A new project puts the gay “green book” online

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When Eric Gonzaba was growing up in rural Indiana, he says everything he learned about queer history happened “in places far away.” Little did he know that just 25 miles from Louisville, Ky., An unassuming brick building on East Main Street had hosted one of the area’s first gay nightclubs, which opened in 1973 and was famous. for its dazzling drag shows.

Today, as a historian by training and professor of American studies at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), Gonzaba uncovers and preserves hidden stories like this through a digital project called “Mapping the Gay Guides. “. The project, co-led by Amanda Regan, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Geography at Clemson University, uses a series of travel guides published by Bob Damron to map historic queer spaces across the United States. United.

Damron was a traveling businessman who took note of the gay or at least gay-friendly bars, baths, theaters, bookstores, restaurants and shops he discovered on his many travels. He went on to publish a series of travel guides based on this research starting in 1965. His collections, originally known as the “Address Book,” became a survival guide for queer travelers, comparable to the Negro Motorist Green Book of the Jim Crow era, which guided black travelers across the country.

The Mapping the Gay Guides website hosts an interactive map, where the hangouts of Damron’s books are turned into little blue pins. Click on the pins and you can explore the characteristics of Damron’s hangouts as they were described in his original handwriting.

Users can watch locations appear and disappear by clicking on the map from year to year: the number of sites listed in the Pacific Northwest more than tripled between 1965 and 1972. Meanwhile, one of the sites Popular from the early 1970s in New Orleans, The Upstairs Lounge, disappeared from the map in 1975.

Another section of the site hosts short stories of some of the sites on the map, written by Gonzaba and CSUF graduate students. Here, users can discover the heartbreaking reason for the upstairs lounge’s disappearance: On the evening of June 24, 1973, an arsonist set the building on fire while dozens of customers gathered inside to enjoy drinks. Sunday specials. Thirty-two people died as a result of the fire. The attack was the deadliest known attack on a gay club until the Pulse shooting in 2016 in Orlando, Florida.

There are also happier stories, like the one at Paramount Steak House in Washington DC. The popular restaurant opened in 1948 and began serving the gay community in the 1950s. Unlike most sites listed in Damron’s old address books, this one still stands today. More than seventy years after its opening, the establishment is now a landmark along the annual Washington DC Pride Parade route – a tribute to its long-standing place in Washington DC’s queer culture.

Since launching in February 2020, Mapping the Gay Guides has dropped hundreds of pins on its interactive map in all 50 states, Washington DC, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands (Damron did not distinguish between entries in the US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands, as well as Mapping the Gay Guides) address books from 1965 to 1980. The project received a $ 350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in April 2021, which will allow him to spend the next three years digitizing, transcribing and geolocating the data from the 1981 to 2000 guides.

“We want our project to be a starting point for researchers and public historians to reflect on how queer people have literally and figuratively been on the map for decades,” says Gonzaba. Mapping Damron’s address books means making their content more accessible to researchers than ever before.

The project was also a response to what Gonzaba calls “a pretty depressing time in queer communities across the country in the face of the collapse of LGBTQ spaces.” The COVID-19 pandemic has hit queer businesses hard. Famous spaces like Stonewall, Julius Bar and Henrietta Hudson, all in New York City, made headlines when they were forced to appeal to customers for support through crowdfunding campaigns to stay afloat during the coronavirus closures.

But even before the pandemic hit, queer spaces were in decline. Research by Greggor Mattson, professor of sociology at Oberlin College, shows that the number of queer bars and nightclubs in the United States declined by 36.6% between 2007 and 2019. For his research, Mattson said is also supported by the Damron address books, published annually. by San Francisco-based Damron Company until 2019. Digital projects like Mapping the Gay Guides are well suited to archiving stories from spaces like these so that even if they close, their stories won’t be lost. in time.

New technologies also have the power to make hidden stories more accessible and to give people traditionally excluded from the academy opportunities to participate in the preservation of their stories in new and lasting ways. “The creation of digital tools, more affordable technologies such as sophisticated smartphones and easy-to-use interfaces on our devices and platforms has… creative technologies at the University of British Columbia.

However, these new technologies are not exempt from ethical questions. Gonzaba and Regan fear that the provision of knowledge of hidden queer spaces on the web could make those spaces or their clients targets of abuse. However, many sites cataloged by Damron decades ago are no longer operational or their uses have changed over time, reducing this risk.

The couple also points out that the travel guides they use as their primary sources to map gay guides were written by a gay white man from the relatively progressive city of San Francisco. Reading them with a critical eye reveals implicit biases, such as Damron’s labeling most southern sites and sites popular among the black community as less reputable than others. Contextualizing Damron’s writing and exploring his biases is essential to the work of Mapping the Gay Guides.

Rebecca Caines, who studies digital and in situ art at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, also says efforts need to be made to ensure new digital projects last. This means that they cannot rely on high level technical support or expensive equipment that will only be available to a community for a limited time. “It’s a hallmark of new media work in general,” she says, “But it needs to be carefully considered when marginalized people share their stories and experiences. “

Regan describes the threat of technological obsolescence as “one of the biggest obstacles” to digital work. She and Gonzaba document their methodology and save copies of their data in durable formats to ensure that Mapping the Gay Guides will be reproducible, even if the technology that powers their current interactive map stops working. Along with some of the new NEH holdings, the team also plans to drop copies of the project into the archival repository of a university library and transfer their map to JavaScript, making it more accessible and durable.

The gay guide mapping illustrates the many colorful possibilities of a managed digital history project with the proper care. Like other creative digital projects, it can give users a new perspective on their cities and, according to Caines, “offer new ways to cling to stories, to reclaim identities, to provide new forms of communication between generations and enable new forms of activism and organization. “

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles on how creating creative spaces can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously funded by the Kresge Foundation.


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