Explore the “Vanishing Queer Spaces” of the Harlem Renaissance | Columbia

Every year the organization and its members work on a project that is not directly related to the academic environment, but connected to it. This year, members have been working on a book that explores the history of queer spaces from the Harlem Renaissance that have since disappeared.

Abriannah Aiken (GSAPP’22) and Brian Turner (GSAPP’22) served as the Co-Chairs of QSAPP for the 2021-22 academic year. They agreed Neighbors about her multidisciplinary project Disappearing Queer Spaces.

What was the inspiration for the book? What drew you to this topic and then specifically to these rooms?

Aiken: During COVID, in 2020, QSAPP had just finished the book on homelessness and queer youth in New York. They wanted to talk diversity and New York and focus on the next book. That’s where they started coming up with these ideas. Andrew Dolkart is a professor here and helped them connect with the LGBT Historic Sites Project. On their website there is an amazing library of these places that currently exist in New York and have been queer places throughout time.

QSAPP asked, “Do you have a list of those spaces that no longer exist?” You could give us some of this data. We started looking at the similarities and differences between these rooms. We found that many of them were from Harlem, especially during the Harlem Renaissance, which was that beautiful, amazing time, but also a very important moment for the queer community in Harlem. We said, “Why don’t we just focus on these projects?”

gymnast: Back then, we wanted to do something that touched people who weren’t white cisgender men. We tried to come up with a project that focuses on queer spaces that are outside of the traditional places that people think of, like Fire Island or the West Village. The original idea came from a guy in the group named Sebastian Andersson. We tried to look at places in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens.

What role did these physical spaces play in shaping the Harlem Renaissance?

Aiken: These spaces were an integral part of the queer community during the Harlem Renaissance. These were safe spaces that the queer community were happy to use and had drag balls. Without these safe spaces, the queer community would not have existed as it did in the Harlem Renaissance.

gymnast: I’m not sure how directly they’re correlated, but a lot of queer-identifying people, or just people in general, in a more conservative lower Manhattan in the 1920s and 1910s came to Harlem to racially mingle because it was more accepted. Having these spaces was kind of liberating, not just for black people, not just for queer people, but for everyone.

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