Including LGBTQ Americans in Our Nation’s Heritage

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A photograph shows a group of people standing in front of the Stonewall Inn. At the front of the group, several people hold a banner that reads "1st National Park for LGBT Equality" and includes the NCPA logo.

Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of NPCA, staff and volunteers appear in front of Stonewall Inn during NYC Pride March. Photo Credit: NPCA under the Attribution-No Derivatives License.

National parks share the wonderfully rich and diverse heritage of America. Our parks represent the people, places, and events in our country that are not just important to cities or states—they are important to us all. The National Park Service (NPS) ensures that the stories our parks protect and preserve will be passed down for generations to come.

Two-thirds of our more than 400 national park sites were created for their national cultural and historic significance. These are the places where people lived, ideas were born, struggles were overcome and history was made—places like Stonewall in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

On a hot summer night in June 1969, decades of discrimination came to a head outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City. That night, LGBTQ people fought back against years of harassment and violence. The bar, which acted as a community center for some of the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ community, was special. The police raid of and riots around this place of refuge lasted for days involving thousands of people and became a catalyst in the fight for equality.

This was not the LGBTQ community’s first protest. Other events had taken place in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Early groups held marches for LGBTQ rights at the White House and Independence Hall prior to 1969. However, the success and visibility of this particular protest catalyzed a larger movement in a different way than before. Shortly after the uprising at Stonewall, members of the LGBTQ community began to demand their rights more vocally and assertively, forming gay and lesbian activist groups and some of the earliest gay newspapers and magazines. The first gay pride marches took place in major U.S. cities on the one-year anniversary of Stonewall and are still typically celebrated in June to commemorate the uprising.

What took place at Stonewall forever changed history and is considered one of the key turning points of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Stonewall galvanized LGBTQ people and sparked a major change in the perception of LGBTQ people and their rights by the rest of American society. After a broad coalition of people fought for years to honor this story, Stonewall National Monument became our country’s first national park site dedicated to LGBTQ history in June of 2016.

It is important that the NPS protect this place. NPS serves as America’s storyteller, increasingly sharing underrepresented stories and the national significance of places like Stonewall as a key part of their mission. The NPS has worked hard to include LGBTQ history as part of this broader initiative to ensure that our national parks tell a more complete story of the people and events of our nation. Integrating LGBTQ history into Park Service-managed sites has also resulted in naming Henry Gerber’s house a national landmark, adding Bayard Rustin’s home to the National Registry for Historic Places, and releasing NPS’s “LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History.”

NPS’s efforts are ongoing; not only for the LGBTQ community, but also for other Americans whose stories remain untold. Its heritage initiatives commemorate people of diverse backgrounds who have made significant contributions to our nation’s history and culture, including studies related to African Americans, Latinos, women, and Asian American and Pacific Islanders. Through these efforts, the National Park System now includes more stories about the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. New park sites have been created across the country, including César Chávez National Monument in California, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, and Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in Alabama.

All of us can help ensure these untold stories are heard. For example, the NPS has invited the public to help the agency create the first management plan for Stonewall National Monument. New LGBTQ-related and other underrepresented sites can be recognized as national landmarks or added to the list of National Register of Historic Places. Our national parks must continue to expand to include our rich, diverse history so that future generations can learn from and experience the importance of these places and people.

American history is still being written and all of us should take part. Learn more about how you can support this ongoing effort at www.npca.org.

Chad Lord serves as a Senior Director in National Parks Conservation Association’s government affairs department. He supports NPCA’s efforts to protect and restore America’s greatest natural, historical, and cultural treasures-our national parks.

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