June 11, 2014 at 8:40 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Gov’t considers LGBT historic sites for designation
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a panel of experts spoke at the Department of the Interior on the study of LGBT historic sites (Blade photo by Michael Key).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a panel of experts spoke at the Department of the Interior on the study of LGBT historic sites. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The camera shop of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, the fence near Laramie, Wyo., where Matthew Shepard was left to die — these were some of the places mentioned on Tuesday for possible designation as LGBT historic sites.

About 20 scholars working on the initiative — officially announced on May 30 by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at the Stonewall Inn in New York City — met at the Department of the Interior in D.C. to discuss the way forward with the initiative in anticipation of completing the work by 2016.

Afterward, four high-profile speakers and five of the scholars described and fielded questions about the contours of the study in a public panel discussion moderated by National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

Prior to the panel, Jarvis said ensuring places of importance to the LGBT community are recognized for their worth is part of a broader effort to highlight the stories of minority groups in U.S. history in time for the agency’s centennial in 2016.

“These places not only show us at our best, but perhaps, at times, at our worst,” Jarvis said. “These places are memorialized not only for the remembrance, but also they show us the future. They symbolize what this nation intends to be, or perhaps, has not yet become. And that’s why it is absolutely essential that we include the experience of the LGBT community, and its struggle for civil rights in the stories that we tell on behalf of the nation.”

Thus far, the only LGBT-associated place designated as an official National Historic Site is the Stonewall Inn. In 1969, patrons demonstrated in the streets of New York after refusing arrest following a raid by police, starting the modern gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn received the designation in February 2000.

Other places relevant to the LGBT community given a lesser designation within the National Register of Historic Places are the D.C. home of gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny; Cherry Grove Community House & Theater on Fire Island, N.Y.; the James Merrill House in Connecticut; and the Carrington House on Fire Island.

In her remarks preceding the panel, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell talked about the need to expand the list of historic LGBT sites beyond the East Coast.

“That’s one thing lacking for the LGBT community: We have not yet identified any of the places where we can tell the stories that help us understand who everyone is as Americans within this community,” Jewell said.

The six scholars who discussed ideas presented on the panel were Stephen Pitti, director of Yale University’s ethnicity, race and migration program; Mark Meinke, a D.C.-based LGBT historian; Jen Jack Gieseking, a New York-based cultural geographer and environmental psychologist; Julio Capo Jr., an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst; and Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

During his remarks, Pitti said scholars working on the study identified four goals: 1) increase the number of LGBT-associated places within the National Register of Historic Places; 2) identify and nominate LGBT-associated national historic landmarks; 3) engage scholars and community members to identify LGBT-associated places; and 4) encourage national park units to interpret LGBT stories.

“We discussed as a group how the key study that Secretary Jewell announced on May 30 will be an anchor going forward for each of these goals,” Pitti said. “We did a lot of work together as a scholar’s panel laying a strong foundation for this important initiative.”

The National Park Service is soliciting ideas from the public about sites of local, state or national importance in LGBT history on its website. More public meetings and other events around the country are under consideration and will be announced as information becomes available, according to the agency.

After the event, Pitti told the Washington Blade he was unable to identify any LGBT-associated places that could be designated as historic sites at this time because the initial meeting focused on goals for moving things forward.

“To me, we sort of talked about potential places, but not with really any authority,” Pitti said. “We really focused much more today on the kind of process beyond going to make sure that the conversations about potential places involved communities and that they would appropriately inclusive.”

But that didn’t stop speculation during the event. Among the high-profile speakers was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who suggested during her remarks two places in San Francisco, which she represents in Congress, that would fit the bill: the camera shop of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk and the UN Plaza where a HIV/AIDS vigil was held for 10 years.

“For us in San Francisco, it’s not a question of tolerance; that’s not a word we use,” Pelosi said. “That’s condescending. It’s about respect. It’s about taking pride.”

In response to a question submitted by an audience member over whether the Upstairs Lounge would be a potential site, Byard explained to the audience the significance of the meeting place, which was a locale for gay men in New Orleans before it burned down in 1973.

“It’s a sad story if you don’t know it,” Byard said. “The Upstairs Lounge was a gay bar in the second floor of a building in New Orleans that was set on fire. To this day, it was not clear why it was set on fire, but men died there. The response at the time of the fire was conditioned by what this place was.”

Another site that Byard said could be identified as historic is the fence in Laramie, Wyo., where college student Matthew Shepard was left to die in 1998 after he was brutally beaten in an anti-gay hate crime.

The event should be remembered, Byard said, because it helped galvanize the gay community to pass federal hate crimes protection legislation.

Gieseking emphasized the importance of recognizing historic sites that represent not only positive moments for LGBT people, but also recall the pain of the community.

“That’s something that needs to remain in tension because those things will continue to exist and cannot be forgotten to tell the full history of our lives,” Gieseking said.

The initiative is happening in large part because of the Gill Foundation. According to the Department of the Interior, the organization contributed $250,000 to fund the study.

But the federal government has also allocated money as part of the effort to assist with identifying the historic sites. During the panel, Jarvis said his department’s budget for the fiscal year 2014 budget provides a half million dollars to state preservation offices tasked with finding the sites. A request for more money was made in the fiscal year 2015 budget request, Jarvis said.

U.S. ambassador to Australia John Berry, one of five openly gay U.S. ambassadors currently serving overseas, also spoke about the importance of the study in terms of the way it informs the perception of the United States in other countries.

Berry recalled last week during an aboriginal youth parliament meeting that one participant approached him and asked why the United States was moving so quickly on civil rights. The woman was referring to the election of a black president for two consecutive terms as well as the advancement of marriage equality throughout the country, Berry said.

“You really need to look at history to appreciate the answer to that question,” Berry said. “Today’s actions are 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.”

It’s because of this progress, Berry said, that members of the LGBT community overseas look to the United States for guidance.

“We cannot stop; we cannot tire,” Berry said. “Our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and Uganda and Russia and other places of intolerance look to us for hope as they struggle to maintain their very lives. Now is not the time to rest.”


U.S. ambassador to Australia John Berry (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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