Supreme Court LGBT Rights Decision Had Nearly 50 Year Old Roots in Greenwich Village

Supreme Court LGBT Rights Decision Had Nearly 50 Year Old Roots in Greenwich Village

The June 15, 2020 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court finding that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are entitled to federal civil rights protections against employment discrimination has deep roots in Greenwich Village, extending back almost fifty years. The ruling, which has broad implications given that only 21 states (along with Washington D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico) prohibit discrimination against LGBT people, in many ways had its origins in the groundbreaking work of people and organizations in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, the years immediately following the 1969 Stonewall Riots.


Greenwich Villager Jim Owles, the first openly-gay candidate for public office in New York City, was one of the engineers behind the very first gay rights bill to be introduced in the country, in New York City, which became the basis for the subsequent federal legislation and efforts to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Owles lived at 186 Spring Street, a “gay commune” of sorts in the early 1970s where several gay activists lived and worked.  Another was Bruce Voeller, who also had an extremely close relationship to the roots of this historic ruling.

186 Spring Street

Voeller was instrumental in getting the very first version of this anti-discrimination legislation introduced in Congress in 1977 by Greenwich Village Congressmembers Bella Abzug and Ed Koch.

Ed Koch (l.) and Bella Abzug.

Voeller co-founded the National Gay Task Force in 1973 (now the National LGBTQ Task Force), the first national gay rights organization in the U.S., and was its first director.  From its founding in 1973 until 1985, the Task Force was located at 80 Fifth Avenue at 14th Street in Greenwich Village.

80 Fifth Avenue

Under Voeller’s leadership, the Task Force not only got the federal anti-discrimination legislation introduced (which would have in essence extended the Civil Rights act’s provisions covering race, sex, and religion to sexual orientation, as the Supreme Court ruling does in the area of employment), but got the federal government to rescind its long-standing and explicit prohibition on the federal government employing gay people.

Voeller (center) announcing the formation of the National Gay Task Force in 1972.

On the basis of these historic firsts, Village Preservation sought landmark designation for 186 Spring Street in 2012.  While the State of New York found the building eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the city refused to consider the building for landmark designation, and it was demolished.  More info here.

Village Preservation has been seeking landmark designation for 80 Fifth Avenue and several surrounding buildings based upon their historic role in relation to the LGBT and African American civil rights movements and to the Women’s Suffrage Movement — see here. However, the city has thus far refused to consider these buildings for landmark designation — more info here and here.

To support landmark designation of 80 Fifth Avenue and other nearby historic buildings connected to civil rights movements and other important history, send a letter at www.gvshp.org/mayor.

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of Village Preservation since 2002.

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