New initiative integrates LGBT history into NPS sites
16 June 2014 – Sheila Brennan
Furthering its efforts to tell the stories of all Americans through its heritage initiatives, the National Park Service recently added a new interpretative area in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history. As the Park Service looks ahead to its centennial celebration in 2016, the agency seeks to diversify its parks and historic sites and wants existing sites to include the stories of historically under-represented groups, including LGBT Americans.
NPS has convened a panel of sixteen scholars, preservationists, and community activists to help with this task, who will work toward the following goals over the next two years:
- identify, research, and tell the stories of LGBT-associated properties
- encourage and offer guidance to existing national parks and heritage areas on interpreting LGBT stories associated with them
- identify, document, and nominate LGBT-associated sites as new national historic landmarks
- increase the number of LGBT-associated properties in the National Register of Historic Places
NPS hosted the inaugural meeting of the advisory group on June 10 in Washington, DC, and invited the public. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and NPS Director Jon Jarvis introduced the initiative and welcomed two ardent supporters, US Ambassador to Australia John Berry and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Both Berry and Pelosi praised NPS for recognizing the achievements of LGBT Americans throughout US history, particularly when fighting to expand civil rights to include all Americans. From the podium, Congresswoman Pelosi even suggested a few sites in San Francisco for the panel to consider.
A few of the panel’s scholars attended the public event, including Stephen Pitti, Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University; Eliza Byard, Executive Director of the Gay Lesbian Straight Educational Network; Julio Capo, Assistant Professor of History at University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Jack Gieseking, Digital and Computational Studies post-doctoral fellow at Bowdoin College; and Mark Meinke, Founder of the Rainbow History Project in Washington, DC.
Panel members assured the audience that the LGBT community is as diverse as the United States, and thus their efforts will reflect those differences in the sites selected for preservation and interpretation. It was noted that the LGBT community has taken responsibility for documenting its own history because many mainstream memory institutions have chosen not to do so. NPS will work closely with those communities to integrate those collections into new sites. Each panel member emphasized that LGBT history should not be a small footnote but instead that it is central to interpreting the American experience.
Currently, there are five historic properties in NPS programs related to LGBT history. The Stonewall Inn in New York City is the only LGBT National Historic Landmark. Four other sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Dr. Franklin E. Kameny Residence in Washington DC; Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre on Fire Island in New York; James Merrill House in Stonington, CT; and Carrington House in New York.
NPS is seeking input from citizens on potential historic properties and landmarks and for guidance on interpretation at existing parks. To learn more about the LGBT heritage initiative and to suggest new site, visit their web page.
~ Sheila Brennan is Associate Director of Public Projects and assistant research professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University