These LGBTQIA+ History Tours Bring People Together

Jesse Steinbach - Jun 21, 2023
LGBT Tours
Image Courtesy of Michael Venturiello/Christopher Street Tours

Crowded block parties, rainbow-themed decorations, and corporate-sponsored floats pop up in cities each June for Pride month. But underneath the ebullient annual celebration lies a rich history of LGBTQIA+ activism. 

“Pride is so much more than a parade,” Mike McMains, founder of Tours With Mike in Chicago, tells Rev. “The first marches were focused on liberation, fighting for your place in the world. It’s important to give those origins [historical] context.”

In cities across the country, tour guides quite literally walk groups through this history year-round, exploring iconic destinations where queer people forged community and change while providing visitors with new, meaningful opportunities to connect. Here are six examples — in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco — you could explore this Pride month or any month.

New York, beyond Stonewall  

“A lot of people come on this tour wanting to learn about Stonewall without realizing that its history is very much alive,” says Michael Venturiello, founder of Christopher Street Walking Tours, which operates in New York City’s West Village. 

Venturiello, who left his full-time job in tech last year to pursue his business full-time, employs a scholarly approach on his tours, drawing from his master’s degree in higher education. He begins at Julius’, the city’s oldest operating gay bar, where he teaches about the 1966 Sip-In that protested a New York state law that prohibited service to gay people in bars. He then winds down Christopher Street to discuss the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in front of its namesake watering hole. The group then heads north to the New York City AIDS Memorial Park and Saint Vincent’s Hospital, where many people afflicted with HIV/AIDS spent their last days. 

Christopher Street Tour Juluis'
Michael Venturiello standing in front of Julius’ storefront during a walking tour in New York City’s West Village. (Image credit: Michael Venturiello/Christopher Street Tours)

“Usually this is a somber moment, but last June there was a huge silent disco happening that Lady Bunny, a legendary drag queen, was DJing,” Venturiello recalls. “She is someone we talk about on the tour who lived through the AIDS crisis. It was like she was bringing us into today’s history.” 

Venturiello has also found that the tours are a great way for people to meet, connect, and get more active in their advocacy. “We give people the stories they need to rise up and create positive social change.” 

Venturiello, too, has made unexpected connections. “Sometimes parents come on the tour to hear more about the community so that they can be better allies for their children,” he says. “I still keep in touch with one mom and her kid. I was actually able to virtually join their GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] meeting! Stories like this give me a lot of hope.”

Christopher Street Greenwich Village
Michael Venturiello leading a walking tour in Lower Manhattan. (Image credit: Michael Venturiello/Christopher Street Tours)

This month, you can join two Christopher Street Walking Tours: the Village Pride or the Downtown LGBTQIA+ Activism tours. Find the schedule to sign up here

Chicago’s evolving queer history

A few years ago, Mike McMains left commercial real estate to run his tour company full-time; while he started out focused—like many tour guides—on his city’s architecture and design, he’s come to offer a number of tours that spotlight the LGBTQIA+ histories of Chicago’s Downtown, North Side, and South Side.  

One of his favorite stops on his North Side tour of Boystown, the country’s oldest officially recognized gay neighborhood, is a mural called The Love I Vibrate. Commissioned in 2018 by the Howard Brown Health Center, it depicts nonbinary artist and healer Kiam Marcelo Junio in vibrant color. “It adds great energy [to the neighborhood],” says McMains. The mural stands as a testament to the center’s enduring commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community since its founding in 1974, through the AIDS epidemic up to today.

Mike McMains Tour Bus
Mike McMains stands in front of the Chicago Mahogany tour bus — featuring a quote from Chicago historian Shermann "Dilla" Thomas — which he uses to give his South Side LGBTQ Stories Tour. (Image credit: Mike McMains)

McMains also guides groups down the Legacy Walk, a half-mile corridor of North Halsted Street, complete with memorial plaques commemorating impactful LGBTQIA+ figures from around the world affixed to 25-foot pylons. “The plaques can be removed over time and replaced,” explains McMains, allowing for the site to continually be updated. “It’s really trying to share that global story of LGBTQIA+ activism and its contributors.”

This month, you can join Tours With Mike on a host of Chicago tours. Find the schedule for the Downtown LGBTQ Stories tour or the North Side LGBTQIA+ Stories tour.

San Francisco: Where past and present meet 

When she’s not a compliance director for a biotech research firm, Barrie Simpson serves as board vice-chair for San Francisco City Guides. For the past nine years, she’s taken visitors through the Castro District, an LGBTQIA+ epicenter, and the neighborhood where gay politician Harvey Milk rose to power in the late ’70s. “Some people on the tour have never heard of Milk,” says Simpson, who, when standing in front of the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, likes to proudly explain how he became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, fighting vehemently for the protection of queer teachers. 

For Simpson, history becomes the most urgent when she stops at the Pink Triangle Memorial, a commemoration of the queer people persecuted under the Nazi regime. “It’s an impactful place to talk about the current political climate,” she says. “We have to remember: We’re not free until we’re all free.” 

Barrie Simpson Castro
Barrie Simpson leading a walking tour in the Castro District of San Francisco. (Image credit: Barrie Simpson)

Eric Jost, director of marketing at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and San Francisco City Guides volunteer, has offered hundreds of tours exploring Folsom Street, the district made famous for its many leather bars and bathhouses. However, Jost recalls one tour group that truly stands out in his memory. “They were all over 50 and had lived near Folsom in the ’70s and early ’80s. They essentially took over the tour and were doing a deep dive into like, ‘Oh, this was here. That was there.’ ” The group underscored how history is never frozen; it can shape and be shaped by our present. Plus, recalls Jost, they got into the true spirit of the tour: “It turned into a bar crawl.”

This month, you can join San Francisco City Guides’ Folsom Street and Castro tours. Find the schedule here.

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