Celebrate Pride Month by learning about the not-so-hidden LGBTQ+ history in these national parks.
For most of history, it has been safer for LGBTQ+ people to live in peace than to risk discrimination, blackmail and legal repercussions – and that means many of their stories remain hidden or lost.
Being gay on the outside
Can they see me? Am I safe? A staff member explores ways to honor homosexuality and make the outdoors more inclusive and welcoming for all.
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Homosexuality was illegal in all 50 states until 1962, and anti-sodomy laws remained in effect in 14 states until 2003, when Lawrence v. Texas made them unconstitutional. Protections for trans people to safely access health care, fair employment, and housing remain few. About half of US states do not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for those seeking housing, public housing or credit. There is still a long way to go before LGBTQ+ people enjoy full legal protection, especially since the rights we have already won remain under constant threat.
Every June, we commemorate this long struggle during Pride Month. It’s a time to celebrate the resilience and joy of the LGBTQ+ community and to remember how queer people before us have fought to claim space and live freely. I grew up weird and lonely for stories of people feeling like me, loved like me, dressed like me. Every queer story I find now seems to be part of mine – without those stories I know I would be living in a very different world. We must remember the people who fought for us and never take them for granted.
Although there is currently only one national park site explicitly dedicated to LGBTQ+ history and culture, queer individuals and communities have left their mark on every site in the national park system. Here are five stories about the LBGTQ+ community protecting and fighting for each other.
1. Fire Island National Seashore, New York
At a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Manhattan, America’s first gay and lesbian city was growing just hours away, off Long Island. Cherry Grove has been a queer enclave on Fire Island since at least the 1930s – a place where LGBTQ+ visitors and residents can live freely, the isolated location protecting them from unwanted judgment and development.
Most of the island is only accessible by boat, and during times when law enforcement actively discriminated against LGBTQ+ people in other parts of the state, the police presence in Cherry Grove disappeared. when the last ferry left at midnight, giving way to a vibrant nightlife. Women were free to wear pants without legal hassle (in the city, you risked being arrested if you wore less than three garments deemed appropriate for your perceived gender). Raids and arrests did occur, but were far less frequent than at the city’s mob-run gay bars. Queer theater flourished, and you can still visit the Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre, which is on the US National Register of Historic Places – a rare landmark documenting the LGBTQ+ community before the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.
In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement encouraged more diversity and inclusiveness in “The Grove”, developers decided to build a highway through Fire Island. This would have disrupted both the queer community and the Sunken Forest, a unique coastal ecosystem sheltered by sand dunes – one of only two similar in the world. LGBTQ+ activists came together to protect their home and this unique ecosystem, and in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson created Fire Island National Seashore, protecting 26 miles of delicate coastline, including Cherry Grove.
2. Independence National Historical Park, Pennsylvania
Four years before the Stonewall Riots, protesters gathered outside Independence Hall on July 4 to picket and remind onlookers that American gays and lesbians did not enjoy the same rights promised in the Declaration of Independence. The location was no coincidence: the protest took place right after Philadelphia’s Independence Day parade, providing a stark contrast between the celebration of freedom and an outcry against discrimination.
The protests, called Reminder Days, have been held annually for five years, organized by an alliance of lesbian, gay and bisexual activist groups in the northeast, collectively called East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO). Faced with endemic discrimination in hiring, leaders wanted to emphasize employability and respectability, enforcing a strict and traditional dress code with jackets and ties for men and dresses for women. Protesters have been told to picket in single file – although last year two women decided to hold hands, and many others followed suit, disrupting strict policies laid down by ECHO leaders .
Although mostly ignored by the press, Reminder Days grew every year, from 39 participants in 1965 to 150 in 1969, the final year. Organizers received death threats after Stonewall, but Chief Frank Kameny organized police protection and chartered a bus to help protesters arrive safely from New York.
In 1970, the community turned to the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, commemorating the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. The annual Stonewall commemorations eventually turned into the pride parades and celebrations that are now common across the country.
3. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York and New Jersey
Jacob Riis Park, a mile-long strip in the Gateway National Recreation Area, has been a haven for beachgoers and LGBTQ+ activists since the 1940s. Although at first the beach was populated primarily by white gay men , in the 1950s and 1960s the crowd was much more diverse. The park was a hub of activism even before the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, and groups such as the Daughters of Bilitis held meetings there. In 1971, the Gay Activists Alliance – an influential protest group led by former members of the Gay Liberation Front – organized voter registration drives in the sand.
Although a guide called Riis “one of the best gay Rivieras in the world”, the beach is not particularly picturesque: it is in front of the ruins of a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. Like other places on this list, its isolation has helped it grow and thrive as a queer community, far from the often watchful and critical eyes of mainstream heterosexual society.
The park became part of the national park system in 1972. The increased presence of law enforcement made it more difficult to sunbathe so freely, but it is still known today as one of the most New York gays.
4. Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi
While it’s impossible to know exactly how many women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War – on both sides – historians’ estimates range from 400 to over 1,000. Many returned to their lives and their identity when the fighting ended, but at least one person was known to keep their name for the rest of their life.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Albert Cashier was assigned female at birth but began to dress as a boy from an early age. He grew up in Ireland and immigrated to the United States as a stowaway during his teenage years, living under his chosen name in Belvidere, Illinois. He enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, serving with the 95th Illinois Infantry for the duration of the war. He fought in 40 battles, including the Siege of Vicksburg, when he was captured by Confederate troops while on a reconnaissance mission. He managed to escape by overpowering a guard, despite his small size.
After the war, Cashier returned to Belvidere and worked as a farmhand, church janitor, cemetery worker, and lamppost lighter – all jobs usually reserved for men. He also voted in elections and claimed a veteran’s pension without raising questions for decades. Later in life, Cashier was institutionalized after the onset of dementia and attendants discovered his secret, exposing it to the press and forcing him to wear traditional women’s clothing. His former comrades were surprised but supported and protested his treatment even as he was investigated for fraud for claiming a military pension.
When Cashier died in 1915, his friends helped arrange for him to be buried in full uniform, with a headstone that bore his military service and chosen name. The cashier’s name is also included on the Illinois Memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park, dedicated in 1906.
Although the term transgender did not exist during Cashier’s lifetime, researchers suggest that her story has common qualities with people who identify as transgender today.
5. Stonewall National Monument, New York
Stonewall National Monument is the only national park site dedicated exclusively to LGBTQ+ history and culture. It preserves the story of the Stonewall Uprising, a watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement.
Living openly as an LGBTQ+ person was illegal or at least dangerous in most parts of the country in the 1960s – discrimination was rampant and fear of exposure and its consequences were constant. But one night in Greenwich Village, the community had had enough. In a routine police raid at the Stonewall Inn, guests fought back – for six nights. The conflict garnered national attention, and the gay civil rights movement took root and became more visible – and protesters grew more vocal in defense of their rights.
Gay activist groups sprang up across the country, growing from 50 to 60 in 1969 to at least 1,500 a year later. Many of them came together in 1970 for the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, which we now celebrate every year with pride marches across the country.
Although often overlooked by history, trans women of color were at the center of the uprising and subsequent revolution. In 2016, President Barack Obama designated Stonewall a national monument, ensuring his legacy remains part of American history – but the work doesn’t stop there. Adequate funding would help tell the full story of Stonewall, with an official visitor center and adequate staff to interpret this critical moment in modern civil rights history.