Monthlong “Sanctuary” Event Series Highlights Newark’s LGBT History

Lawrence Lerner

Newark’s LGBT community has a proud history, one of many strands in the fabric of the city’s larger narrative. But for many years, that story has sat in the wings, while other groups and events that have shaped Newark’s illustrious past and present have taken center stage.

That’s beginning to change, however, as Newark’s LGBT residents coalesce around efforts by community activists and Rutgers University–Newark faculty members.

In 2011, RU-N held the first-ever “Queer Newark: Our Voices, Our Histories” conference, which drew more than 300 people. They listened to three generations of LGBT Newark residents share their stories on an array of topics, including childhood, education, religion, families and parenting, love and sexuality, friendship, and club and ball scenes.

The event also marked the beginning of RU-N’s Queer Newark Oral History Project (QNOHP), an ambitious effort to document the city’s LGBT history.

Cut to fall 2014, and the movement continues.

During the month of October, QNOHP and Newark-based Yendor Productions will hold a series of art, literary, and historical events called “Sanctuary,” which will celebrate the historical role of Newark’s club spaces as sites of LGBT solidarity and sustenance, while also expanding outreach to LGBT people and their supporters in every ward in the city.

“LGBT life in Newark is incredibly vibrant and resilient,” says Beryl Satter, professor of American History at RU-N and one of the driving forces behind QNOHP. “And the club and ballroom scene played a vital role in the history of the city’s LGBT culture. The clubs were a place of sanctuary for socializing and supporting one another, while ballroom families were just that for many years, especially during the height of the AIDS crisis.”

“Sanctuary” kicks off on October 11 with an art exhibit and reception. On October 16, RU-N will host a panel discussion featuring promoters, performers and participants from some of Newark’s legendary and contemporary club spaces and ballroom houses. 

The panelists will discuss the worlds they made inside their clubs, the care they took of one another during tragedies—including the AIDS crisis—and the impact that their creativity had on larger national trends of music, fashion, dance, and generational self-expression.

On October 17, “Sanctuary” will hold a spoken-word performance, and on the 19th, there will be a tea party plus a special film screening and panel discussion in conjunction with GET DOWN Campaign’s “No More Stigma” film series.

The month-long “Sanctuary” program culminates on October 25 with “Fire and Ice: The FireBall Returns,” a gala event featuring lip-synching, dance, and live performance at the Robert Treat Hotel. The evening also will be a benefit for the Newark LGBT Community Center.

Satter says the idea of celebrating the history of Newark’s LGBT club and ballroom scene came about with the input of city residents.

“We’ve held many outreach meetings with members of the LGBT community, and we want to do programs that reflect their interests and concerns,” she says. “We also have a goal of linking the generations and sharing knowledge among the age groups. Young people are interested in the club and ballroom scenes, and older residents know, from experience, the role that these institutions played in Newark’s LGBT history.”

Satter’s goal aligns with QNOHP’s mission to document and share the history of Queer Newark with both the LGBT community and those outside it. Once history is accessible, she says, it becomes real to those too young to have lived it.

She aims to make QNOHP a true community-based and community-directed initiative, training residents to do oral histories and collect artifacts of the LBGT community. The key, then, is to make them easily accessible.

“We are seeking members of the LGBT community in Newark of all ages so we can interview them, and copy and digitize their papers, photos and other archival information,” says Satter. “These will then be available to all on the web, possibly through a platform hosted by the Rutgers University Library.”

For Rodney Gilbert, founder and CEO of Yendor Productions, and the other half of the duo responsible for “Sanctuary,” the larger archival history project and other events are all of a piece, one that is vital to telling the full story of Newark.

“We are an integral part of this city’s cultural fabric, and we always have been,” says Gilbert. “‘Sanctuary’ gives proof of that fact. We need to show the truth of our past in order to have an inclusive and enriching future for all people in Newark.”


For full schedule and location of events, visit here.



Top Photo: The disco group Alton, McClain and Destiny (credit: Vincent Bryant, from his book Journey Through the House)

Bottom Photo: (L to R) Vendor Production's Rodney Gilbert, RU-N Professor Beryl Satter, and Newark activist Darnelle Moore (credit: Tamara A. Fleming/Femworks)