Oscar Wilde Tours: A Window to LGBT History

by David Perry

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 22, 2015

"One age cannot be completely understood if all the others are not understood. The song of history can only be sung as a whole."
- José Ortega y Gasset

The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York's Greenwich Village is the year "we're here, we're queer, get used to it!" became a rallying cry out from what had been a silent void.

Or so it seems. I recently discovered that the city's gay heritage stretches back, improbably, to the 1880s thanks to Andrew Lear, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the Village's pink past lend gravitas to his role as president of Oscar Wilde Tours, dedicated to delving into New York's extensive gay past that is often glossed over in modern histories.

The More Things Change...
"I Googled gay history tours and was amazed to find they almost don't exist," recalls Lear. "The only thing separating a gay tour from a straight tour is that the people are gay. My tours focus on gay history and gay culture."

A Classicist and Columbia Mellon fellow dedicated to the history of same-sex love dating back to Ancient Greece, Lear took me to the beginning, with how Greenwich Village became a gay Mecca. Visitors notice how the Village street grid is at odds with the rest of Manhattan, a reminder that Greenwich Village was New York's first exburb. As the Big Apple grew northwards, it subsumed the settlement.

And while the upper class went north of the potter's field that would become Washington Square Park, Bleecker Street and the blocks south and west housed people of limited means. Then, as now, cheaper neighborhoods attracted starving artists, playwrights, poets, and other bohemian types whose views on sex, politics, and religion were "live and let live." By the 1890s - a.k.a "Gay 90s" - the Village was in full counter-culture mode.

Bar Hopping
The present owners may be as clueless as I was that the prosaic storefront at 157 Bleecker Street was the infamous home of The Slide. Lear read an 1890s police report making the bar's milieu obvious:

"'Men of degenerate type were the waiters, some of them going to the extent of rouging their necks,'" he quotes. "'In falsetto voices they sang filthy ditties...'"

The Stonewall Inn's opening in 1967 is thus something of a Johnny-come-lately. On the other hand, Christopher Street has a long history of gay-friendly establishments, if de facto.

"It was a highway from the gay-friendly cafés and bars in the center of the Village to the docks, where longshoremen on the down-low were found," Lear postulates. "As the docks closed after World War II, the longshoremen's bars became more gay-friendly to stay open."

True to form, the Mineshaft and Vault, two 1970s descendants of those bars, were so famously libidinous they blew The Slide and Black Rabbit out of the water.

The Village People
During his two-mile meander through the Village, Lear, pointed out highlights such as a mural by artist Keith Haring; two houses where Eleanor Roosevelt may have penned a passionate letter to Lorena Alice Hickock ("All day I've thought of you... I ache to hold you close. I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner or your mouth."); and Oscar Wilde's accommodations during his 1882 U.S. tour.

Lear stresses that people defined the Village more than any bar. Luminaries such as Cole Porter, Alan Ginsberg, Gore Vidal, and Edna St. Vincent Millay laid a foundation for the liberal, leftist, and progressive attitudes fostering later artists and activists from all over the world. Those attitudes acted as a break against the conservative turn America took after World War II; the Village went from iniquitous tourist attraction to bona fide oasis.

"The highlight is that we bring to life the gay past of those charming places," Lear tells me. "You learn about the gay writers that lived around Washington Square, the gay bars that have been on MacDougal Street, the gay rights protests that have taken place in the Village -- plus some fun stories."

I also learned were I came from, so I can, as the saying goes, know where I am going.

Oscar Wilde Tours also offers Gay Secrets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is planning a curated trip to Italy, October 9-18, 2015. For more information visit www.oscarwildetours.com

David Perry is a freelance travel and news journalist. In addition to EDGE, his work has appeared on ChinaTopix, Thrillist, and in Next Magazine and Steele Luxury Travel among others. Follow him on Twitter at @GhastEald.