Planning Magazine

Historic Preservation and the LGBTQ Community

Understanding the link between same-sex households and historic districts can help planners manage gentrification and protect queer spaces.

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The vibrant Castro “gayborhood” in San Francisco, adjacent to the Victorian mansions of the Liberty Hill Historic District, was designated a LGBTQ cultural district in 2019. Photo by Wenbin/iStock Unreleased.

Although historic districts are a common means of preserving the built environment, we actually know very little about the implications of this preservation planning tool beyond its positive relationship to property values. Historical narratives have developed connections between the LGBTQ community and historic preservation, for example, but very little is known about the who, what, and why behind it.

A more robust understanding of how preservation tools relate to neighborhood change — particularly among sexual, racial, and ethnic minority communities — can help planners as they grapple with the potentially negative effects of gentrification and displacement that could result from historic district designation.

In a recent Journal of the American Planning Association article, we investigated the relationship between locally designated and National Register historic districts, and demographic, socioeconomic, and housing changes in 46 U.S. cities. Our research specifically focused on unmarried partnered same-sex households (UPSSHs), racial and ethnic subgroups, and median household income.

In this column, we share some key findings that will help practicing planners understand trends associated with historic preservation efforts and pinpoint interventions needed in historic districts to mitigate potentially negative outcomes for these demographic groups.

1. Historic districts may help foster and grow the presence of same-sex households.

Admittedly, because of a lack of reliable national data on UPSSHs before 2000, we were unable to fully parse the causality question of whether historic districts lead to more UPSSHs or vice versa.

However, our analysis of data from the 1990s through 2010 does suggest that when historic districts are in place, significant growth in UPSSHs follows.

In historic districts created between 1990 and 1999, we found small but significant growth (0.2 percentage point) in the share of male UPSSHs between 2000 and 2010, even after controlling other demographic, socioeconomic, and housing factors that might account for the change. The fact that this growth was not reflected in historical districts established in the '70s and '80s suggests the relationship between historic districts and UPSSHs is more immediate and not cumulative over time.

For planners, this indicates that historic districts can help maintain and grow the presence of UPSSHs. This suggests planners concerned with protecting queer spaces should consider incorporating preservation-based approaches, including establishing local and National Register historic districts to preserve these spaces.

It's important at this point to note that our research findings are specific to UPSSHs, particularly male households, which is just one segment of a richly diverse group. While our findings support the theories in the literature that connect gay men and preservation, this does not mean that other subsets within the LGBTQ community do not participate in historic preservation. Recent work such as Preservation and Place: Historic Preservation by and of LGBTQ Communities in the United States highlights these contributions.

For a deep dive into one community's story of fighting to maintain its LGBTQ identify, listen to the APA Podcast episode on the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District. Cofounders Aria Sa’id and Honey Mahogany worked to create the world's first transgender cultural district, which celebrates LGBTQ history, supports transgender residents, and combats gentrification in San Francisco's historic Tenderloin neighborhood.

2. All preservation planning efforts should be inclusive of LGBTQ perspectives.

While we were unable to categorically say that historic districts lead to more UPSSHs, we were able to determine the inverse: whether the presence of male UPSSHs increases the likelihood of locally designated historic districts. In brief, it does.

We also found that tracts with initial higher shares of UPSSHs were more likely to establish locally designated historic districts (the same wasn't true for National Register designations).

This could suggest that male UPSSHs are key actors in the creation of locally designated historic districts, which aligns with the theory that gay men use historic preservation tools to demarcate space and power. Locally designated historic districts offer a more direct means of land control through the regulations outlined within the ordinances that govern changes to the district's built environment, which differ from NRHDs' mostly honorific status.

Because UPSSHs are concentrated within historic districts, it is important to call out that these spaces may contain other institutions and commercial establishments that are important to the broader LGBTQ community, beyond gay male households.

Planners concerned with protecting queer spaces should consider incorporating preservation-based approaches.

For preservation planners, this may present an opportunity to reevaluate existing locally designated districts and NRHDs from an explicitly queer perspective to identify and document the social history and cultural heritage aspects, which are missing from even some of the most well-known gayborhoods.

This type of systematic reexamination should happen in collaboration not only with residents of existing historic districts, but also with the larger queer community. Because "the invention of meaning for historic districts is an ongoing process," as put by the late scholar David Allan Hamer, using a queer lens to revisit designated districts could shift "district boundaries and determinations about which places constitute contributing elements."

Planners should work with neighborhood residents to ensure all LGBTQ social histories and those of other historically marginalized groups are included in the significance statements for new historic district designations where appropriate.

3. Historic designation tends to displace racial and ethnic subgroups over time.

Overall, historic districts do not appear to have a long-term relationship with changes in UPSSHs. (Please note that our data does not capture more vulnerable persons within the LGBTQ community, such as transgender and bisexual people, who are more susceptible to neighborhood change pressures like rising housing costs.)

However, the same does not hold for Black and Hispanic populations or median income levels. Declines in the shares of Black and Hispanic residents from 2000 to 2010 are significantly related to historic districts established more than 10 years earlier. For example, in neighborhoods where a local historic district was created between 1980 and 1990, the share of the Black population declined by approximately 2.5 percentage points, on average, between 2000 and 2010.

Local historic districts established in 1980 or earlier were also related to growth in median household income from 2000 to 2010 by approximately 1.9 percentage points, on average. Interestingly, more recently established districts were not significantly related to median household income change from 2000 to 2010. This suggests that historic district designation may be associated with different types of demographic, socioeconomic, and housing changes over the short, medium, and long terms.

Like historic districts, higher shares of UPSSHs are also related to losses of minority race/ethnicity subgroups, along with rising median household incomes. Taken together, these results imply that planners and preservationists should more directly and pro-actively engage the potentially negative outcomes that may result from historic districting and understand how outcomes may vary over time, particularly decreases of racial and ethnic subgroups in these neighborhoods. Specifically, planners should consider ways in which the local historic districting process can help mitigate negative neighborhood change outcomes for vulnerable subgroups.

For instance, planners could argue for considering elements like the mix of housing tenure or affordability as historically significant features of a neighborhood worthy of protection through local historic district ordinances. Planners and preservationists could then work together to implement strategies that preserve existing or create new affordable housing when historic districts are designated, as well as ensure the maintenance of this housing over time.

A note on LGBTQ population data

The fact that this article focuses on such a narrow subset of the broader LGBTQ population is an unfortunate limitation of data availability. There are few resources for reliable local population estimates for this community. Although current health surveys conducted through the National Center for Health Statistics often contain information about the broader LGBTQ population, they use small samples and are subject to confidentiality restrictions, which limit their utility.

The figures used here — which come from the U.S. Census Bureau's Decennial Census and American Community Survey programs — are the best available national data. Information and local data about same-sex couples is available on the Census Bureau's website.

Kelly L. Kinahan is an assistant professor, and Matthew H. Ruther is an associate professor, both in the Department of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. They are the authors of “Uncovering the Relationship Between Historic Districts and Same-Sex Households” (May 2020), originally published in JAPA.