Explore the 'Disappearing Queer Spaces' of the Harlem Renaissance

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Every year, the organization and its members work on a project that isn’t directly in the academic setting but is connected to it. This year, the members have worked on a book exploring the history of queer spaces from the Harlem Renaissance that have since disappeared. 

Abriannah Aiken (GSAPP’22) and Brian Turner (GSAPP’22) were the co-chairs of QSAPP during the 2021-22 academic year. They spoke to Neighbors about their multidisciplinary project Disappearing Queer Spaces.

What was the inspiration for the book? What led you to this topic and then to these spaces in particular? 

Aiken: During COVID, in 2020, QSAPP had just finished the book on homelessness and queer youth in New York. They were looking to talk about diversity, about New York, and to focus on the next book. That’s where they started to come up with these ideas. Andrew Dolkart is a professor here and helped them connect with the LGBT Historic Sites Project.There’s an amazing library on their website of these spaces that currently exist in New York that have been queer spaces throughout time.

QSAPP asked: “Do you have a list of these spaces that no longer exist?” They were able to give us some of that data. We started to look at the similarities and the differences between those spaces. We found that a lot of them were from Harlem, specifically during the Harlem Renaissance, which was this beautiful, amazing time, but also a very important moment for the queer community in Harlem. We said, “why don’t we just focus on those projects?”

Turner: At the time we wanted to do something that had an impact on people that weren’t cisgender white males. We were trying to think of a project that would focus on queer spaces that were outside of the traditional places that people think of, such as Fire Island or the West Village. The original idea came from a guy in the group named Sebastian Andersson. We were trying to look at places in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. 

What role did these physical spaces have in shaping the Harlem Renaissance?

Aiken: These spaces were integral to the queer community during the Harlem Renaissance. These were safe spaces that the queer community felt comfortable utilizing and having drag balls. Without these safe spaces, the queer community would not have existed in the way that it did in the Harlem Renaissance. 

Turner: I’m not sure how directly they are correlated, but a lot of queer-identifying people or just people in general in a more conservative Lower Manhattan in the 1920s and 1910s would come to Harlem to racially intermix because it was more accepted. Having those spaces was kind of liberating for not just Black people, not just queer people, but for everyone.

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