The U.S. National Park Service will begin marking places of significance to the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced Friday at the Stonewall Inn, scene of the 1969 riots widely credited with starting the modern gay rights movement.
The shift comes after years of debate about how gay people fit into America’s historical narrative and whether they should be included in textbooks. In 2011, California state legislators passed a first-in-the-nation law requiring public schools to teach students about the contributions of gay Americans in state and U.S. history.
The announcement also comes amid rapid legal changes across America on the issue. Gay rights advocates have enjoyed a stunning series of court victories, as one state after another sees its same-sex marriage ban fall. The rulings followed the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last June that struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law. It did not apply to bans that were then in place in roughly three dozen states; the high court is expected to eventually rule on that issue.
President Barack Obama decided in 2011 that his administration no longer would enforce the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined matrimony as between a man and a woman. That year, there were five states that allowed same-sex couples to wed. Now, it’s legal in 19 states, with lawsuits pending against every other state’s ban except North Dakota’s.
The gay rights movement’s story will be explored by a panel of 18 scholars convened by the U.S park service, who will be charged with examining its impact in areas such as law, religion, media, civil rights and the arts.
The committee will identify relevant sites and its work will be used to evaluate them for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, designation as National Historic Landmarks or consideration as national monuments, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said.
Jewell said that the struggle for civil rights continues and that “part of the job of the National Park Service is to tell this story.”
The process mirrors efforts the service already has undertaken to preserve and promote locations that reflect the roles of Latinos, Asian-Americans and women in U.S. history.
The scholars’ study, which is expected to be completed by 2016, is being financed with $250,000 from the Gill Foundation, a major donor to gay civil rights causes.
Stonewall, where the riots took place in late June 1969, was made a national historic landmark in 2000. June is widely celebrated as gay Pride Month.
Gerard Koskovich, a San Francisco scholar who will be part of the panel, said the movement actually pre-dates Stonewall by decades and goes back to the founding of the first American gay rights organization in Chicago in 1924. Other early chapters that merit recognition include the freedom World War II gave gay men and lesbians to associate and the 1953 publication in Los Angeles of the first magazine with a positive portrayal of homosexuality are, he said.
The scholars’ study, which is expected to be completed by 2016, is being financed by Colorado philanthropist Tim Gill, the founder of software company Quark Inc. and a major donor to gay political and civil rights causes.
Four sites associated with gay history ties have been added to the National Register of Historic Places since 2011, including a theater and home on New York’s Fire Island.
The Park Service already has been trying to incorporate gay perspectives into its ranger-led interpretations of sites such as the National Mall.
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