Standing in the narrow, stone-lined alleyway beside St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Hillhouse Avenue, LGBTQ historian John D. Allen remembered some of the blessed unions that took place outside the building.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the walkway — now filled with birdsong and trees that extend their branches in a particularly balletic way — served as an exceptionally good makeout spot for gay men including himself, drawn there for its beauty and relative seclusion.
Allen noted that the church was also the 1882 founding site of the Knights of Columbus, one of the most prominent anti-gay-rights organizations in both the city and the country, and the largest single donor in favor of California’s Proposition 8 eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state.
A co-founder of the New Haven Pride Center (NHPC), Allen told that story Sunday afternoon during New Haven’s third annual free LGBT History Walking Tour, part of the city’s 18th annual Pride Weekend. An intimate group of eight turned out for the event. The tour began at the NHPC’s 84 Orange St. headquarters and wound up Orange, through downtown, and ended at the New Haven Green.
For Allen, who founded the NHPC with his husband Keith Hyatte in 1996, the tour is a chance to look back at New Haven’s fraught and beautiful LGBTQ history while keeping an eye on where it might go next. Like the NHPC itself, which has moved from 1 Long Wharf Dr. to 50 Fitch St. to 14 Gilbert St. to its current location on Orange Street, his understanding of the city’s LGBTQ history has shifted and swelled, growing as old businesses close, new ones open, and members of New Haven’s LGBTQ community raise new insights and concerns.
For instance, Allen said, there will forever be places — now long gone — that he associates with the LGBTQ coming of age experience in the city.
Like The Pub, a gay bar at 1153 Chapel St. (now Book Trader), where Hyatte worked for several years before it burned down in 1978. Owners Jimmy Bombard and Jerry Carlson went on to take over then-biker bar Inside Out at 168 York St., turning it into one of two all-LGBT, all-the-time bars on that block. (The other, Partners, is where he met Hyatte in 1982.) Allen maintained that The Pub was one of the first catalysts for gay nightlife in the city.
So too, he said, were places like The Neuter Rooster, which hosted gay icon Vicki Sue Robinson in 1977. Or the New Haven Arena, now “FBI Corner,” where openly bisexual Doors frontman Jim Morrison was beaten and arrested by New Haven police in 1967. Or Nu Haven Books & Video, an adult video store in which men could hook up in the store’s video booths from 1993 until the store closed in 2006, leaving no trace at 754 Chapel St.
There are other spots, Allen said, that he’s discovered as his affinity for New Haven history has grown. Some — like the Mishkan-Israel-turned-Educational Center for the Arts, where he saw a young Jodie Foster star in Getting Out in early April 1981, or the aldermanic chambers that voted against domestic partnerships in the 1990s — come from his own experience as an advocate for gay rights who spent his formative young years in the city. Others, like the cruise-friendly, floor-to-ceiling basement-level men’s bathroom stalls at Yale’s Woolsey Hall and the Farmington Canal Trail, have popped out of the LGBT woodwork as he’s done additional research for the tour.
In compiling a working history and map of spaces past and present, Allen said, his goal is to think about what the city’s LGBTQ history has been, what advances community members have made, and where it’s going next. He said that he hoped the NHPC could situate itself as New Haven’s LGBTQ hub, with spokes extending out into every corner of the city.
“I certainly hope the Pride Center will expand,” he said while walking towards the New Haven Green, the scene of New England’s first public execution for sodomy in 1646. (It was also the first location in the city to fly the rainbow flag, which happened on the inaugural Pride weekend in 1998.) “I hope we can have greater visibility and offer programming to youth who are still being kicked out of their homes. That was something we saw 20 years ago — New Haven can seem big, but it’s still provincial. As an openly gay man, I want to know where I can find my community — and it’s still developing.”
Elijah Leigh, who organized the vigil at United Church on the Green after June’s mass shootings in Orlando, Fla. and is an active member of the NHPC and Pride Weekend planning committee, agreed. He imagined what the tour might look like in, say, five years.
“On the tour, we passed three open and affirming churches,” he said, adding that he’s seen spiritual institutions like United Church on the Green and Church of the Redeemer use the power of the purse and pulpit to support LGBTQ rights and preach inclusion and acceptance to their congregants. So he can see including those institutions, as well as perhaps places like the long-awaited Escape and the Restoration Church of Connecticut to a list that may never be finite, or finished.
“There’s now a trans community, a trans presence that’s developing, and trying to have that visibility,” he added. “We have to make sure that we tease out our history. That’s where so much of activism comes from.”
To listen to “Out and About,” an audio piece about transphobia and discrimination by WNHH host Melissa Loucks, click on or download the audio above.