, a cross-dressing, African-American, male prostitute employed in brothel frequented by wealthy, white men just north of what we now call Lower Manhattan. According court documents after his arrest in 1836, Sewally adopted the alias Mary Jones and dressed in female clothes because he felt that he “looked so much better in them.” 10

By the 1840s, Lower Manhattan had become home to large concentrations of young male wage laborers, whose economic independence and geographic distance from their families enabled 6

Women had far fewer opportunities to achieve economic independence; for many, the sex trade was their only option. Lesbian relationships among prostitutes and popular sex shows depicting “unnatural love” shocked reformers who sought to combat the moral waywardness of waterfront zones. 9

Sewally’s gender-nonconforming behavior was far more disruptive of mid-nineteenth century social norms than was same-sex intimacy, as gender identities were rigidly defined while sexuality remained surprisingly fluid before modern notions of homosexual and heterosexual identity came into being. As in the rest of the country, men and women in Lower Manhattan increasingly inhabited separate spheres, remaining apart from one another for much of their waking lives. Men spent

PETER SEWALLY Early Gender Non-Conformist 7


their time in intensely homosocial environments like the docks, the saloons, or in the many boarding houses that accommodated the district’s male laborers, where same-sex couples could live without raising suspicions.11 Men seeking casual sex with other men could find it along lower Broadway, in theaters, parks, and other public spaces.12 At mid-century, Lower Manhattan had become a notorious place of male prostitution and cruising. In 1846, for instance, the New York Herald lamented “those disgraceful acts which are nightly practiced on the Battery or in the vicinity of City Hall.” 13 Despite the tone of concern, however, sodomy was largely tolerated at the time, and was rarely prosecuted. 14

WALT WHITMAN American Poet


Among the most famous denizens—and chroniclers—of this world is the great American poet, Walt Whitman, whose writings celebrate the people of Lower Manhattan, especially the many young men whom he admired. Throughout the 1850s, Whitman would cruise the streets of Lower Manhattan on his way between the Brooklyn ferry and Greenwich Village, observing scenes and people who would inspire the poems that appeared in his best known volume, Leaves of Grass. Many of Whitman’s poems express an unmistakable eroticism: in “Give Me the Streets of Manhattan,” he intones, “Give me interminable eyes give me women—give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!/ Let me see new ones every day—let me hold new ones by the hand every day!” 15 Recalling his time spent in the area late in life, Whitman spoke with fondness of his visits to the theaters on Park Row, “the Italian operas at Chambers-street [and] the Battery,” and classical concerts “at Castle Garden, Battery,” and numerous other locations in Lower Manhattan.16 Although he would leave New York during the Civil War, Whitman would remain deeply attached to the places and people of the area (including the Broadway omnibus drivers, whom he sought “for comradeship, and sometimes affection”). As late as 1882, he enthused: “The Battery—its past associations—what tales those old trees and walks and sea-walls could tell!” 17 9

1865-1945 The decades following the Civil War saw increasing efforts to regulate and police sexuality in New York City. Changing attitudes among elites and a growing middle class were reflected in new age of consent laws. 18 Beginning in the 1870s, vice patrols cracked down on prostitution in red light districts along Whitehall and Water streets.19 Meanwhile, those who entered the country through Castle Garden at the west end of the Battery— where two out of every three immigrants arrived between 1855 and 1890) were scrutinized and screened by government officials on the lookout for “sexual defects” and gender-nonconforming behavior. Those deemed morally unfit for entry were detained and often deported.20 Still, Lower Manhattan remained a haven for queer life into the early twentieth century. In the 1910s, Battery Park retained its reputation as a prime cruising area, while nearby hotels and cheap lodging houses offered men private space for same-sex encounters.21 Even religious reformers’ efforts to rid the district of sin and impropriety backfired. On Pine and South streets, the two residential facilities established by the Seamen’s Church Institute, as alternatives to the waterfront boarding houses became notorious hangouts for gay sailors and their admirers.22 From 1927 to 1945, Governors Island, just off the shore of Lower Manhattan, was home to Henry Gerber, one of the earliest American gay rights pioneers. A German immigrant, Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights, the country’s first gay rights organization, in 1924 while living in Chicago. The group was soon exposed, however, and swiftly disbanded. Upon relocating to New York, Gerber worked as a proofreader and editor for the Army at Fort Jay, all the while quietly continuing his advocacy and running a national pen pal service for gay men.23 He died in 1972, having lived to witness the Stonewall Rebellion and the flowering of gay liberation. 10

henry gerber Early American Gay Rights Pioneer 11

1945-Present After the Second World War, much of the Lower Manhattan waterfront fell into disuse as industry relocated and the city’s economic base shifted away from shipping and manufacturing. But a cadre of young artists, inspired by the aesthetics of the East River shoreline, took advantage of the inexpensive rents and ample space, and put the area to new use. In the early 1950s, the pioneering art power couple Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns settled at Coenties Slip, just south of Brooklyn Bridge, where together they developed new styles of painting in conscious rebellion against the reigning Abstract Expressionist movement that dominated the uptown art world. By the late 1950s, the pair had attracted a larger group of influential painters and sculptors to the area that included gay artists Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and Agnes Martin. They came to be known as the Coenties Slip Group.24 Martin, with her steadfast refusal to be shoehorned into any “ism,” is a particularly striking figure when viewed in light of current discussions of privacy, gender identity and sexuality. A ferocious guardian of her own right to self disclosure and self definition, she varyingly described herself as “not a lesbian,” “not a woman,” and that she was “a man.” 25 While with what we know of her private life, it is clear it was driven a succession of intimate relationships with other women, her determined insistence on privacy was not merely a matter of personal preference but also an aesthetic and philosophical strategy for insisting on the primacy of work. The revival of the Lower Manhattan waterfront by queer artists during the late 1950s and early 1960s coincided with a wave of political activism in the area. One of the first public gay rights demonstrations in American history occurred in October 1964, when ten activists, including a number of brave heterosexuals, picketed outside the military induction center at 39 Whitehall Street to protest antigay discrimination and persecution by the United States Armed Forces.26 This small, but significant action ushered in a new era of gay and lesbian politics, further establishing Lower Manhattan’s role as a major site in the battle for LGBTQ equality.

Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns Members of the Coenties Slip Group 12

Throughout the 1970s, gay rights activists gathered on the steps of the area’s government buildings to demonstrate and to lobby officials for early LGBTQ civil rights legislation such as Intro 475, which would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in New York City. In June 1971, members of the Gay Activists Alliance occupied the city’s Marriage License Bureau (located on Worth Street, just north of Chambers) to claim their right to respect, dignity, and equal rights under the law.27 Five years later, after two gay men riding the Staten Island Ferry were told not to hold hands the while on board the vessel,28 the Alliance successfully pressured the city’s Transportation Administration to adopt a nondiscrimination policy. Activists 13

returned to Lower Manhattan to publicly denounce the backlash against such hard-won victories in 1986, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state sodomy laws. Protesters rallied in Battery Park on Independence Day in sight of Lady Liberty, bearing signs imploring her to “Lift Your Torch for Us, Too.” 29 LGBTQ culture and politics in the area only grew more visible and vibrant toward the end of the twentieth century, in the face of AIDS crisis and political homophobia. In September 1989, as 350 people demonstrated in front of the New York Stock Exchange to protest the high price of the drug AZT, seven members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) snuck inside, chained themselves to the VIP balcony, and dropped fake $100 bills onto the trading floor. Among those activists was Peter Staley, an HIV-positive gay man who had previously worked as a Wall Street bond trader.30 Four days later, drug manufacturer Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT by 20 percent. 31 In 1988, third-generation stockbroker Walter Schubert flung open the closet door in Lower Manhattan’s booming financial services industry when he came out as the first publicly gay member of the New York Stock Exchange. Schubert went on to found the Gay Financial Network, and later the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. 32 In 1990, Deborah Glick became the first openly gay state legislator in New York when she won election to the Assembly. Glick worked to pass the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in 2002. In 2004, her Hospital Visitation Bill became law, providing domestic partners equal rights to spouses and next-to-kin when caring for partners in hospital and nursing facilities. She continues to hold office, representing a district that includes the northern part of Lower Manhattan —the areas west of Park Row and north of Vesey Street. In the early years of the twenty-first century, as conservative legislators in states across the country passed laws curtailing gay rights, annual marches for marriage equality proceeded from Lower Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge. When the State of New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, gay and lesbian couples flocked to City Hall to celebrate. Many would consecrate their unions at the Marriage License Bureau on Worth Street shortly thereafter. Today, fifty years after the birth of gay liberation, a substantial number of LGBT advocacy groups and media outlets—including Lambda Legal, GLSEN, the Anti-Violence Project, them and others—are located in Lower Manhattan, a sign that the neighborhood’s tradition of diversity and open-mindedness endures. As neighbors, as workers, as consumers, and as citizens, LGBTQ people have left an indelible mark on the area for centuries, and they continue to shape it in various ways as new challenges and opportunities arise in the present and into the future. 14

Phyllis Siegel & Connie Kopelov

Deborah Glick

The First Legal Same-Sex Marriage in New York City in 2011.

First Openly Gay State Legislator in New York


About the Author: Benjamin Serby is a doctoral candidate in US History at Columbia University, a museum educator, and former Lower Manhattan tour guide. His dissertation project is an intellectual history of gay liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.

References See for instance: Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World (New York: Vintage, 2005). On the skewed sex ratio in New Amsterdam, see Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 34. 2 E.B. O’Callaghan, ed., New Netherlands Laws and Ordinances 1638-74 (Albany: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1868), 12, 93. 3 Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA: A Documentary History (New York: Cromwell, 1976), 22-23. See also: http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/the-age-of-sodomitical-sin/1660s/sodomy-case-janquisthout-new 4 Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long Before Stonewall : Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 5 . 5 Mark Segal, “Baron von Steuben, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Franklin to Washington,” Windy City Times, October 1, 2013: http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Baron-von-SteubenDont-Ask-Dont-Tell-Franklin-to-Washington/44574.html ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Friedrich_Wilhelm_von_Steuben 6 Stephen Shapiro, The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World-System (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2009), 159-160. 7 Several of the city’s earliest red-light districts could be found along the Hudson River near Trinity Church, on George Street near City Hall Park, and near the East River wharves. See: Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (New York: Norton, 1992), 25. 8 Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 494. 9 Gilfoyle, City of Eros , 176. 10 Jonathan Ned Katz, “The ‘Man-Monster,’” Out History , accessed May 23, 2019, http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/sewally-jones/man-monster . 11 Burrows and Wallace, Gotham , 796. 12 Ibid. 13 Ibid. 14 Gilfoyle, City of Eros , 136. 15 James E. Miller, ed., Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1959), 223. 16 Walt Whitman, Specimen Days & Collect (New York: Dover, 1995), 19-20. 17 Ibid, 20. 18 Burrows and Wallace, Gotham , 1163. 19 Gilfoyle, City of Eros , 218. 20 Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), Chapter One. 21 George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 89. 22 Ibid, 154. 23 “Henry Gerber,” Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame , accessed May 23, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20150703163555/http://www.glhalloffame.org/index. pl?item=18&todo=view_item. 24 Lori Zimmer, “Coenties Slip Group,” Art Nerd New York , June 27, 2018, http://art-nerd.com/newyork/coenties-slip-group/. 25 Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson, 2015), 26 Andrew Belonsky, “Today in History: The First Gay Protest,” Out , September 19, 2013, https://www.out.com/entertainment/today-gay-history/2013/09/19/ today-gay-history-first-gay-protest 27 Garance Franke-Ruta, “The Prehistory of Gay Marriage: Watch a 1971 Protest at NYC’s Mar1


riage License Bureau,” The Atlantic , March 26, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/ archive/2013/03/the-prehistory-of-gay-marriage-watch-a-1971-protest-at-nycs-marriagelicense-bureau/274357/ . 28 “Ferry Fair!” Gotham: New York’s Gay Newsmagazine, June 24, 1976, p. 3, Archives of Sexuality & Gender , http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/A7A3q0 , accessed May 23, 2019. 29 Jay Sharbutt, “Liberty Weekend: Battery Park Hosts Show of Its Own,” The Los Angeles Times , July 7, 1986, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-07-07-ca20631-story.html. 30 Patricia Sellers, “The AIDS Activist and the Banker,” Fortune, August 1, 2016, http://fortune.com/barclays-jes-staley-global-500/ . 31 Will Kohler, “Gay History - September 14, 1989: ACt UP Protests the NYSE, Crashing Trade Floor,” Back2Stonewall , September 14, 2018, http://www.back2stonewall. com/2018/09/today-gay-history-september-14-1989-act-protests-nyse-crashes-tradingfloor.html . 32 “Ten Money Questions for Walter Schubert,” Queercents, December 28, 2007, https://www. queercents.com/ten-money-questions-for-walter-schubert/ .

Images Cover: Walt Whitman, skeeze/12154 images, Pixbay, https://pixabay.com/photos/walt-whitman-vintage-american-author-391107/ Pg. 3: J. Hinton, 1776, “A Plan of the city and environs of New York in North America”, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Accessed 14 May 2019, https:// digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-eed9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 4: “[Baron Steuben]”, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Pg. Accessed 14 May 2019, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c5831e4d-c361-1ecb-e040e00a18067b87 Pg. 7: Unknown, “The Man-Monster; Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones,” 1836. ”, OutHistory.org, Accessed 14 May 2019, http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/sewally-jones/ man-monster Pg. 9: Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. Accessed 14 May 2019. <http://www.whitmanarchive.org>. Pg. 11: Head shot of Henry Gerber, Windy City Times, Accessed 23 May 2019, http://www. windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Chicagos-Henry-Gerber-House-designated-National-Historic-Landmark/51872.html Pg. 12: Rachel Rosenthal, 1954, Rauschenberg And Jasper Johns, Ca. 1954, The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/archive/photo111 Pg. 15: Left: TJ Sengal, Phyllis Siegel and Connie Kopelov, Flickr, https://identity.flickr.com/panda. html Bottom Right: Photo of Deborah Glick, http://www.deborahglick.com/, http://dev.deborahglick.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/landingimage-2.jpg

Lorem Ipsum “ The Battery— its past associations— what tales those old trees and walks and sea-walls could tell!”


- Walt Whitman

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