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  • Writer's pictureMuni Suleiman

Queering Columbia

Reviewing the life, death, and preservation of LGBTQ+ community spaces on campus.

By Muni Suleiman

Illustration by Maca Hepp

When you open Queering the Map, you’re greeted with a constellation of stories. With the community-generated, interactive map created by Canadian artist Lucas LaRochelle, anonymous users add pins of varying length and emotional depth to places where they have had queer experiences. Some are dated, most aren’t, and one wonders if certain physical places have remained just as the pinner remembers them. Zoom in on Morningside Heights, and you’ll see that Columbia’s campus holds many pinned memories that go beyond the usual suspects for designated queer locations. The halal cart outside of the Law School serves as a backdrop for a first kiss between best friends. The 116th St. subway station on Broadway carries lovers to the end of a date. Outside of Pulitzer, a crush brews amid an hours-long conversation about dogs, babies, and trailblazing queer elders. A pin on Barnard’s Futter Field reads, concisely, “SO GAY HERE.”

Specific to New York City, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project also hosts an online map that charts over 400 historic places connected to the lives of queer and transgender people. The project’s founders are Andrew Dolkart, GSAPP ’77, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Ken Lustbader, GSAPP ’93, a historic preservation consultant, and Jay Shockley, GSAPP ’80, the former senior historian at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. The project seeks to make explicit the queer influences of spaces not traditionally understood as such. Columbia’s Earl Hall and Riverside Church make appearances.

The effort comes at an important time as markedly queer spaces disappear across the country. For example, the Lesbian Bar Project, created by queer filmmakers Elina Street and Erica Rose, reports that the number of lesbian bars in the United States has dwindled from at least 200 in the 1980s to 29 today. According to the project, New York holds the most of any city with a total of four: Cubbyhole, Henrietta Hudson, Ginger’s, and the recently established The Bush.

In a similar vein, the Queer Students of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia’s GSAPP published Disappearing Queer Spaces in 2022 with Abriannah Aiken, GSAPP ’22, and Brian Turner, GSAPP ’22, as co-chairs. With participation from the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, the book charts how the Harlem Renaissance allowed for adventures in self-expression not only for the Black community but also the queer community. Seven case studies of apartments, parking lots, and open developments in Harlem restore the sites to the theaters, hotels, and bars they once were prior to destruction: the historic conduits through which queer people of color danced, created, and loved. The loss of these physical places in Harlem meant the loss of the spaces cultivated within them, which were hubs of joy, tradition, and safety for queer people of color. This change had consequences within and beyond the neighborhood.

Several factors have contributed to queer spaces disappearing. In Harlem, QSAPP attributes the destruction of queer spaces to events like rapid gentrification, which displaced the residents who frequented these spaces. Beyond gentrification, the prevalence of dating apps is altering how people physically navigate queer spaces. Moreover, hate crimes that have targeted markedly queer spaces, such as the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, have forced community members to consider the safety of opening or frequenting a queer space.

The United States’s current political climate isn’t helping. From Tennessee’s attempt to ban drag performances in public spaces and in the presence of minors to Florida’s expansion of “Don’t Say Gay” laws to ban classroom discussions of gender and sexual diversity, state and federal measures are actively restricting where people can express queerness. For the young people experimenting with queerness, measures like these also inhibit their ability to build community. In times like these, asserting the presence and history of queer spaces is important, especially those which act as hubs for queer joy and self-expression. “Until people can feel safe existing in who they are and their queerness in any public space, we’re going to need queer spaces,” Aiken stated.

In 1966, Stephen Donaldson (the alias of Robert Martin), CC ’70, formed the Student Homophile League. Originally operating “underground,” it would not be until April 19, 1967, and after significant resistance from administration, that the organization would become officially recognized by the University. The Student Homophile League became the first queer collegiate student organization in the world, with similar groups at schools like Cornell soon following.

Recognition, however, contained stipulations, and queer students—and queer spaces—were still heavily patrolled. For example, meetings in Earl Hall were restricted to dialogues about homosexuality, encouraging queer self-acceptance, and counseling services; the organization was “forbidden to serve a social function” due to concerns of potentially violating New York state’s sodomy laws.

Led by Morty Manford, CC ’73, the 1970s brought an activist spirit to a new iteration of the League known as Gay People at Columbia, or Gay People at Columbia-Barnard. In the pursuit of “a center where members of the campus gay community can congregate—as gays and as individuals—with dignity and without fear,” the basement of Furnald Hall became a battleground between students and the University as Gay People at Columbia-Barnard fought for a designated and recognized queer lounge, the first in the country. After a 30-minute sit-in outside of President William McGill’s office, McGill reluctantly granted them the space. It was renamed to commemorate Donaldson after he died of AIDS-related illness in 1996.

Gay People at Columbia-Barnard also hosted monthly gay dances in the auditorium of Earl Hall. The dances were the first of their kind among U.S. colleges. At their peak in the 1980s, the events—open to the public—were a major social event for queer people all over the city, once drawing 1,600 attendees. In the face of the AIDS epidemic, and with a new drinking age and identification requirements, the dances became a more safe, inclusive, inexpensive, and casual space than gay bars and clubs for young gay people to socialize.

The League’s history is memorialized on campus in various ways. Earl Hall has been recognized on both the New York State and National Register of Historic Places since 2018. On the 50th anniversary of the Student Homophile League, the Stephen Donaldson Lounge was moved to the first floor of Schapiro Hall in 2017 for better visibility and access; the lounge is now the designated meeting and storage space for queer organizations at Columbia. Other ways in which queerness is preserved on campus is through Q House, the queer student special interest community, and the Columbia LGBT records.

Since Donaldson’s days on campus, there are now more than 10 recognized clubs that serve different identity and interest niches within Columbia’s queer community. Donaldson’s Student Homophile League is now the Columbia Queer Alliance, a broad organization for the LGBTQ+ students, those questioning their identities, and allies geared toward encouraging queer self-exploration and expression.

A widely felt need among students of color for an intersectional queer space led to the founding of Proud Colors in 1995. Aiyanah Peeples CC ’24, recent treasurer of Proud Colors who joined the club as an ally before realizing her own queer identity, explained that, at the time, other queer spaces on campus “were too white and all the [spaces of color] weren’t necessarily super welcoming to queer-trans people.” Most of the group’s weekly meetings are discussion-based, but they also frequently host movie and trivia nights. Through community-building and resource-sharing events, the club navigates the emotional challenges that often arise during conversations about experiences of marginalization. “We don’t necessarily always go into super serious issues because we believe that we are burdened with the weight of our own existence,” Peeples explained. “Sometimes you just want a place to relax and exist and be around other people who understand how you relax and exist.”

Columbia is also full of spaces, as the pins of Queering the Map would suggest, that aren’t explicitly designated as queer, yet are considered to be so by students. One such space is the Audre Lorde Community Space in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which was renamed in 2020 after the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and Columbia ’60 alumna. “We’ve done a lot of our stuff in Multicultural Affairs,” Peeples reflected. “It’s not necessarily a queer space, but it’s not not a queer space.”

Compared to the days of the League, the queer community on campus appears larger than ever, but organizations are still recovering from the impact of Covid. Citing persistent feelings of disconnection to other queer students among the LGBTQ+ student body, the Columbia Queer Alliance started hosting weekly community dinners in the SDL and other smaller events. This, to CQA president Paige Lawrie, CC ’25, provides students with “a way to connect and rebuild the queer environments that have been lost.” Though Lawrie described that CQA’s current priority is rebuilding the community, the club maintains a willingness to shift toward activism “if there’s a need.”

Peeples expressed a similar sentiment. “We don’t shy away from advocacy if the opportunity is provided and we think that it is positive for queer-trans people of color,” she said. “For now, we tend to do more social events, again, because we’re trying to make sure that QTPOC have a place to relax.”

An occasion for advocacy arose on Nov. 1, 2022, when queer and trans students protested the presence of guest speaker Michelle Alleva, an advocate against gender-affirming care who was invited to campus by the Columbia University College Republicans. The incident contributed to a growth in dialogue between queer and non-queer affinity groups alike on campus as an act of solidarity.

The incident also renewed the historical tensions which question the reliance that queer students should have on the University for protection against homophobia and transphobia. On the one hand, when it comes to harassment—especially for queer and trans students of color—Columbia’s status as a predominantly white institution becomes particularly difficult to navigate. “For me, Columbia is not a safe space to explore my personal queerness, because my queerness and my Blackness are very much intertwined,” Lizzy George-Griffin, CC ’23, explained. “I didn’t move back on to Columbia's campus purposely because it felt very suffocating.”

But as Peeples explained, institutions tend to offer protection. Whether it be official policies against discrimination or its social status as a liberal institution, Columbia, at least in theory, offers a certain sense of security that public spaces in the city may not. “If you seek a queer space in New York … you don’t have an institution necessarily overlooking you the same way,” she said. “There’s always that level of danger.”

Collegiate queer spaces might be particularly important for those who feel intimidated or excluded by the New York City gay bar and club scene. Such feelings concerning the impenetrability of New York City gay bars and clubs are not unfounded. New York City gay bars and clubs have been notorious for being predominantly white and exclusive, and The Q, a formerly rising LGBTQ+ nightclub, faced allegations last summer of racist and transphobic behavior toward patrons.

Furthermore, the fact that so many of New York’s queer spaces are bars and clubs might misconstrue the fact that being queer isn’t synonymous with sex. For students coming into their identities, queer collegiate spaces “makes [students] feel like more things are possible,” according to George-Griffin. The SDL acts as a physical conduit to queer self-expression and visibility on campus, and its presence asserts the undeniable queerness of campus: A history of administrative resistance ultimately could not restrict queer students how it had intended.

Queer clubs have also often had to facilitate conversations specifically catered to different queer and trans identities. Boys, Butches, and Bros, a new club currently seeking recognition, hopes to create community amongst Barnard students who do not identify as women. George-Griffin founded LionLez in January 2020 as a new event-based, social club designed for queer and non-binary people who do not identify as men. Informed by her experiences with lesbophobia, from negative reactions to the label “lesbian” to pushes to engage in compulsory heterosexuality, George-Griffin created LionLez as a trans-inclusive space where minority genders can engage with one another without centering men. To her, a club for women and non-binary people was the next step. In the spirit of Proud Colors, George-Griffin also set out to make LionLez an inclusive space for queer and trans students of color.

George-Griffin’s persistence to preserve the social aspect for LionLez was partially fueled by Professor George Chauncey’s U.S. Lesbian and Gay History class. An academic testament to radical queer history at Columbia, Chauncey’s unit on the original social restrictions on the Student Homophile League until 1970 only emboldened George-Griffin’s belief in having spaces for queer students that prioritized socializing.

Engaging with a space, even if the goal isn’t to make it into a queer space, can introduce a presence that makes people question what this space can be for and why. LionLez, for example, planned their first lesbian mixer—“LezMix”—with Sigma Delta Tau, who suggested Mel’s Burger Bar as a potential host. George-Griffin was initially reluctant due to the bar’s reputation as fairly “white and also straight.” Yet due to the club’s financial restraints and Mel’s offer of a free space and discounted drinks, LionLez went ahead. In the end, George-Griffin was pleased with the bar’s metamorphosis. “It was really special to have the space be transformed into a queer space.”

However, events, especially major ones that celebrate traditions, are often constrained by limited budgets. “Tradition is a part of being seen and legitimized,” Peeples asserted. “If we have traditions, this community and culture set up, you can’t say that we’re not here … people come to us knowing that.”

A beloved tradition was revived in spring 2023 with GendeRevolution’s GenderFuck, an on-campus, body-positive, clothing-optional dance party co-sponsored by CQA this year. Reviving the event after the pandemic required trial and error, according to Lawrie. Despite these problems, Lawrie deemed it successful in achieving its goals: “[letting] people enjoy this [event] phone free, picture free, worry free.”

Proud Colors has recently revived two traditions: zine-making, with a focus on expressing the experiences of queer and trans people of color, and theBlack History Month dinner, which emphasizes how Black queer history is often left out of Black history at large. The invention of new traditions like Barnard SGA’s April Queer Prom echoes old ones, like the Earl Hall gay dances. Current traditions include Q-Splash, a queer, trans, and body-positive pool party where Columbia College students can also fulfill the swim test graduation requirement, and Lavender Graduation, a graduation celebration for queer Columbia College, Columbia Engineering, General Studies, and Barnard College seniors.

Defining a “queer space” is much easier said than done, especially within architecture. For most, a queer space is simply somewhere where queer people are. Professor George Chauncey argued in 1996 that “[t]here is no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use.” Queer space, in this line of thinking, is untethered to any specific place.

Aiken, on the other hand, expressed a less ephemeral view wherein the particular place is important to the cultivation of the space. “Because I’m an architect … I feel like there’s intentionality in spaces that are just queer because of how they were created or how they are used,” she said. Further, queer architects can establish the intended community-specific use for a space through architectural choices, such as form, color, and design.

In a collegiate context, queer spaces on campus will inevitably change with each graduating class. Earl Hall, for example, was a fulcrum of queer life in the 1960’s through the 80’s. Gay Dances were phased out due to a variety of factors, including concerns that the dances were an administrative burden, Earl’s structural integrity and its ability to host large crowds, and conflicts between student groups seeking to use the space for different purposes.

The Hall still physically exists almost exactly as it did before, but its relevance to campus queer history is obscure to those not already familiar. This is a loss. Some students involved with queer student life on campus expressed that it has been difficult to physically reinhabit their cherished community history in Earl, in which it is often difficult to book space.

Projects like Queer Harlem Renaissance, created by Aiken and her collaborator Terry P. Valley Jr., Queering the Map, and NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project seem to ride a mysterious middleground in providing an answer to queer space historic preservation. Holding a digital space, they manage to both transcend the physical space while still upholding its queer social function historically or sentimentally. In this sense, access, and the various ways it can manifest, is prioritized. Perhaps recognizing different ways of reinhabiting a space, whether it be physically, virtually, or intellectually through knowing its history, can act as a potential solution to these queer spaces disappearing through demolition or inaccessibility.

“The spaces I'm looking at, they don’t even exist anymore,” Aiken said. “It’s, like, a parking lot. It’s a new home … that’s someone else’s safe space now.”


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