Pilgrimage is a sacred journey to a sacred place. Within the LGBTQ community, pilgrimage destinations in conjunction with tourism include burial places of revered icons, sites of historical importance, memorials in honor of the community and its causes, and annual festive gatherings. Pilgrimage sites may initially face resistance from homophobic locals who do not want their area associated with the LGBTQ community. But perseverance and the prospect of a financially enhanced tourist economy often transform resistance into tolerance and even appreciation of Gay visitors.
One of the most important pilgrimage spots is the Stonewall Inn, a Gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. This establishment was the site of a police raid on June 28, 1969 that resulted in three days of civil unrest. News concerning the riots spread worldwide, bringing about a sense of global community for those who were oppressed for gender expression, same-sex orientation, and atypical sexual physiology. The site of the original Stonewall Inn has been used for different businesses since the Stonewall Uprising, including the reincarnated Stonewall Inn as an LGBTQ nightclub and a geographic icon.
Across the street in front of the Stonewall Inn is Christopher Park, a small triangular area with a small monument dedicated to Gay liberation. The monument consists of life-size white statues of two couples (two standing men and two sitting women) created by George Segal. A plaque commemorates the Stonewall Riots and the Gay civil rights movement that followed.
Lesbos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey, was the home of Sappho (cerca 620-570 BCE), a famous poet who wrote of her love for other women. Lesbian, referring to a person from Lesbos, was adopted as a term for women who love women because of Sappho and her poetry. Since Gay liberation, the island of Lesbos has become a site of pilgrimage for Lesbians (distinguished from locals, who identify as Lesviot or Lesvonian). This is especially true in the town of Eressos where Sappho resided, which has a permanent Lesbian community with openly Lesbian businesses and a large statue commemorating Sappho.
Rabbit God Temple
The Rabbit God Temple in Yonghe, Taiwan is a Daoist shrine to a deity who protects LGBTQ people. The Rabbit God is the spirit of Hu Tianbao, a man who was killed for falling in love with another man of higher status.
Pilgrims at the shrine can write down their names, addresses, birthdays, and prayers on pieces of paper money and burn them. Personal items can be brought before the shrine for the Rabbit God’s blessings. Fu (paper charms from the temple) are available so that devotees can place them under their pillow before they go to bed, and then pray to the deity to fulfill their wishes.
The Castro Theatre on 429 Castro Street in San Francisco is a common pilgrimage site. Admired for its architecture and décor, the theater shows vintage films, an occasional current feature, and live entertainment, much of it with camp sensibilities and overt LGBTQ content.
The Castro Theatre has a tradition of of audience participation. Attendees can be vocal during movies, sing along with musical numbers, dance in the aisles, cheer their heroes, boo their villains, recite dialogue, and talk back to the actors on the screen. The pipe organ is played before shows, and ends each feature with Jeanette McDonald’s song, “San Francisco.”
The city of Salvador in Bahia, Brazil (the city is also known as “Bahia”) is the site of religious-based tourism as people from around the world come to experience Candomblé (an African Brazilian religion with strong Yoruba/Ewe/Bantu roots) rituals. Because LGBTQ people are welcome in Candomblé communities, Gay tourists (particularly those who are African American) may come to Bahia as religious pilgrims, not to simply watch the rituals, but to gain blessings for themselves as well.
Tombs and Memorials
There are several sites commemorating different moments in history and famous LGBTQ people. Holocaust memorials to Gay people interred in concentration camps (often featuring pink triangles, the badge male prisoners wore to identify them as homosexual) can be found in major cities and at the sites of former camps across Europe.
Burial sites for icons such as Michel Foucault (near Portiers, France), the Ladies of Llangollen (Llangollen, Wales), Collette (Paris), and Oscar Wilde (Paris) draw LGBTQ people from across the world.
Much of LGBTQ festival culture takes on elements of pilgrimage as Gay people journey to various destinations for Pride parades, Circuit parties, and women’s music festivals. Although such festivals appear on the surface to be more frivolous than sacred, those who attend often view their experiences as spiritual as well as fun, especially at events like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a week-long event that incorporates its own rituals for honoring the Land (the physical location of the festival) and developing a cosmic sense of community.
Some Circuit parties foster a sense of the sacred as well as fun. The Red Party in Columbus, reputed to be the first Circuit party, had a pre-opening ritual to bless the space, while Montreal’s Black and Blue main event feature the BBCM Dancers, who begin with a prayer offered by in honor of people with AIDS.
Other pilgrimages have strong memorial and/or religious undertones, such as the annual festival in Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico for LGBTQ people. Muxes (effeminate men), nguius (masculine women), and the LGBTQ community in general have a special vela (commemoration) in November that begins with a religious service celebrated in the seventeenth century Church of San Vicente Ferrer in memory of LGBTQ people who had passed on. The service is followed by a procession. At both functions, people will dress according to the gender with which they are most comfortable. A fiesta (La Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro or “The Vela of the [feminine] Authentic [and] Fearless Danger-Seekers”) and a beauty contest for Muxes is held in the evening.
The Homomonument in Amsterdam (consisting of three large horizontal triangles that lead down to a canal) is the site of an annual commemoration on May fourth honoring Gay people who died in the concentration camps. The Dutch flag is flown at half-mast, and the national anthem, “Wilhemus,” is performed. The Homomonument is also the site of a grand Gay festival every Queen’s Day, five days before the commemoration.
The Koothandavar Festival (or Ali Festival), held during the month of Chithirai (April-May) in Koogavam near Chennai, India is dedicated to honoring Aravan, a Hindu hero who was sacrificed to guarantee victory for his people. The festival draws transwomen (often known as hijras and alis) as pilgrims from across India and other countries who declare themselves the brides of Aravan, celebrate, and then go into mourning as widows.
The Koothandavar Festival has become a focal point for LGBTQ activism. Safer sex promotion, meetings addressing hijra/ali concerns, and entertainment such as races and the Miss Koogavam beauty pageant have been incorporated in conjunction with the religious rites. Activists have also confronted Straight-identified men who publicly ridicule the widows of Aravan when they go into mourning.
Invasion of the Pines
The Invasion of the Pines is an annual Fourth of July event on Fire Island. Drag queens and drag kings from the town of Cherry Grove travel by motorized boats to dock at the pier of the neighboring town, Fire Island Pines. This is the enactment of an event that occurred on July 4, 1975 when a group of angry drag queens and macho leather-clad women (the lot of them led by the Cherry Grove Homecoming Queen) went from Cherry Grove to the Pines to protest abusive treatment of a drag queen who was refused service at a Pines establishment.
At noon, participants gather in Cherry Grove. Drag queens and kings, “Drag Repair” personnel, and other participants board the ferry at about one o’clock. Upon arrival at Pines Harbor, the procession disembarks, making way for the reigning Cherry Grove Homecoming Queen who arrives with the song, “God Bless America.”
Traveling Pilgrimage, Virtual Pilgrimage: The Quilt
Pilgrimage may also be done in locations featuring exhibits. One example is the AIDS Quilt, a massive folk art project dedicated to those who have died from AIDS. The Quilt is made up of thousands of 12 feet by 12 feet blanket-like squares of cloth called blocks (each block typically contains eight 3 feet by 6 feet cloth panels, and each panel is typically dedicated to one person). Portions of the Quilt are available for display in cities across America, making the Quilt a movable shrine as its blocks are transported to and from the central warehouse in Atlanta that is its home.
When the Quilt was first shown in its entirety in 1987 on the Mall in Washington, DC (covering an area larger than a football field), it became a temporary site for pilgrimage. A display in 1996 caught the attention of the media because it had grown big enough to cover the entire Mall.
The sheer size of the Quilt greatly reduces the chance more such showings of the whole Quilt. But it is possible to do a virtual pilgrimage by going to the Quilt’s online site and looking at finely-detailed pictures of blocks (accompanied with information about who is honored in each panel), or visit the warehouse in Atlanta.
Howe, Alyssa Cymene. “Queer Pilgrimage: The San Francisco Homeland and Identity Tourism.” Lee Baker, Life in America: Identity and Everyday Experience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003, 248-264
Ivanovic, Milena. Cultural Tourism. Cape Town: Juta, 2008.