National Park Service’s LBGT Theme Study

On Tuesday, I attended the Department of Interior’s inaugural panel discussion for the new theme study on Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) history in the National Park Service (NPS). The study is part of a larger effort within NPS to ensure that the histories of minority Americans are included and communicated in their sites.

NPS Director John Jarvis and Panelists on stage, seated.

The panel opened with remarks by the National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, followed by Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel and John Berry, who is Ambassador to Australia and one of the first openly gay ambassadors in the United States. In her remarks, Secretary Jewel stated that “place matters” but LGBT communities have not had places to mark their significance to the larger American story. She talked about the need for young people who are struggling with their identities to hear their story told in a way that helps them realize that they are not alone.

For the theme study, NPS has brought together a group of experts, including professors, independent scholars, filmmakers, activists, community historians, archivists, and others, to guide the efforts and make recommendations about places to include either on the National Register of Historic Places or as new National Historic Landmarks. They will also be reviewing existing landmarks and places to see if there are stories about non-straight persons/lives which can be told there. Five members of this group served as panelists, fielding questions from the audience, as read by Director Jarvis.

The panelists were briefly interrupted by an appearance by Representative Nancy Pelosi, who spoke about her difficult but ultimately successful experience helping to get the NPS to allow the AIDS Memorial Quilt to be displayed on the National Mall in 1987. Like every other speaker at the panel, Pelosi was full of excitement and hope for the theme study.

As they answered questions, largely dealing with the difficulties of applying contemporary constructions of sexuality to historical lives and the challenge of commemorating tragedy as well as triumph, it was clear that the panelists and their fellow experts are sensitive to these issues as well as the diversity within the LGBT label. Some of the panelists used LBGTQ instead of LGBT, and they acknowledged the way race, class, generation, and geography can impact the nature of an LGBT community.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the panel, other than the excitement that the panelists and everyone involved felt at the creation of this theme study, was that the study’s success ultimately lies as much with public involvement as with the actions of the experts and Park Service employees. The study needs local communities, individuals, scholars, and archives to reach out and share stories, to nominate places for inclusion either in the National Historic Register or as places to become part of the Park Service. There will be more panel discussions soon, throughout the country, to inspire conversation, but LGBT communities and their allies have to get involved in order for the study to be truly a success.

Note: the panel broadcast on livestream was archived, if you wanted to watch it yourself.