While businesses across the U.S. are reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, queer-focused establishments—being comparatively rare—are being hit particularly hard. Just a few weeks ago, Cuties, the only queer coffee shop in Los Angeles, closed permanently. Though the community surrounding Cuties continues to gather digitally, the loss of the brick-and-mortar space is devastating. Other queer businesses, like the legendary New York City lesbian club Henrietta Hudson, have appealed directly to their clientele via GoFundMe after being denied federal and state assistance during the first wave of coronavirus shutdowns. Until Congress follows the advice of my colleague Jordan Weissmann and bails out the bars, we will continue to see a heartbreaking exacerbation of a trend that already saw the doors of many LGBTQ businesses closing even before the pandemic. With so much else to worry about, it hurts to imagine I might not be able to dance among my community when we finally do make it to the other side of this public health disaster (whatever that may mean).
Amidst this anxiety, a new digital humanities project from historians Eric Gonzaba and Amanda Regan has been a major bright spot. Mapping the Gay Guides is an online exhibition that shows the growth of queer spaces for “community, pleasure, and politics” from 1965 to 1980 in all 50 states as well as Washington, DC. Built using data from the Bob Damron Address Books, a collection of travel guides that offered detailed information on spaces welcoming to queer people, MGG’s centerpiece is a map that places these bars, bathouses, restaurants, and churches as close to their original locations as possible. While many of these spaces are lost to history, this map shows that the community is here, has always been here, and will always be here, even if it’s not totally visible—a welcome reminder in these locked down times.
In this interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Regan describes the origins of Mapping the Gay Guides, queer histories beyond the coasts, and the gay space President Lyndon B. Johnson once stumbled upon unawares.
Madeline Ducharme: Tell me about the project.
Amanda Regan: Bob Damron was a gay businessman from San Francisco. And in the early 1960s, he used to travel all over the country, and he would write down all the places that he visited, and he’d make notes like, “great nightlife,” “has a great underground scene,” or “the bartender here is a bitch,” things like that. He’s kind of salty in some of them. Then he would make photocopies and share with his friends who might be visiting, say Milwaukee, and eventually he realized that he could market these and sell them to a wider audience. And so he begins to collect all these entries and publish them, in 1965.
The 1965 guide is very small, it doesn’t have a whole lot of entries. But it grows over time, and by 1980, I think there’s at least a listing in every state in the United States and many times many, many more.
We know that these guides were very popular, but the question was, what can it reveal and what can it not reveal about gay life in the United States? We found a lot of interesting answers. One of the things, for example, that surprised me was the number of places that today we probably wouldn’t consider a gay space, like a Denny’s, or a Waffle House or hotel bars where where they’re sort of using these spaces and they’re co-opting them.
These are spaces that weren’t designed to be for gay people, but then they become that because of who in that community is frequenting the space, right?
Exactly. We recently wrote an article that’ll be out sometime next year which features this hotel in Atlanta where President Johnson comes to speak when he is seeking reelection, and he comes to talk about the New South, which is this old language that goes back to the early 1900s. I don’t think he actually uses the word “deviant” in the speech, but he’s talking about the progressiveness of the South, and little does he know that right downstairs in the hotel bar, that is one of the spaces that gay men used to gather and use secretly as a community.
How did you get involved in Mapping the Gay Guides?
I’m a historian of women’s history but my speciality is digital history. My collaborator [Dr. Eric Gonzaba] is a scholar of LGBTQ nightlife. I usually do an assignment in my undergraduate classes where I have undergraduate students map the African-American green books from the 1950s to look at how cities were segregated, and as soon as I saw the Damron guidebooks, I said, Eric, this would be a fantastic digital history project. We should map these and look for change over time.
When we started the project, we began with just the South. Part of our goal there was to say, you know, look, we always talk about gay life as existing in the meccas of San Francisco, New York. But as historians, we know there was a whole culture across the country and it was integrated into every community in the United States. But what the Damron guides do is allow us to really showcase that and challenge assumptions, like you may not assume that there are many gay bars in Birmingham, Alabama. Yet there are. The thing that surprised me the most is I did not realize how many churches would be listed in the guides. And I’m continually surprised, especially in the South, by the role that religion played in the gay community.
The fact that you can look at a certain part of the map and see all the churches that come up proves that it’s a fruitful area of study, right?
Absolutely. It’s something that begs for more investigation and that’s one of the things that we’re really hoping our map will do. Eric and I can only do so much research ourselves. As a digital historian, I’m very committed to open data sets and making our data available to others so that if a professor of history or a professor of religion wants to come in and take our data and then go do a study of religion, they have that data to do that. And so a lot of ways the project is fueling my research and Eric’s research, but it’s also hopefully going to fuel a whole new generation of LGBT scholars.
You know, a year and a half ago, if you wanted to get access to these Damron guides, the only place in the country that we know of that has a complete run of them is the archive at the University of Southern California. That’s the only place that has a complete set. The New York Public Library has one or two here and there. The Library of Congress has a couple, but it would be very difficult to get your hands on this amount of data to do any sort of comprehensive study. And so we’re hoping that we will see an uptick in the amount of research that you’re able to do with these.
What has this project taught you about the importance of geography in queer history?
There are interesting relationships between different gay spaces all over the map. One good example of this is in El Paso, Texas. There’s a number of locations throughout the 1970s that had to follow the liquor laws in El Paso, so they would close the bars at a particular time, an earlier last call. It notes in the guide that once those bars close, just use the bridge to Juarez. There’s a number of gay-friendly clubs that are right on the other side of the border. And we wouldn’t know that if we didn’t have these guides! It’s small things like that. We tend to think of national borders as static and fixed, as problematic as that is, and this is evidence that the gay community there crossed over and intermingled and that there was a much more fluid relationship.
We have so many histories of New York and San Francisco. There are other areas of the country that are crying out to be studied. I’m not saying there’s nothing. There has been some important work. But the field is underdeveloped in that area. And so I think this map is a cry for more community histories of LGBTQ life.
We need one more example to make it an official trend but I’m curious what you think of Queering the Map, another public digital humanities project mapping important spaces for LGBTQ people.
I love it. It’s very exciting to see. Digital humanities has been around for a long time, but there hasn’t been a lot of queer digital humanities projects.
Queering the Map and Mapping the Gay Guides reveal such different things and even though our maps may have overlapping locations, they’re going to reflect very different stories because Queering the Map is a historical memory map, which is so different from a map built using a very rigid historical source. I think they complement each other very well, and it’s very exciting to see the field of queer digital humanities grow.
I was also really struck by your ethics statement and how prominently it was featured in the website. It reminded me that doing LGBTQ history can be so fraught.
That statement originated because as we were working on the project, I began to get really concerned about the safety of putting these sites online. After the Pulse massacre in Orlando and countless other instances publicized in the news or not, I was a little bit hesitant about putting these places online for the general public. I mean, there’s a reason why these guides were sort of revealing whisper networks and why they were held closely. There’s a reason that they’re not in a lot of archives. Right? Because it was dangerous. And so we did a great deal of work to ensure that we weren’t sharing information that was not already online and publicly available.
We were sort of torn between knowing that we had to be responsible with the amount of data that we were putting online and how important it was to represent those people and places accurately and knowing that the community deserves this history. This history deserves to be part of LGBTQ walking tours in local communities. There’s all sorts of stories contained in this map that deserve to be told.
For more of Slate’s LGBTQ coverage, listen to the Outward podcast.