Planning Magazine

How to Uncover and Honor LGBTQ+ History in the Built Environment

Kentucky and Maryland are the first states to use historical context studies to highlight places influential to the LGBTQ+ community — and drive planning efforts.

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John Waters, a prominent gay author and director, outside his four-story home in Baltimore. His childhood house is one of nearly 400 sites that preservationists have recognized as part of Maryland's LGBTQ+ historic context survey, the second state-level project of its kind in the U.S. Photo by Andrew Mangum/The New York Times.

At least seven percent of U.S. adults — or more than 20 million people — identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender, a 2021 Gallup poll reveals. That proportion is up from 4.5 percent in 2017, in part due to Gen Z's coming of age. As Gallup reports, one in five adults born between 1997 and 2003 currently identify as LGBT.

Yet despite making up a sizeable and growing part of the population, the diverse LGBTQ+ community tends to see little targeted engagement or support from the urban design fields. A building movement in preservation is working to change that through the creation of a valuable resource: historical context studies.

A means of identifying historically significant places often around a specific theme, context studies can guide vital preservation and planning work. The nation's first LGBTQ historical survey was created by the group Friends of 1980 for San Francisco in 2004; the city then built on that with a context statement in 2015 that helped facilitate creation of the Compton's Transgender Cultural District, which offers community services in the Tenderloin, the site of the country's first transgender uprising.

Work has been ongoing at the national level, too. The National Park Service, which keeps the National Register of Historic Places, released in 2016 LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History, the first national effort of its kind in the world. And at the state level, two historical context studies have been undertaken: Kentucky's in 2016, and most recently, Maryland's in 2020. The project is now taking on new life with a dynamic, soon-to-be released report aimed at engaging the public.

"The statewide context, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to approach thematic history in planning. It's just a really important tool," says Meagan Baco, project manager of Maryland's study and the director of communications at Preservation Maryland when they undertook the project. "The report definitely filled a vacuum. People were really looking for this type of comprehensive look that then allowed and empowered them to do local-facing projects that really have impact."

As other cities and states take on LGBTQ+-themed historical context studies, preservationists recommend working closely with members of the community — and looking in unconventional places to excavate this oft-hidden history. Conducting such work is not only critical to preserving places of historical significance, experts say, but it can also provide vital guidance for local planning initiatives.

The U.S. Naval Academy class of 1985. Maryland’s LGBTQ+ context study required searching for stories in overlooked places, including the state’s maritime and naval academies. Photo courtesy of National Archives/Department of Defense.

The U.S. Naval Academy class of 1985. Maryland's LGBTQ+ context study required searching for stories in overlooked places, including the state's maritime and naval academies. Photo courtesy of National Archives/Department of Defense.

A history that has always been there

Led by Preservation Maryland, Maryland's LGBTQ+ survey identifies almost 400 sites with ties to non-binary historical figures, elected officials, community groups, gay bars and cafes, advocacy for AIDS treatment and marriage equality, and more. As in Kentucky, much of this work was grant funded and required extensive community engagement and coordination at the local level.

One of the first lessons learned as meetings were held across Maryland was to meet members of the LGBTQ+ community where they are, says Rebeccah Ballo, historic preservation program supervisor with the Montgomery County Planning Department, which was closely engaged in helping identify sites. Part of excavating Marlyand's LGBTQ+ history involved remembering the overall story of Maryland and reaching out to intersecting communities, she says. In Maryland, that meant examining the state's maritime and naval academy histories for overlooked LGBTQ+ stories.

Catherine Fosl, professor of women's gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville and lead author of the Kentucky LGBTQ Historic Context Narrative, echoes Ballo's advice. Planners should not only cultivate local LGBTQ+ contacts, Fosl says, but also ensure that the team reflects the LGBTQ+ community its working to highlight — and while many people are open about their gender identities and sexualities, preservationists should be mindful that some may wish to remain discreet.

Fosl also recommends reassuring participants that their materials will be handled with care. When conducting the Kentucky study, the team held events called History Harvests, during which people came from across the state to share their stories and primary source material. The team brought a scanner to make copies of any original source materials, asked participants to sign releases for those copies, and interviewed people on site as well as afterward, Fosl says.

Among the places that planners should check for additional LGBTQ+ history are archives from local community groups and gay and lesbian bars and other places with material that hasn't been donated formally, Ballo says, adding that these resources aren't always scanned. Planners can also check historical collections in their state and community, especially private collections and public universities' oral history centers and archives, Fosl says.

It'll likely take 10 to 15 years to fully see how the Kentucky study will impact future planning projects, Fosl says. In Maryland, the agency plans to build out its register of historic places and get the sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In places like Montgomery County, work is being done to incorporate this work into local master plans, Ballo says.

"What's required of us as planners," Ballo says, "[is making] sure that our plans are for the people who live here, all of the people here, and that they see themselves reflected in our work ... That there is a history to people in the LGBTQ+ [community that has] always been here ... that youth and children and people in our communities see themselves and are welcomed."

Tatiana Walk-Morris is a Detroit-native and Chicago-based independent journalist.