Historic Senate Vote Had Roots in Village House
The United States Senate’s historic passage yesterday of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, has deep roots in a house in the South Village at 186 Spring Street — a hotbed of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) civil rights activity in the post-Stonewall era. In fact, the men who lived and worked in this house were the original architects of today’s ENDA, which they first conceived of more than forty years ago, as well as a slew of other groundbreaking events and accomplishments in relation to the LGBT rights movement.
Sadly, the nearly 200 year old house itself was demolished last year after the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed its historic significance insufficiently important to protect (even though New York State determined the house eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places based upon its LGBT history). Adding insult to injury, it appears the developer whom the City allowed to demolish the house never had full legal title to the it, and the house’s demolition is now the subject of litigation by a bank which claims it had title to it.
The small federal-style house at 186 Spring Street stood between Thompson and Sullivan Streets from 1824 to 2012. Following the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the house became a “gay commune” of sorts in which some of the most important activist figures of the era lived. Among them was Jim Owles, the first openly-gay candidate for public office in New York City, and one of the engineers behind the very first gay rights bill to be introduced in the country — which became the basis for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which just passed the U.S. Senate for the first time in history.
Another resident of 186 Spring Street, Dr. Bruce Voeller, had an even closer relationship to the roots of this historic piece of legislation. Voeller, who lived in the house from the early 1970’s through the 1980’s, was instrumental in getting the very first version of what is now called ENDA introduced in Congress in 1977. This was a particularly astonishing feat given that just a few years earlier, Voeller had helped end the long-standing and explicit prohibition the federal government had on employing gay people.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what the men connected to 186 Spring Street accomplished, during a very different era of social and legal status for LGBT people. Among Voeller’s other achievements:
- he co-founded and was the first director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the nation’s first national gay and lesbian advocacy organization
- as NGLTF director, he got homosexuality removed from American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders
- he won a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court establishing rights for gay and lesbian parents in the 1970s
- he ended the use of the stigmatizing and inaccurate term “Gay Related Immune Defense Disorder” and replaced it with “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” (AIDS) as it is now known
- he conducted the first published study establishing that condom usage can prevent the spread of AIDS
Jim Owles and Arnie Kantrowitz, another pioneering resident of the house, helped found a slew of organizations which continue to this day, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, the first gay democratic club in the city. Today, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club is named in his honor.
While the LGBT rights movement has made tremendous progress in the decades since 186 Spring Street was a nexus of such groundbreaking activity, the history and importance of those achievements clearly still lack full recognition. In addition to refusing to save 186 Spring Street from the wrecking ball, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is yet to landmark a single property in New York City based upon its significance to LGBT history, in spite of several requests to do so.
Even the Stonewall Inn, the internationally recognized birthplace of the modern LGBT rights movement, lacks any official recognition by the Landmarks Preservation Commission for its role in relation to this historic event. The building lies within the Greenwich Village Historic District, which was designated in April of 1969, two months before the riots took place. In the nearly forty-five years since then, the LPC has taken no steps to mark the riots’ significance in relation to the building or to amend its designation report to reflect this incredibly significant piece of history, even as New York State and the Federal government have done so (while the State and Federal recognition are largely symbolic, only the LPC has the actual power to regulate the preservation of the building; it’s official records on Stonewall say nothing about its connection to LGBT history).