Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of violence against the LGBTQ+ community
Despite the guiding principles of the United States’ government being liberty and equality, several groups have been left out of the definition from the very beginning, which is reflected in the popular landmarks that tourists flock to. The history, accomplishments, and experiences of minorities such as BIPOC, women, and the LGBTQ+ community often are forgotten, silenced by the rule of a colonial society centered on conformity and dominated by white straight cisgendered men. This is evident in the thousands of monuments and memorials across the United States which commemorate the lives of those thriving in a system designed for them while further repressing the lived histories of those outside of the normative narrative.
Due to the silencing of minority populations, the mainstream historic record of LGBTQ+ history is sparse. If one didn’t know better, they may think that gay people didn’t exist in the United States until the 1900s. The historic landmarks and memorials recognized in the United States – which attract millions of tourists each year – reflect this oppression, which makes it even more important to cherish the few dedicated to LGBTQ+ history.
It has been a long and continuous fight for the queer community in the United States to get to the point of open expression and celebration that we now see in Pride parades around the globe. And while the fight is far from over, taking a pilgrimage to honor those that came before you is a way to gain both perspective and appreciation for the LGBTQ+ rights movement. So skip the monuments founded in racism, xenophobia, and colonial violence – and there’s a lot of them – and instead head to these four destinations which pay homage to the silenced, the resilient, and the beautiful.
Stonewall Inn, New York City, New York
Marked with dozens of rainbow flags, the Stonewall Inn was the first recognized LGBTQ+ National Monument in the United States as of 2016. Though the original interior and iconic sign have been lost, you can still go in and get a drink or enjoy some live entertainment. Across the street from the bar, there is a statue commemorating the queer community in Christopher Park by depicting the forms of same sex couples. Another monument in Christopher Park honors those lost to the AIDS epidemic with an overhanging structure of repeating triangles and benches below to contemplate the tragic era and the lives lost.
The Stonewall Inn is known for the riot that launched a thousand Prides. In a time where engaging in homosexual activity was criminalized, safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community didn’t exist. The closest thing to safe spaces were the bars in the local area, where queer people could be themselves and love each other openly; however, the law and public opinion actively worked against them. It was in this hostile time that the Stonewall Inn became an establishment that welcomed gay men, drag queens, and transgender women.
A sector of the mafia ran the bar, and usually received tips to avoid police raids. On the morning of June 28, 1969, police arrived without warning. Arrests were made, customers were beaten, and several people were inspected and found guilty of not obeying the proper-attire law.
In response to the arrests, patrons began to fight back. The most well-known figure for leading the counter attack is Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman, but many individuals who would go on to become famous activists were there as well, such as Silvia Rivera. In the five days that followed, protests for LGBTQ+ rights flooded the streets. The anniversary of the Stonewall riots then became the first Pride celebration.
Visitors with an interest in all of the queer history and culture that the historic Greenwich Village has to offer should check out Christopher Street guided tours. With Manhattan and Greenwich as one epicenter of LGBTQ+ culture and history, travelers will find no shortage of places to visit in the Big Apple to honor the queer community, whether they want to pay respects, show support, or have fun – or do all at once. Seeing the Stonewall Inn in New York City is an essential trip for anyone looking to honor those who fought for equal rights and freedoms for the LGBTQ+ community.
AIDS Memorial Grove, San Francisco, California
One of the most powerful pieces of LGBTQ+ protest in a devastating era for the community is the AIDS Quilt, which you can see today in the National AIDS Memorial Grove. Each panel of the quilt was made in memory of an individual who died due to AIDS, and it is an on-going project. The quilt now has over 50,000 panels to memorialize around 110,000 people. The AIDS Memorial Grove is a part of the larger Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and provides visitors 7.5 acres to walk, reflect, and mourn those lost to HIV and AIDS. Besides housing the AIDS Quilt, the grove has a centerpiece called the Circle of Friends to honor those lost to AIDS. Thousands of names are engraved into the stone floor, surrounded by a bench where their loved ones can sit to remember them.
The HIV/ AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s and was particularly devastating to the LGBTQ+ community. Some of the first cases were seen in gay men, and the auto-immune deficiency virus would be coined “gay cancer”. Since it primarily affected a marginalized community, more conservative leadership hesitated to act, many believing it to be a punishment by God. Over ten years later, an effective treatment was found and approved by the government but it was too expensive for many. The virus went on to claim 39 million lives worldwide and wipe out over 700,000 Americans.
Protestors organized and people marched nation-wide to raise awareness and fight for government action. The death toll was high, and homophobia largely stood in the way. For many in the LGBTQ+ community, the gross negligence of officials was dehumanizing. Their friends and loved ones were dying around them, and the government was doing nothing. The collective grief motivated a powerful piece of art conceived by gay rights activist Cleve Jones in the AIDS Quilt.
Each square of the quilt memorialized a different person whose life had been lost to AIDS. Soon after the NAMES Project Foundation was formed, they received quilt squares from communities around the United States. The quilt was first laid out on October 11th, 1987 at the National Mall in Washington D.C. and was larger than a football field. Each of the 1,920 names on the quilt was read out, and the effect was so profound that the AIDS Quilt toured around raising money to fight AIDS. Panels have continued to be added ever since. Earlier this month, 3,000 squares of the AIDS Quilt were laid out to celebrate 35 years of the project – the largest showing in over a decade.
The AIDS Memorial Grove is a living, breathing homage to the many people that lost their lives to an ignored and stigmatized illness. It gives room for people to learn, to mourn, to reflect, and most of all, to remember the fight against AIDS that continues today. Though medications and treatments are much more advanced, queer men and transgender women continue to be disproportionately impacted by AIDS. The AIDS epidemic is a huge part of the LGBTQ+ community’s history, and should not be ignored. A visit to the AIDS National Memorial Grove is a profound experience that travelers should make to honor those lost and the fight for those who continue to be affected.
Legacy Walk, Chicago, Illinois
Stretching a half-mile of North Halsted Street aka Boystown, the Legacy Walk in Chicago honors the stories and contributions of LGBTQ+ people throughout history. It is a physical reminder of the great queer individuals whose identity gets ignored or overlooked, as well as for those that advocated and fought for the community’s rights. The Legacy Walk is the only outdoor museum dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community and consists of 40 plaques that are rotated out as new people are added each year on October 11th – National Coming Out Day.
The Legacy Walk was kickstarted by seeing the AIDS Quilt and having a revelation, emphasized on their website: “We were LIVING GAY HISTORY. But we were DYING. Who would remember those who came before us when we were gone?” The project took 25 years to plan, raise funds, and unveil Chicago’s own tribute to queer existence. Plans to host removed plaques in a Visitor Center for viewing were unfortunately delayed by COVID, but are still in the works. It’s worth noting that the Legacy Walk is just one product of the larger Legacy Project in Chicago. The group also has a touring display called the Legacy Wall that can be set up on request just about anywhere and an annual queer cruise.
Recognized as an official Historic Landmark in 2019, and the largest LGBTQ+ historic landmark in the United States, the Legacy Walk installation continues to be the only one of its kind in the world. The project fights back against the erasure of queer identities throughout history as well as inspires viewers with education and recognition. Travelers are encouraged to visit and support the Legacy Project as it continues to evolve and expand its scope to support and advocate for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Trans Memorial Garden, St. Louis, Missouri
The Trans Memorial Garden in St. Louis is a living, breathing memorial to the trans community, thoughtfully designed to pay tribute and provide a space for remembrance. The garden leads guests down a path that ends at the peaceful community circle, “a reference to a peaceful journey with an uncertain but peaceful destination.” Plants were specifically chosen to attract butterflies with the insect’s transformative nature in mind.
The Trans Memorial Garden started out with just a few seeds. Literally. Activist Jordan Braxtor heard about the organization Plant for Peace in 2015 and was inspired to create a work of natural beauty to draw attention to and remember the violence faced by transgender people. By working together with Plant for Peace and a local community of 60 trans, nonbinary, queer, and ally volunteers, the garden began with 34 trees donated. The Metro Trans Umbrella group then collected funds to purchase plants from a local nursery to make a butterfly garden.
The Trans Memorial Garden’s mission is vital to the LGBTQ+ community, as violence against the transgender community is more relevant than ever. According to the Human Rights Campaign, last year was the deadliest year for transgender and gender non-conforming people on record, especially trans women of color. Halfway through 2022, over 16 trans people have been killed in the U.S. as a result of hate-crimes. The United States has also seen an increase in proposed anti-trans legislation, making life more difficult for people under the trans umbrella in medical care, athletics, and school environments – 2022 broke records for the amount proposed anti-trans bills, and it’s only June.
The sign for the Trans Memorial Garden bears a powerful quote by Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” In a time of increasing scrutiny and violence against the trans community, the Trans Memorial Garden offers a place to gather, not just to mourn but to commemorate the beauty and resilience of the trans community who are under attack. Community is essential to healing and progress, and a space designed for just that is more than deserving of a stop during your travels.
The Importance of Visiting LGBTQ+ Landmarks
Progress is hard-won. Being able to recognize that progress and see oneself in history is essential. Visual reminders and monuments solidify the stories and experiences of LGBTQ+ people, as well as inform the greater public.
The LGBTQ+ community around the world faces threats and erasure due to bigotry. In the United States specifically, queer people are currently being oppressed by social attitudes and government decisions that are rolling back progress. Along with the previously mentioned on-slaught of anti-trans legislation, Don’t Say Gay bills are removing queer topics from school curriculum and therefore depriving LGBTQ+ youth of a sense of belonging. The Supreme court overturned Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs decision just last week which not only eliminated federal standards for a right to privacy and bodily autonomy in general but also threatens Obergefell v Hodges decision, the case that made same-sex marriage a human right.
One small way to help the queer community is to use your traveling dollars wisely – and this applies to anywhere you travel, in any situation. Not only does visiting LGBTQ+ sites and memorials help inform travelers of a largely suppressed history, but it shows that these landmarks are essential parts of the nation’s past. Many organizations that curate guided tours centered on LGBTQ+ sites work alongside and help fund initiatives to support the community as well, such as the Legacy Project’s focus supporting queer youth in schools by working to include LGBTQ+ history in the curriculum. Additionally, travelers should always seek to support local queer-owned businesses and not allow larger corporate interests to profit off of a marginalized community that they do not truly support.
Traveling consciously does not just mean minimizing harm to the environment, but it also means practicing social sustainability. Tourism allows for the opportunity to support minority populations, which rarely occurs on an effectual, industry level. Travelers should make the decision to never neglect the ignored history that continues to negatively affect those living today. The queer community needs support, and just one aspect of that support is a need for everyone to remember all the times that they were denied their rights, as well as witness that they still have to fight today.
It’s about time we recognize the landmarks and memorials dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community’s past and create a demand for more places to stop sweeping queer history under the rug. In the United States there are very few nationally recognized LGBTQ+ historical sites. People deserve to see themselves represented in history and see what they can accomplish, both as individuals and a community. As travelers who seek to expand your own horizons and learn about the world, don’t leave out the rich and inspiring history of LGBTQ+ people – not just during Pride month, but year round.
ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.
Want to learn more?
Milestones in the America Gay Rights Movement – PBS
The History of Pride – ecomadic
Queer History in Pre-Colonial America – Chaos+Comrades
LGBTQ Rights Timeline in American History
Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ Identities: Today and Centuries Ago – Human Rights Campaign
Homosexuality in the Pre-colonial Americas – PRISM
10 great places where LGBTQ history was made
The Forgotten History of Gay Entrapment – Atlantic
LGBTQ Landmarks – Greenwich Village
Landmark Status Sought For NYC Bar Where First Gay Protest Was Held—Three Years Before Stonewall | NewNowNext
51 LGBTQ+ Owned & Friendly Stays, Eats, Shops, Parties, and Experiences in New York City
LGBTQ Heritage Featured Places – US National Park Service
LGBTQ+ Chicago tours and attractions
Schedule a Tour of the Legacy Walk
Fatal Violence Against the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community in 2022 – Human Rights Campaign
Discover the St Louis LGBTQ Community, Neighborhoods & More
How will Roe v. Wade reversal affect LGBTQ rights? Experts, advocates weigh in
Legislation Affecting LGBTQ Rights Across the Country – American Civil Liberties Union
STUDENT VOICE: ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills will make it harder for teachers to support students like me
What is Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill? – The Washington Post