September 9, 2016

LGBTQ History Is American History

In honor of the 2016 anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), Preservation Leadership Forum is hosting a series of blog posts highlighting its programs and history. In these posts staff look back on how far the NPS has come and forward to where it hopes to go in the future.

In this post, we talk to Megan E. Springate, the prime consultant for the NPS LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer] Heritage Initiative, about the forthcoming LGBTQ theme study. NPS theme studies provide a historic context for the identification of significant properties for the National Register and National Historic Landmarks programs; provide important background information for other research efforts; and educate the public, both directly and by shaping interpretation at historic sites.

1. You are in the midst of editing the LGBTQ theme study from the National Park Service. How do you see this document helping advance the awareness and recognition of LGBTQ historic sites around the United States? How will the study help us better interpret and understand this important history?

LGBTQ history is a facet of American history that has traditionally been excluded—whether through lack of study or through censorship—from our narrative. This exclusion has led to an incomplete understanding of the history of our country, ranging from the everyday lives in U.S. towns and cities to social movements that have changed the direction of the entire nation. The National Park Service (NPS) is committed to Telling All Americans’ Stories, including those of traditionally underrepresented groups—such as LGBTQ people, women, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, and Latina/os.

At its core, the theme study provides the information necessary to identify and evaluate LGBTQ historic places for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places or designation as a National Historic Landmark. (Both programs are managed by the NPS.) More broadly, it provides historical background and context for the significance of LGBTQ places to local, state, and national history, ideally supporting (or sparking) preservation efforts.

The cover page of the forthcoming LGBTQ theme study, a publication of the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service.

Throughout the study, authors have anchored LGBTQ history to real places—giving, for example, the specific addresses of the Gay Liberation Front’s offices and the sites of their demonstrations. I think people will be surprised at the sheer number of places mentioned in the theme study (well over 1,000) and at their geographic diversity. This is not just the story of LGBTQ New York City and San Francisco. We documented bars, community centers, meeting places, political offices, businesses, places of worship, doctors’ offices, scientific laboratories, and even space ports across every American state and territory. And that is still only a small sample of what is out there—it was impossible to document it all.

2. What are the overall goals of or outcomes associated with the theme study? How do you hope it will be used after publication? What role might the National Park Service have in continuing the promotion of LGBTQ history?

The main goals of the theme study are:

  1. To facilitate an increase in the number of places that are on the National Register or designated National Historic Landmarks for their association with LGBTQ history, including amending existing nominations to incorporate LGBTQ history that had not previously been mentioned; and
  2. To encourage interpretation of LGBTQ history at NPS sites.

One current example of this is the interpretation of the Annual Reminders at Independence Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From 1964 to 1968, gay activists picketed in front of Independence Hall on July 4 to remind people that not all Americans were being granted the civil rights and freedoms detailed in the Declaration of Independence. As they pointed out, it was—and, in many states, still is—legal to fire someone or refuse them housing or public accommodation because of their sexual orientation, for example. Spurred by the NPS LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, the Philadelphia Urban Fellow and staff at Independence Park began the Philadelphia LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, reaching out to community members and organizations to document the city’s LGBTQ history.

The theme study is designed to be used by those nominating properties and by those evaluating the nominations, but it is written for a general audience, not just preservation professionals or historians. I hope that a lot of people read it and gain a better understanding of the broad and diverse history of LGBTQ people in the United States, the complex histories of their own communities and the LGBTQ places there, and the need to preserve those histories. And the NPS has suggestions for people interested in learning more about LGBTQ history. We also encourage people to add information, including photos and oral histories, to the LGBTQ America project at HistoryPin.

The response to the LGBTQ theme study has already been overwhelmingly positive. When it was announced in June 2014, only four properties had been listed on the National Register or designated National Historic Landmarks for their connections to LGBTQ history. Now, just over two years later, there are 10, and more are already being considered. Parks throughout the NPS are looking at ways to incorporate their sites’ LGBTQ histories into interpretation, and several organizations are preserving their community LGBTQ history after having heard of the theme study. I hope that the release of the actual document will spur even more engagement across the country.

3. How does the LGBTQ study differ from other theme studies? What specific challenges did you encounter?

One of the biggest challenges with the LGBTQ theme study—and something that differentiates it from others—is the deeply intersectional nature of LGBTQ identities. LGBTQ is not the relatively tightly defined area of study that characterizes most other theme studies, but rather a broad umbrella that includes people of all ethnicities and races, classes, religions, generations, genders, and occupations as well as people from both urban and rural areas. And while much of LGBTQ history has been lost—letters and papers burned, and secrets kept—there is actually a considerable amount of information still out there.

This advertisement for a recent LGBTQ history lecture presented at Independence National Historical Park includes a representation of Annual Reminder picketers. | Credit: Independence National Historical Park

The challenge, then, was ensuring that the theme study represented all the different facets of LGBTQ history. And, as a result, it is enormous. There are a total of 32 chapters, beginning with broad overviews of LGBTQ history and historic preservation. Distinct chapters examine the diverse LGBTQ histories of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latina/os, and Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, and there are also chapters specifically about bisexual and transgender histories. Other chapters use cities from New York City to Reno to examine regional differences among LGBTQ histories. Thematic chapters cover LGBTQ legal and military history as well as sports, arts and entertainment, commerce, community building, and health. Finally, there are chapters on teaching LGBTQ history and interpreting it at historic sites. Even so, not everyone’s history is included. The goal is to provide a model that others can apply to their own communities.

It has also been challenging to discuss history from times and places during which LGBTQ identities were not as prominently recognized. For example, before gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender became identities that people claimed, homosexual actions (i.e., what people do) did not necessarily define people (i.e., who people are). And even when these became identities, not all people chose to adopt them. To acknowledge and respect this complexity, we focused on relationships—like the decades-long relationship between the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride, who did not identify as a lesbian, and her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy—rather than labeling the people in them.

The Edificio Comunidad de Orgullo Gay de Puerto Rico (Casa Orgullo) was added to the National Register on May 1, 2016—one of several properties added as part of the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative. Located in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this was the home of the Comunidad de Orgullo Gay de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s first gay liberation organization, from 1975 to 1976. | Credit: Photo by Santiago Gala, 2015, courtesy of the Puerto Rico State Historic Preservation Office

4. What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far? What is the most revealing thing you’ve uncovered?

While I had a sense of the breadth of LGBTQ history across the United States, in every community—huge metropolitan cities and small quiet towns alike—the sheer volume of it took me (pleasantly) by surprise. I have also been surprised by how many places that are already on the National Register, designated National Historic Landmarks, or existing NPS units have important LGBTQ history that is not included in the nominations or interpretations.

I was also very surprised to discover that the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative (of which the theme study is a part) was the first nationwide LGBTQ history project to be carried out by any federal government in the world.

5. Stonewall was recently designated a National Monument. How is this designation an important step in acknowledgement of LGBTQ history? Has this—or other recent events—influenced the process of the theme study?

The designation is enormously significant. Not only does it commemorate a turning point in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights but it also recognizes the roles that people of color, transgender people, and others often left out of historical narratives have played in changing the landscape of civil rights in America. For myself and other LGBTQ people I’ve spoken to, the significance of being seen and recognized as important to America and American history is huge. Until very recently, the government has acted in opposition to LGBTQ people, contributing to our marginalization. The designation of Stonewall is a sign that times are changing and that we don’t have to live in the shadows anymore. It is a very emotional thing for LGBTQ people, and many people I’ve spoken to about Stonewall—and about the NPS theme study—have been brought to tears of astonishment, joy, and relief.

The designation of Stonewall came very late in the development of the study, so did not directly affect it—except that I did have to go through and add the date! What did change the direction of the study many times was input from LGBTQ community members and scholars across the country. They identified places important to them and their communities, pushed for better representation of the diversity of LGBTQ communities, and challenged inclusions and exclusions of events and people. They have infinitely improved the theme study, and I am deeply grateful for the passion that people have had for this project.

Places associated with LGBTQ civil rights have become sites of pilgrimage and remembrance. This impromptu memorial at the Stonewall Inn in New York City was sprang up on June 12, 2016, after 49 people were murdered during Latino Night at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. | Credit: Photo courtesy of Daniel Smith

6. What is the projected timeline for completing the LGBTQ theme study?

A specific release date has not been set yet, but when it is released, the theme study will be available free for download on the Telling All Americans’ Stories page.

A sneak peek is available at the NPS website. “Finding Our Place: Queer Heritage in the United States” provides an overview of the many places across the country with LGBTQ stories. We are also maintaining a crowd-sourced map of places, with more than 700 currently listed and another several hundred to add.

Megan E. Springate is the prime consultant for the National Park Service LGBTQ Heritage Initiative and editor of the theme study. An historical archaeologist with a long history of public engagement and interpretation, she is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She began her journey out of the closet in 1987.

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By: Megan E. Springate

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