Q: The National Park Service has not always done a great job of interpreting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history in the park system. Fortunately, the agency has made strides in recent years toward both celebrating equality in the workplace and educating the public on landmarks and historic figures central to LGBT communities. Test your knowledge: How many national park sites have been created to commemorate LGBT history?
A: To date, zero—though many Park Service employees hope that number will change.
While important moments in LGBT history have happened at national parks, no official national park sites have been created specifically to preserve LGBT history. Park Service officials are increasingly aware of the conspicuous void in their conservation and interpretation efforts. Just last week the agency announced a new LGBT Heritage Initiative and Theme Study—an important step to identify potential sites that could share more of these underrepresented stories in the park system.
Despite the lack of national park sites, one National Historic Landmark does play a central role in LGBT history. The Stonewall Inn in New York City was the site of a series of watershed 1969 riots where patrons of the predominantly gay male bar fought back against police harassment, helping to galvanize the modern gay-rights movement. Stonewall deserves special recognition as a site of national significance, though it is difficult to predict when or if it will receive any new designation under the auspices of the Park Service. It is fitting, however, that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell traveled to this landmark location to announce the new LGBT Heritage Initiative last week.
Several sites on the National Register of Historic Places also have central LGBT themes or honor LGBT Americans, including:
- The Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre, Fire Island, New York. This community center is the oldest continuously operating LGBT theater in the United States and played a key role in integrating gay and lesbian residents into the social fabric and governance of the Cherry Grove community of Fire Island in the 1940s. Decades before the Stonewall Riots sparked an era of visibility and political action, the town became known as a place where LGBT people could live openly without fear of discrimination.
- The Dr. Franklin E. Kameny house, Washington, D.C. Kameny became a central figure in the gay rights movement after he was fired in 1957 from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for refusing to answer questions about his sexual orientation. He took legal action, filing the first civil rights suit based on sexual orientation. Kameny also helped to launch some of the earliest public demonstrations against LGBT discrimination and was the first openly gay candidate for the U.S. Congress. Among the many causes he supported, Kameny worked for decades to remove the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, and he personally drafted a bill that overturned D.C.’s law against sodomy in 1993 after a 30-year fight.
- The James Merrill house, Stonington, Connecticut. This Pulitzer prize-winning poet and accomplished essayist and playwright spent summers with his partner in this Victorian home, which would later become a subsidized residence and retreat for writers and scholars.
Park employees have also been looking for new ways to interpret LGBT history at existing park sites, such as a recent effort by staff at Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in California to collect stories of American LGBT civilians who assisted the war effort. Park staff will curate these stories alongside existing materials on “Rosies” and other home front heroes from World War II.
The Park Service has also begun to embrace an internal culture that welcomes diversity, including sharing profiles of LGBT staff, hosting regional Pride Month celebrations, and even participating in an “It Gets Better” video aimed at helping youth who face bullying and discrimination.
Learn more about potential efforts to expand the park system and more sites where lesbian and gay Americans made history in the new National Parks magazine article, “Untold Stories.”
More Possibilities for Preserving LGBT History
In addition to the historic sites above, these nationally significant LGBT sites should make any short list for Park Service consideration.
- Harvey Milk’s apartment and camera store, San Francisco, California. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. He joined San Francisco’s board of supervisors in 1977 but was assassinated less than a year into his term by a former supervisor on the same city board.
- The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center where advocates founded important social action organizations, including the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), New York, New York.
- The former Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the first gay bookstore in America, New York, New York.
- Henry Gerber’s home, Chicago, Illinois. Gerber founded the Human Rights Society in the 1920s, believed to be the first LGBT rights organization in America.
About the author
Jennifer ErrickManaging Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.