Raleigh, NC — Raleigh leaders are working to honor and highlight the history of the city’s LGBTQIA+ community. If you have memories or stories to share, your memories could very well could “go down in history.”
Decades before Pride Month was met with rainbows and support from most downtown businesses, the LGBTQIA+ community had specific sites and safe spaces, places that played a major role in the safety and growth of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Where was Raleigh’s first gay bar? Where did the community quietly gather, sometimes behind darkened windows to protect their identities? Which churches first supported same-sex marriage? Which leaders rose up to prevent drag from being banned by the local government in the 1980s? Where was Raleigh’s first club for members of the Black LGBTQIA+ community?
The Raleigh Historic Development Commission is working to uncover these stories and more, highlighting and possibly adding historic sites to the National Register of Historic Places. They’ve launched a context study for the local history of the LGBTQIA+ community – and they’re hoping more people will help by sharing their memories and personal experiences.
Raleigh’s LGBTQIA+ history was ‘hidden’ in the 1960s and 70s
In the 1960s and 70s, it was common for LGBTQIA+ spaces to be pushed to the edges of a city, with blackened windows so nobody could see inside. This was done partially to protect the identities of those who literally risked being fired from their jobs – or worse – and partially because the general public didn’t want to see.
In Raleigh, the ‘edge of the city’ translated to the Warehouse District – although there were some friendly spaces near Five Points as well.
“The Mousetrap on Glenwood Avenue, as well as the former Capital Corral on West Hargett Street,” says Tania Tully, Raleigh’s senior historic preservation planner. “What we’re most familiar with are the clubs and bars.”
Decades before Raleigh had Pride proclamations and welcoming murals on its streets, safe spaces were much more nondescript: A bookstore that felt like home or a newsletter that let you know you weren’t alone.
Melissa Dickens, who was born in the 1960s and grew up in the LGBTQIA+ community in the 1980s, recalls those times.
“Nobody talked about being gay,” she says.
Much of the communication in those days was underground. With no internet and no safe way to openly discuss community issues, things like message boards, publications and even secret codes became vitally important.
Dickens recalls going to her first gay bar in the 1980s, saying, “There was a door with a little window. And there was actually a special knock you had to use in order for the person working to even let you in.”
She says going down that alleyway to that little club was like a secret kept by a specific tribe.
Even with precautions taken for safety, it was not a safe time for the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I remember once these guys in a pickup truck riding by us while we were walking down the alley. Several boys got out and beat the brakes off the two guys walking with us,” she says. “One was swinging a board with a nail in it.”
That night, she says, will never go away.
“You had to worry you would be assaulted or even murdered for just walking down the same street as the bar was on,” she says. “Probably why the clubs were all in secret places.”
Although most of those early safe spaces and hangouts from the ‘underground’ LGBTQIA+ community are gone, remnants from those gathering spaces can be seen around the city.
Finding community at White Rabbit Books & Things
If you walk into High Tide Salon today, you might find hidden remnants from the building’s former life as a haven for the LGBTQIA+ community. It once served as a beloved community bookstore and hub.
In the front, White Rabbit Books & Things was designed to appear as any other bookstore; However, owner Jim Baxter said he “originally designed the store so that it got gayer the farther back you went.”
Like many LGBTQIA+ spaces from that era, it was designed to protect its community. In the back of the store, a newspaper for the LGBTQIA+ community called The Front Page was printed. In the front, message boards helped the community share advice and resources.
“After high school, the White Rabbit was one of the few places you could go to get any real lesbian-related reading or movie,” Dickens said. “In fact going there was a really exciting time because if you ran into anyone else while you were in there, chances are they were just like you!”
Dickens remembers finding a beacon of hope in the White Rabbit.
“One of the things I bought there was a rainbow arch tea light candle holder,” she says. “It became a beacon of hope for me that one day I would be able to light it and not have to worry about it having the [rainbow] association and someone outing me because of it.”
She says she was extremely proud of her little candle arch. “It meant I had taken the step,” she recalls. “Bought something that was queer, and that pleased me beyond measure.”
For years and years, Dickens said she had to hide her sexuality.
“You had to call your lover your ‘friend’ when you went home for the holidays,” she says. “You could be fired from your job or thrown out of the service.”
For Dickens, the struggles led to a happily-ever-after. Same-sex marriage was not yet legal in North Carolina, so she traveled to Washington, DC, in 2014 to wait outside a justice of the Peace alongside a crowd of others waiting to be married.
“When they called our names to be next, some of those folks clapped and cheered,” she says. “And when I came out of that room with that fake flower arch and the woman of my dreams holding my hand … life changed forever!”
Dickens says she was so proud on the day she got to call her “wife.” She says because of the struggles – some from the decades past, and some more recent – it’s important for people to preserve the history and to learn it.
“Learn the history,” she says. “See the struggles, and look back and see just how far we have come.”
Help Raleigh preserve its LGBTQIA+ history
The commission has created an online survey where people can easily share their stories, or pinpoint historic sites and important places.
They’re also inviting the public to attend a meeting on Wednesday night at the CAM Raleigh Art Museum on West Martin Street at 6:30 pm