NEW YORK — The National Parks Service is convening a group of scholars who will examine lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history and identify prominent locations from the LGBT civil rights movement for nomination to the agency’s registries of historic places and landmarks, the agency announced Friday.
“One of the objectives of the park service is to tell the story of America,” Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior, told a crowd of about 150 supporters in a speech outside the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s West Village on Friday. “The contributions of women, minorities and members of the LGBT community have been historically underrepresented in the National Park Service, and the LGBT theme study will help ensure that we understand, commemorate and share these key chapters in our nation’s complex and diverse history.”
The Stonewall Inn, which was named a national historic landmark by the NPS in 2000, was the site of the 1969 riots following a police crackdown on the bar’s gay patrons that is widely recognized as the impetus of the modern gay rights movement.
The parks service’s National Register of Historic Places includes more than 1.7 million buildings and sites that represent historically significant places or people. Around 2,500 of them are designated as national historic landmarks based on their importance in U.S. history – think Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, the first public school to desegregate back in 1957, or the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California, honoring the famed organizer of the first permanent union for farm workers.
But Stonewall is the only LGBT-associated national historic landmark in the U.S. It joins just four LGBT-related spots in the National Register of Historic Places, the park service said. Those historic places include the Carrington House, one of the earliest residential properties on Fire Island, which has become a gay-friendly vacation destination. Others are the island’s Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre, and the James Merrill House in Stonington Borough, Connecticut, owned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
The first to be recognized in 2011 was the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny Residence in Washington, D.C., home of the eponymous gay rights activist. Kameny was one of the first advocates against the idea that homosexuality was a mental illness, and he argued in front of the Supreme Court in 1961 after he was fired from the Army Map Service for being gay.
Since 2010, NPS has been working to identify and nominate more of them. And now, as part of its new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Heritage Initiative, Jewell said scholars of LGBT history will hold their first meeting on June 10 and spend the next 12 to 18 months identifying about 10 to 12 more such landmarks.
“We’re proud of the National Park Service’s role to preserve this part of history, but it’s time for us to do more,” she told the crowd, which included State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, and Manhattan Borough President Gayle Brewer.
Among the more than a dozen participating experts are John D’Emilio, a professor of gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who is recognized as a pioneer in the field of LGBT studies, as well as Nan Alamilla Boyd, a women’s and gender studies professor at San Francisco State University who has written about the rise of LGBT politics in San Francisco.
Jewell added that she’d received letters of support for the project from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and that much of the country’s civil rights history remains controversial to this day. “That doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. And we feel strongly that it’s part of the National Parks Service’s duty to tell those stories,” she said.
The study is being funded by the National Parks Foundation and the Denver-based Gill Foundation, which was founded by tech entrepreneur and LGBT activist Tim Gill, who also addressed the crowd. “America is at its best when it acknowledges and utilizes everyone,” he said.
Comedian and actress Lea DeLaria, who plays the character Big Boo on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” attended the park service announcement. DeLaria, who was widely recognized as the first openly gay comedian to appear on a late night TV show when she proclaimed herself “a biiiiig dyke” on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1993, told Al Jazeera, “Hearing what it’s about means everything to me. It’s very exciting. I had no idea this was going on, and I’m thrilled about it.”