From protest to preservation:
Federal government identifies historic LGBT sites and events

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Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, standing outside the famed Stonewall Inn, announces a task force to identify places and events significant to the lives of LGBT Americans and to history for inclusion in the national parks program -Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

On a warm night in June 1969 outside the Stonewall Inn, rioters rebelled against the continued persecution and harassment by government officials.

On a sunny day in late May, government officers — the highest-ranking among them member of the U.S. cabinet — gathered outside the unobtrusive brick building that stands as the symbolic birthplace of the modern gay civil rights movement to usher in LGBT Pride Month with a new initiative — a historic campaign to preserve and celebrate LGBT history.

As part of the National Park Service Heritage Initiative, a task force will spend the next 12-18 months identifying places and events associated with the story of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans for inclusion in the parks programs. 

The study is part of a broader initiative under the Obama administration to ensure that the National Park Service tells a more complete story of the people and events responsible for building the nation. 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she chose the Stonewall in New York’s Greenwich Village because it is the only LGBT-associated site designated a national historic landmark by the National Park Service as a property having extraordinary significance in American history.

“We know that there are other sites, like Stonewall Inn, that have played important roles in our nation’s ongoing struggle for civil rights,” she said.

The study will be a public-private partnership, with funding from the Gill Foundation through the National Park Foundation.

“LGBT history is American history,” said Gill Foundation founder Tim Gill. “The contributions of LGBT people are part of the great American journey toward full equality, freedom and liberty for all our citizens.”

The first meeting of scholars involved in the research took place in Washington, D.C., on June 10. Other meetings will take place over the next year.

“The National Park Service has a responsibility to protect, preserve and tell the stories of some of our nation’s most iconic places, and as part of that responsibility, it is our job to be sure that Americans never forget where we’ve been, where we are and what we aspire to be as a nation,” said Jon B. Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. “I am excited to see how the outcomes of the LGBT Heritage Initiative and theme study will allow us to share a more inclusive version of our uniquely American experience.”

With praise for the initiative, Clark Bunting of the National Parks Conservation Association said, “Our national parks belong to all of us — a fact that is particularly important as we look toward the Park Service’s centennial in 2016 and its next 100 years. As America’s storyteller, it is commendable and appropriate for the National Park Service to examine themes that incorporate the history and significant events of our diverse population.”

Eliza Byard, the executive director of the nation’s largest LGBT education group, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, also applauded the announcement. She observed that laws banning schools from teaching anything positive about homosexuality remain on the books in eight states.

“Symbolically it’s hugely important that now LGBT history is officially part of the national narrative,” she said. “This is part of what our federal government will identify, preserve and single out.”

In keeping with tradition, there was a demonstration at the Stonewall the day of the announcement.

Activists with the grassroots group GetEqual protested on Christopher Street under the banner “Don’t Stop at Our History — Full Federal Equality Now!”

GetEqual has led the push for a presidential executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Across this country, in every single state, LGBTQ people suffer from the uncertainty created by the lack of legal protections,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, GetEQUAL co-director. “A study will bring light to what we already know — that discrimination against LGBTQ people has plagued our history since its inception. We have resisted inequality and oppression for hundreds of years to be able to live as our full, authentic selves. We need President Obama to create a clear vision and a clear roadmap to full LGBTQ equality under the law under his administration, and our time is running out.”

On the register

The National Register of Historic Places is the nation’s inventory of properties deemed central to its history and worthy of preservation. It includes more than 89,000 entries, more than 1.7 million individual buildings and sites representing local, state or nationally significant people, places and events.

Just over 2,500 of these properties are national historic landmarks, designated by the secretary as representing the highest level of national significance.

But relatively few of these properties can be identified as representing the stories associated with African-American, American Latinos, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, Native Alaskans, Native Hawaiians or women. Currently, only four LGBT history-related properties are included in the National Register of Historic Places — the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny residence in Washington, D.C.; the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater on Fire Island in New York; the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut, and the Carrington House on Fire Island,

Source: Interior Department