The historic 2017 federal court decision that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people are protected from employment discrimination under the civil rights act 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 1824 house were the original architects of the first legislation designed to protect lesbian and gay people from discrimination, which they first conceived of nearly a half-century ago, as well as a slew of other groundbreaking events and accomplishments in relation to the LGBT rights movement.
Sadly, the house itself, which was nearly two hundred years old, was demolished in 2012 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). GVSHP first asked the LPC to protect the house in a letter on July 6, 2012. Adding insult to injury, it was later shown the developer whom the City allowed to demolish the house never had full legal title to the it, and the house’s demolition became the subject of litigation by a bank which claims it had title to it. The site has since been included in the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District (Phase III of GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District), which GVSHP fought more than ten years to designate.
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, intended to accomplish more or less what yesterday’s court ruling, should it stand, does.
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. Only in 2015 after a years-long campaign by GVSHP did the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission finally landmark its first site, the Stonewall Inn, based upon LGBT history. But the LPC has refused to consider any other such sites, including Julius’ Bar, which is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, as well as severla other locations GVSHP has proposed.