LGBT Heritage: National Park Service’s Latest Initiative

Jamie Nickel spends her days telling tourists about the marvels of Glacier National Park. A native Californian with long, golden blonde hair, Nickel, 25, came to Montana for the summer to drive one of Glacier’s historic red buses.

It’s a perfect match. She enjoys the outdoors and likes to hike, fish and kayak while Glacier gets a friendly face with an easygoing personality to interpret the park’s many wonders.

So when word spread this summer the National Park Service is conducting a LGBT heritage initiative, Nickel, was surprised to see the agency involved. As a lesbian, she was thrilled with the news.

“Gay rights have come a long way just in the last few years,” she said. “I’m surprised to see it come to this level.”

The Park Service’s plan is to identify locations that are significant to the history of America’s LGBT community and protect those places for future generations to enjoy and remember. The U.S. Department of Interior made the announcement in May at the Stonewall Inn in New York City with Secretary Sally Jewel declaring the effort to include stories of LGBT Americans in programs of the National Park Service.

The Stonewall Inn, where riots exploded in 1969, is widely regarded as the birthplace of the American gay rights movement. Presently, four LGBT themed locations are included in the National Register of Historic Places. They are: the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny Residence in Washington, D.C., the Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre on New York’s Fire Island, the James Merrill House in Connecticut and the Carrington House on Fire Island, site of where author Truman Capote penned his famed novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

And with the help of the National Park Service’s study, more places will soon be added.

“In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its centennial, and our goal is to expand the stories that we tell to represent the diversity of the American experience and to make history more relevant to all Americans,” said NPS director Jon Jarvis.

For Nickel, driving one of Glacier’s iconic red buses gives her a chance to tell those stories. For years red bus drivers, or Jammers, as they are known locally, were jobs that went to college-aged men. As a young woman and a lesbian, Nickel is breaking ground in a staunchly conservative section of the country.

“It is challenging here (Montana) because you never really know who is accepting of you,” she said.

Indeed, it is still not entirely safe to be openly gay in many parts of the world and America is no exception. When the National Park Service announced its LGBT study, its Facebook page was bombarded with negative comments. Chad Eagleton posted, “What does it matter what someone’s sexual orientation is? We don’t need monuments to glorify these things. I chose to eat eggs this morning instead of pancakes. Where’s my monument? Ridiculous.”

Others were less kind with several rants from people who obviously felt threatened by the study. Such response only proved part of the LGBT community’s painful history.

“I can tell you that as I research our history, it's not been a proud one,” said Secretary Jewell during a roundtable discussion with scholars in June. “The same could be said for the LGBT community. The same could be said for a lot of people who have struggled for their civil rights. It is very important that those stories be told.

As my boss, President Obama said in his second inaugural, I'm going to quote, ‘We the people declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal, is the start that guides us still. Just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, in Selma and Stonewall.’ So he gets it.”

And what more and more Americans are getting is the LGBT community is as diverse as the colors of the rainbow it is often associated with. Nickel, for example, left the city life where gays are much more accepted, to work in the rural Montana mountains. It is a decision she does not regret.

“I love nature and the recreation here is awesome,” she said. “It’s a slower life for sure. Very chill and calming.”

John Berry knows that feeling. As the United States Ambassador to Australia, Berry is counted on to calm any problems that may arise. The first openly gay man to be appointed ambassador to a G-20 nation, Berry praised the NPS effort.

“(This study is) the fruits of a tree that was planted long ago, a tree tested by time, watered by tears of sadness and joy and made strong by the blood and sacrifice of countless heroes. The acorn from which this tree sprung was planted in our founding document, with the solemn promise that all are created equal, and we are endowed by our creator with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is a solemn promise that we continue to perfect,” Berry said.

In cooperation with the NPS study, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is seeking to diversify its portfolio by adding treasures of importance to the LGBT community. To recommend an endangered American LGBT property for future research, please visit www.savingplaces.org


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