National Parks Service Asks: “Where Is LGBTQ History?”

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
May 30 2014 4:41 PM

Where Is LGBTQ History?

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at the Stonewall Inn.

J. Bryan Lowder

Locating LGBTQ history—literally, marking where it exists in cities and off highways, inside meeting rooms and on maps—is a surprisingly tricky exercise. For instance, when gay (or gay-history-curious) friends visit New York, I often insist on leading a little walking tour of at least the West Village … but which sites to choose? Stonewall—site of the 1969 rebellion that is widely viewed as the pivotal moment in the early LGBTQ liberation movement—is a clear place to start, but what next? The Christopher Street Pier, once a febrile cruising ground and relatively safe space for gender-queering artists like those shown in Paris Is Burning, now a lovely (if rather anodyne) public park, is one option. Or how about any of the “last addresses” that filmmaker Ira Sachs included in his short documentary on the artists we lost to the AIDS crisis? On a less somber note, what about the basement of my local gay bar from which some of the most incredible drag in history has emerged?

That last one may not rise to the level of national significance, but many others do, which is why it’s good news that the National Park Service has decided to attempt to identify them. On Friday, in a press conference held outside the Stonewall Inn—currently the only LGTBQ site registered as a National Historic Landmark—Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the service’s Heritage Initiative would undertake a new “theme study” meant to “identify places and events associated with the story of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans for inclusion in the parks and programs of the agency.” Jewell pointed out that the job of the Park Service is not only to preserve the country’s natural treasures, but also “to tell the story of America,” including that story’s continuing civil rights subplot.


To do that, Jewell explained that the service will convene a panel of scholars, preservationists, and other experts over the next 12 to 18 months to identify between 10 and 20 sites worthy of inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places or, an even higher honor, being named a National Historic Landmark. Though the exact mechanism for doing so is not yet clear, she also indicated that the public will be invited to contribute to the discussion.

The Gill Foundation is helping fund the study as part of a public-private partnership, and foundation president Tim Gill praised the project as necessary in documenting the relatively “brief history” of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. But he also highlighted one of the struggles the panel will face, observing that this history is less one of “larger-than-life figures” than one made “by each and every individual who works for equality.” Plaques could be placed, he poignantly added, at any site where a son or daughter comes out to a parent or where a father explains his newly discovered sexuality to a child.

This is precisely the kind of tension the Park Service’s panel will have to contend with as it considers which sites to recognize, and, at a deeper level, makes decisions about what “LGBTQ history” even means. Given the complexity of the task, it’s doubtful we’ll all agree on the final list, but I think we can acknowledge that this is one case in which the process may be as fascinating as the result. 

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.


Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 5:43 PM Oracle’s Larry Ellison Steps Down, Will Be Replaced by Hurd’n’Catz
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.