Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Park service releases LGBT history study


Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, center, appeared at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, the site of the 1969 riots that helped launch the modern gay rights movement, in 2014 to announce a National Park Service Theme Study to interpret and commemorate sites related to LGBT history. Photo: via Facebook
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The National Park Service has released a sweeping history of America's LGBT community, which preservationists hope will assist in the protection of various LGBTQ historic sites across the country.

The more than 1,200-page document is titled "LGBT America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer History." It was officially unveiled Tuesday, October 11 on National Coming Out Day during the second week of LGBT History Month.

"I think this is a remarkable project. This is a federal document, a federal study covering a huge number of topics related to LGBT people in U.S. history," said Drew Bourn, a gay man who wrote the theme study's chapter on religion and is a historical curator at the Stanford Medical History Center at Stanford University's Lane Medical Library in Palo Alto. "And to see this kind of support coming from the secretary of the interior and the National Park Service is a real testament to how far we are moving in terms of recognizing LGBT citizens and residents of the U.S."

As the Bay Area Reporter first reported in January 2014, the document is part of a national effort to list more LGBT sites on the National Register of Historic Places, have them be designated as a National Historic Landmark, or both. There are currently eight LGBTQ sites listed on the national register and two sites with landmark status, one of which, the Stonewall Inn in New York, was upgraded to a national monument by President Barack Obama in June.

"For far too long, the struggles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer-identified Americans have been ignored in the traditional narratives of our nation's history," stated U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who oversees the park service. "This theme study is the first of its kind by any national government to identify this part of our shared history, and it will result in an important step forward in reversing the current underrepresentation of stories and places associated to the LGBTQ community in the complex and diverse story of America."

Not only is the National Park Service celebrating its centennial this year, it will also mark the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act this Saturday, October 15. Since 2010 the federal agency has sought to ensure it is telling the stories of LGBT Americans and the struggle for LGBT rights by actively seeking sites associated with LGBTQ history that it can recognize in some capacity and updating the information associated with sites already under its purview to include their ties to the LGBT community.

"Through heritage initiatives like the LGBTQ theme study, the National Park Service is commemorating the inspiring stories of minorities and women who have made significant contributions to our nation's history and culture," stated National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

The theme study, largely funded by a $250,000 grant from the Gill Foundation, has been broken into 32 chapters written by various authors from across the country. The topics covered run the gamut from health, the military, and the arts to sports, business and the law.

Demographic groups receiving their own chapters include two-spirit, Latino/a, African-American, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and transgender people. There are also specific chapters about New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and Reno, Nevada.

"LGBT history is American history and as we celebrate the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, I can think of no better time to advocate for a more accurate and inclusive view of the American experience," stated Tim Gill, a gay man who lives with his husband in Denver where he started the Gill Foundation in 1994.

Events that took place in San Francisco, as well as leaders within the local LGBT community, can be found throughout the document. Among those mentioned are the Compton's Cafeteria riot of 1966, the late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk, the early lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis, the late historian Allan Bérubé, and bisexual leader Lani Ka'ahumanu, who was a peer reviewer for the theme study.

"One of the things especially important about this project is all of us were very clear as we worked on it we did not want queer U.S. history to be focused on white gay men," noted Bourn. "We were very deliberate, all of us, in centering people of color, immigrants, bisexuals, and transgender people and poor people so that it was not the kind of historical work we too often see where the focus is on more financially secured, cisgendered, white gay men."

Santa Rosa Junior College anthropology Professor Sandra Hollimon also helped peer review the document. An expert on Native American history, with a particular focus on two-spirits, Hollimon suggested historic battlefields be included where scholars know third and fourth gender Native Americans participated, such as the Battle of Rosebud in which Osh Tisch, a member of the Crow tribe, fought.

"I am really pleased that the Park Service is really expanding the entire system so that all Americans of every walk of life can have some experience they can relate to in the park system," said Hollimon, a straight ally whose husband is a retired California state park ranger. "I am absolutely delighted these park sites in the system are being honored."

Donna Graves and Shayne Watson co-authored the city specific chapter, "San Francisco: Placing LGBTQ Histories in the City by the Bay." In it they detail their writing a citywide LGBTQ historic context statement that San Francisco officials adopted last fall and various other steps taken in the city to preserve its LGBT cultural heritage.

Watson, an architectural historian who is lesbian, wrote in an emailed reply to the B.A.R. that publication of the LGBTQ Theme Study "is deeply affirming both personally and professionally."

She noted that in 2009, when she wrote her master's thesis on LGBTQ heritage preservation, there was "almost nothing" being done to honor LGBTQ history.

"Now we have a nationwide study sponsored by the federal government and LGBTQ heritage projects commissioned by cities and states throughout the country," wrote Watson. "For me, the most significant outcome of these efforts will be the pride instilled in LGBTQ youth who now see their history as an official chapter in American history. I feel so lucky to have been a part of this."

Megan Springate, who identifies as queer and is seeking a Ph.D. in archaeology at the University of Maryland, edited the theme study and served as the prime consultant on it. It can be downloaded online at


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