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Red, White, and Rainbow: The National Park Service’s LGBTQ Theme Study


Cover of the theme study, designed by Beth Pruitt.

On October 11, 2016, National Coming Out Day, the National Park Service (NPS) announced the release of LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History, a 32-chapter, 1,200-page work designed to provide a broad context for understanding LGBTQ history in the United States and for evaluating the significance of places associated with that history.

This theme study was the key piece of the NPS LGBTQ Heritage Initiative. The purpose of the initiative was to increase the representation of LGBTQ people and history in NPS programs, particularly in the realm of interpretation in the parks, and in the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks programs which are both overseen by the NPS. It was funded by a $250,000 donation from the Gill Foundation to the National Park Foundation in 2014. Other NPS initiatives representing underrepresented groups include the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Initiative, the Latino Heritage Initiative, and the Women’s History Initiative.

The Importance of Community Involvement

I had begun working with the NPS in 2012 on an independent study, compiling information from community members about LGBTQ places, resuming work that had begun in 2010. In 2014 I became the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative’s primary consultant.

Between 2012 and 2014, community members had shared information with me about more than 750 places across the United States associated with LGBTQ history. Using Google Maps, I plotted these places to get a visual sense of the data; the resulting map has proven helpful to many people. It continues to be updated; I currently have approximately 250 community-submitted locations to add, which overlap somewhat (but not entirely) with the over 1,300 places mentioned in the theme study.

In June 2014, the NPS brought together over twenty LGBTQ scholars—including several members of the OAH—for a roundtable discussion and working session to inform the direction of the theme study. During this intense and intensive one-day meeting, three key ideas emerged: 1) the importance of a federal agency working to recognize LGBTQ history; 2) the need to include Queer in the study’s title, while recognizing that it is a difficult term for many, to acknowledge both the reclamation of the word as a political tool and the inclusion of those who identify as queer or otherwise outside of other LGBT identities; and 3) the realization that a strictly chronological approach to U.S. LGBTQ history was too exclusively white, middle-class, urban, and male; we instead took a thematic approach to make sure that many communities that fall under the LGBTQ umbrella would be included.


In the early 1940s, Oscar-winning African American actress Hattie McDaniel moved into this residence in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles. When white residents filed a lawsuit against her and other black residents of the neighborhood, where property deeds explicitly forbade sale to “non-Caucasians,” McDaniel organized her neighbors and they fought back. In 1945, a judge ruled in their favor, and they were able to stay in their homes. McDaniel had intimate relationships with both men and women. She was the first African American to win an Oscar, awarded for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Photo by Waltarrrrr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Flickr.

Community involvement continued throughout the preparation of the theme study, ranging from internet correspondence to in-person community meetings. Some of these conversations, especially those about representation and inclusion, were charged. All of them were productive. As a result, the number of chapters in the theme study grew to 32, including preservation stories  and an archaeological context; a discussion of intersectionality and examples of how different LGBTQ communities, including bisexuals, transgender folk, and various ethnic groups, have different  histories; thematic looks at subjects ranging from creating communities to military service, art, health, law, and religion; chapters examining different regional LGBTQ histories; and chapters discussing the teaching and interpretation of LGBTQ history.


Kinsey House, Bloomington, Indiana. Alfred Kinsey and his wife designed and built this house in 1926 for their family. Alfred Kinsey is best known for his work understanding human sexuality. The Kinsey Scale that he developed recognized that human sexuality fell along a scale, from 1 (strictly heterosexual) to 6 (strictly homosexual), and that where people fell along that scale could shift due to life circumstances. He also recognized that some people were asexual or had no sexual attraction to others. The Kinsey House is part of the National Register–listed Vinegar Hill Historic District. Photo by Nyttend, Public Domain. Wikimedia.

Authors were asked to be as inclusive as possible in their examples and to avoid bisexual erasure (the erroneous assumption that people are either hetero- or homosexual). They were also asked to focus on relationships and behaviors rather than labeling individuals as gay or lesbian. Each chapter was peer reviewed by at least two experts. I am deeply grateful to all of the authors and peer reviewers who fit this work—often involving original research—into their already busy schedules.


Circus Disco in Los Angeles opened in 1975 and had a large Latino/a clientele, who patronized the Circus Disco because they (as well as other people of color) were routinely excluded from many LGBTQ bars. In 1983 civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez addressed members of the LGBTQ community at Circus Disco, offering strategies for organizing, boycotts, and coalition fundraising. Image detail from a matchbook cover, collection of the Author.

The Takeaways

There are several takeaways from the LGBTQ theme study, beyond the individual histories and places mentioned. The first is that LGBTQ history is American history. I knew this intellectually in the beginning, but it was brought home to me without question by the completion of this project. Every community, every region, every population, every American endeavor has an LGBTQ history. Indeed, LGBTQ civil rights movements have close ties to others, including women’s liberation, African American civil rights, labor rights, immigrant rights, and more.


Washoe County Fairgrounds, site of the Reno Gay Rodeo from 1976 through 1984. The rodeo was founded as a way to bring pride to the gay community, to combat negative stereotypes about gay men, and to raise money for charities. By 1980, it had become an international event, with over 10,000 attendees. Unable to survive the recession of the early 1980s and increasing AIDS hysteria, the last Reno Gay Rodeo was held in 1984, though gay rodeos continue elsewhere today, overseen by the International Gay Rodeo Association. Photo by Nicholas-Martin Kearney.

To fully understand the complexity and nuance of American history as a whole means incorporating LGBTQ history into the broader narrative. And just as African American history or women’s history is not just about people who fought for civil rights, LGBTQ history is not just about the fight for LGBTQ rights. LGBTQ history includes people like Pauli Murray, an African American woman, influential legal scholar, and Episcopal priest whose views on civil rights were shaped by her struggles with her gender and sexuality. It includes people like Dr. Alan Hart, who transitioned to live as a man in the early 1900s and went on to develop the use of X-rays to identify tuberculosis infection, saving the lives of thousands. And it includes the owners of Pittsburgh’s Brewers Hotel, a working-class bar in an industrial area, who opened their upstairs rooms those suffering from AIDS who had nowhere else to go, creating an impromptu AIDS hospice. The NPS has transitioned their Heritage Initiatives, including LGBTQ, from being discrete projects to being part of the service’s mandate to Tell All Americans’ Stories.

The second takeaway is the importance of marginal and ephemeral places often not considered as “historic.” These include industrial and marginal areas like the Meatpacking District in New York City or the Tenderloin in San Francisco; bars and bathhouses; cruising areas in parks; transient meeting places like church basements and private living rooms; and sports fields. For much of LGBTQ history in America, it has been illegal or unsafe to be open about one’s sexuality. Under these circumstances, bars, bathhouses and cruising areas were crucial places of creating community for gay and bisexual men. For women, bars and sports teams offered similar opportunities. Not just places for socializing, these places also provided people the opportunity to find out about upcoming events, organize politically, share news, and offer and find peer support. Needing to stay under the radar and/or lacking funds, social and political LGBTQ groups routinely met in the homes of various members, in bars and clubs, in offices after hours, and in church basements—safe places that charged little or nothing for their use.


Olympic diver Greg Louganis is the first openly gay athlete to appear on a Wheaties box. He was a gold medalist in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, but the cereal box featuring a photo of him in his prime wasn’t released until April 2016. Image courtesy General Mills, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Flickr.

Third, much significant LGBTQ history is recent and is still being made. Although legal challenges to marriage as a heterosexual-only institution go back to the 1970s, it was only in 2015 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal across the country. Likewise, though challenges to the bans on LGBTQ people in military service went back to the 1960s, it was not until 2011 that those attracted to others of the same sex (gays, lesbians, and bisexuals) could serve openly in the U.S. military. And just a few short weeks before the LGBTQ theme study was released, the text had to be amended to note that as of June 30, 2016, transgender members of the military could serve openly. Despite these advances, discrimination against LGBTQ people—including firing, denial of housing, and denial of public accommodation—is still legal in many states, and LGBTQ people, especially transgender women of color, are targets of public harassment and violence up to and including murder.

If the significant event that makes a place historic happened less than 50 years ago, many people think that the place is not yet eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places or as a National Historic Landmark. In general, this is true; it often takes a generation or two to be able to properly evaluate the significance of an event. However there are exceptions to this, which are important for LGBTQ history and the history of other marginalized groups whose histories are more recent and whose important places may be quickly disappearing. The possibility for these exceptions is acknowledged by Criteria Considerations or Criteria Exceptions in the National Register and National Historic Landmarks programs. Several places already designated for their association with LGBTQ history, including Stonewall National Monument, the Furies House, and Casa Orgullo, have successfully invoked these exceptions for significant events that occurred less than 50 years ago.

san diego mission

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala (Mission San Diego) is among the many California missions founded by the Spanish. Indigenous scholar Deborah Miranda has characterized the compulsory regendering or outright extermination of indigenous people who did not conform to European ideas of “proper” gender and sexuality as “gendercide.” Because of historical circumstances, most of the ethnographic record of these encounters comes from west of the Mississippi, although many Native American groups across the country recognized various gender, sexuality, and social roles that were seen as confusing, aberrant, evil, and/or loathsome by colonial powers. Photo by ((Brian)), CC BY 2.0. Flickr.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, LGBTQ history matters. It matters because it gives a fuller, richer understanding of American history more broadly. And it also matters because it is important for people to see people like them in history. Not only does this increase engagement and interest in history, but to be seen and acknowledged as existing and as having a history is extremely powerful to groups who have been routinely ignored, marginalized, or actively excluded. This idea was prominent during the study’s release event on October 11, where several speakers noted that the visibility this study brings to LGBTQ history across the country has the power to actually save lives.


The Stonewall National Monument was designated by President Obama on June 24, 2016. The monument includes the streets and Christopher Park where bar patrons fought back against police harassment. Visible behind the new Stonewall National Monument sign are memorials to those killed and injured at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016. The importance of place is evident, as New Yorkers spontaneously gathered at Stonewall to mourn together after the shooting. Photo by the US Department of Interior, CC BY-SA 2.0. Flickr.

Stonewall National Monument

On June 24, 2016, President Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument, recognizing the importance of the Stonewall Riots in American history. In the wee hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police conducted what they considered a standard raid of a gay establishment. The patrons at the Stonewall Inn had had enough of police harassment, and they—many of them people of color, those we would now consider transgender, and street hustlers—pushed back. This event, and the days of street demonstrations afterwards known as the Stonewall Riots or Stonewall Uprising, was a pivotal moment in the struggle for LGBTQ rights that led to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists’ Alliance which advocated and used more confrontational tactics working for gay rights than earlier gay and lesbian rights groups had used. The Stonewall Riots continue to be commemorated every year by LGBTQ Pride celebrations across the country and around the world, traditionally held in June.


The fear-mongering Red Scare and the Lavender Scare went hand-in-hand during and following World War II. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the U.S. military discharged more than 50,000 individuals based on allegations of homosexuality. One of the more in-depth investigations during World War II took place at the Women’s Army Corps Training Center at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Postcard from the collection of the author.

Instead of erasing or silencing the earlier history of gay rights struggles, the Stonewall National Monument provides an opportunity to explore more broadly the events and activism that led up to that June night. Stonewall was certainly not the first or only time that LGBTQ people pushed back against police harassment and discrimination. Despite the yeoman’s work of homophile organizations including the short-lived Society for Human Rights (founded in 1924), the Mattachine Society (founded in 1950), and the Daughters of Bilitis (founded in 1955), police, fueled in part by the fear-mongering of the Lavender Scare and other aspects of McCarthyism, routinely harassed LGBTQ communities, and businesses often refused people service. In Los Angeles, LGBTQ patrons demonstrated against police harassment at Cooper’s Donuts in 1959 and at the Black Cat Tavern in 1966. At Dewey’s Lunch Counter in Philadelphia in 1964 and at a Denny’s in Tampa, Florida, LGBTQ customers protested discrimination by the business owners who refused to serve them. In August 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, patrons—predominantly queens (crossdressing or transgender women)—rioted after police harassment.

The National Register of Historic Places recognizes historical importance at the local, state, and national levels, providing the opportunity for these historic events and others like them to be recognized, even if they don’t rise to the same exceptional level of national significance as Stonewall. The designation of Stonewall as a national monument is proof that LGBTQ history is important to all Americans. It is a call to action for people to engage with the LGBTQ histories in their communities; to tell their stories; to fill in the chronological, regional, ethnic, religious, gendered, class-based, and other gaps. I learned from working on the theme study that these histories are out there and incredibly rich. And all of them are important in understanding the full history and importance of LGBTQ history in the context of American history more broadly.


Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio. O’Keeffe’s partner, Maria Chabot, managed the restoration of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home. Ghost Ranch was also the location of the Quaker meeting of the Friends Committee for Concern in 2003, when they changed their name to Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. Ghost Ranch is currently a retreat center owned and operated by the Presbyterian Church. Photo by Larry Lamsa, CC BY 2.0. Wikimedia.

What’s Next?

The release of the LGBTQ theme study is just the start of increasing the representation of LGBTQ history in the NPS and its programs. Even before it was released, we saw an increase in the number of LGBTQ places listed on the National Register and designated as National Historic Landmarks from four places to ten, and more are on the way. With the theme study now available, I hope that people will be inspired to explore, share, and preserve their communities’ LGBTQ history. One way of doing this is by participating in the LGBTQ America HistoryPin project. Individuals and communities are invited to pin places of LGBTQ history to the map.

As these stories are told, places that are deserving of commemoration, including National Register listing or National Historic Landmark designation, will come to light, and I hope that people will consider preparing nominations (while these programs are overseen by the NPS, nominations come from community members). Successful nominations have been written by individuals, as classroom assignments, and by paid consultants. State historic preservation officers and NPS National Historic Landmarks staff across the country can offer tips to help with preparing nominations. And the NPS offers this outline of ways that people can get involved in LGBTQ history, including links to resources.

Has this study inspired you to engage with LGBTQ history? Are you using it to teach? I’d love to hear from you.

springate-picMegan Springate was the prime consultant for the National Park Service’s LGBTQ Heritage Initiative and the editor and wrangler of the NPS LGBTQ Theme Study. A PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, she is now employed by the NPS as Interpretation Coordinator in the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education at the Washington Support Office. She can be reached at

Other NPS Initiatives