De-Queering the National Parks

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I am a passionate lover of both American history and the places where it was enacted—even if I am not always happy with the outcome of specific events. This is why I was fanatically happy when American Heritage Magazine was revived, and why I am a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ever since I was a Boy Scout (and I earned my Eagle), I have been interested in conservation and the environment. Nothing pleases me more than the work of the innumerable state and local historical societies. On both the state and national levels, I wholeheartedly support the work of the various park, forest, historical preservation, and fish and game agencies—which frequently are among the few branches of American government run well enough to turn a profit.

In this essay, unfortunately, I find myself having to criticize one of my favorites: the National Park Service. Moreover, I must do so in the wake of President Trump’s stirring speech at the March for Life. But silence equals consent, and we Catholics have consented to far too much.

Back in 1992, when I was the Los Angeles correspondent for the late-lamented Creole Magazine (a Lafayette, Louisiana-based magazine for a primarily black audience), my editrix asked me to comment on Mr. Clinton’s radical “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” plan for the military. I had several reasons for opposing it, but the one that is most germane now is the basic wrongness of creating a quasi-ethnic group on the basis of behavior, in this case, homosexuality. As a Catholic, I believe that all sexual behavior outside of marriage (and contraceptive activity within it) is sinful. This is an extremely hard saying today. Nevertheless, having said as much, I shall add that the creation of such a group identity forces those with that particular temptation to define themselves by it, much as if we spoke of adulterers or fornicators as a “community,” whereas this development’s supposed benefactors—or at least many of them (the late-lamented Wilson Gavin showed how far from unanimous this stuff is)—are in reality cut off from their neighbors. History and human beings being what they are, today’s privileged few may be tomorrow’s scapegoats. Giving their sin (and the temptation thereto) a separate status from the others we humans are afflicted with is really isolating those who carry that particular burden from their fellow human beings—that is to say, their fellow sinners.

Things have moved very rapidly in this area. In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down the few remaining anti-sodomy laws. Twelve years later, that body of Delphic oracles discovered that gay marriage was protected by the Constitution. This entire process—starting in the 1960s—has been cast in terms of a liberation struggle, paralleling that of the black civil rights movement. In 2016, President Barack Obama designated several sites as “LGBTQ historical sites” to be managed by the National Park Service (including Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Bar, site of a 1969 gay riot).

Now, the NPS has always had a very good website, not only offering detailed descriptions of National Parks, Historic Sites, and other such properties, but frequently offering fine and detailed articles about their historic significance. Prior to Obama’s fiat, the section entitled “Telling All Americans’ Stories” dealt with sites and narratives regarding European Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. To this eminently sensible and truly inclusive mix were added “LGBTQ Americans.”

The introduction is telling: “As America’s storytellers, the National Park Service (NPS) is committed to telling the history of all Americans in all of its diversity and complexity. For many years, the rich histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans have been erased through punishing laws and general prejudice—appearing sporadically in police proceedings, medical reports, military hearings, and immigration records.

“Too often categorized as “outsiders,” Queer Americans nevertheless consistently played important roles in American cultural life.

“Yet, for many LGBTQ groups, preserving and interpreting their past has been an important part of building communities and mutual support. Because of their efforts, we can find LGBTQ histories across the United States—from private residences, hotels, bars, and government agencies to hospitals, parks, and community centers. From the mujerado of the Acoma and Laguna tribes to the drag queens of the Stonewall riots, discover their stories in our nation’s parks, homes, and historic sites.”

To the truly believing Catholic—and many others—this is horrific. Federal money extracted from us continues to pay for this stuff, despite the change in the White House. Indeed, the President has continued to mark Gay Pride Month and the like, while affirming gay marriage as the law of the land. The likelihood of anything being done to reverse these things is slight.

As in 1992, I’ll speak out on behalf of my “people,” since behavior now creates an identity that all others must acknowledge and celebrate. We Alco- or Bibulous Americans are the only minority in this country whose very existence was made a crime by an amendment to the Constitution. Even now, people call us “drunks,” “winos,” and the like, while hate groups like AA pursue us. Our children can be taken from us and we can lose our jobs just for doing what is natural.

But one day, alcohol awareness programs in schools shall allow children to decide for themselves if they want to drink. Great men like Al Capone, Legs Diamond, and the Rum Runners, who brought healing liquids to a thirsty country, shall be honored as heroes. The NPS will safeguard and display various speakeasies, illegal stills, and other such sites that are part of our heritage and that of the other components of the DSC (Drinking, Smoking, and Carousing) community. At last the shackles society has bound us with shall burst, as we proudly march off to a better tomorrow.

Charles Coulombe

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Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine's European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan's Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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