Are National Parks Safe Spaces for LGBTQ People This Pride Month — and Beyond?

An email from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about park officer uniforms did not quell the controversy completely.

Employees and volunteers from Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, the NPS Seattle Support Office, and Olympic National Forest walk in the Seattle Pride Parade on Sunday June 27, 2022.
Credit: Mount Rainier National Park / Flickr

Reported Justice Policy

Words by

There are 429 sites that make up the National Parks system in the United States. These 84 million acres are home to more than 600 different species considered either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But the park’s rolling mountains, stretches of ocean and sweeping deserts are not only important havens for animals, but also for the many queer people who turn to nature for healing and mental health support, including during June, Pride month. This year however, a controversy over a park service employee ban on wearing park uniforms to Pride events threatened to derail what is usually a respite. The apparent ban was eventually overturned by Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, but critics of the agency say more work is needed to repair the relationship between the LGBTQ community and the National Parks system.

National Parks Offer Respite for Queer Communities

For many members of the LGBTQ community, the flora and fauna protected by parks — whether part of the national parks system or a more local effort — offer respite from the growing trend in homophobic and discriminatory policies increasingly popping up across the country.

In Florida, lawmakers have introduced 14 bills aimed at rolling back LGBTQ rights in 2024 so far. Yet despite the state’s political climate, Florida’s queer community has so far spent Pride month celebrating proudly, including events connecting with nature and in parks, like Polk County’s Pride in the Park.

Chan Farlow is one of them. Farlow spent most of their free time outdoors growing up in the Pacific Northwest. When they recently moved to Florida, they continued hiking in parks as a way to meet new people and enjoy the calm of the outdoors. More recently, they even took on a leadership role in the LGBTQ hiking group in the Tampa Bay region, through which they’ve made some of their closest friends in the area.

At different points in Farlow’s life, “going to different parks [locally] made it possible for me to get up in the morning,” they say. “My favorite analogy for…building a sense of resiliency [is] the waters moving through and over things,” they add, and thinking about how to be like those waters. They recently asked for a National Park annual pass for their birthday to allow them to access national parks more affordably.

National Parks Agency Bans Employees from Wearing Uniforms to Pride Events

Just weeks before LGBTQ pride month this year, National Park Service Deputy Director of Operations Frank Lands sent out what was couched as a clarification on park policy but that quickly caused an uproar. While the memo didn’t mention Pride month specifically, Lands used it to inform employees that they were not allowed to wear their uniforms at events not sanctioned by a park. It further layed out that pins and patches, aside from those provided by the parks department and the U.S. flag, were also not allowed.

In a follow-up email sent to all park employees on May 20, Lands reiterated the policy for uniforms at non-park events, addressing Pride events specifically. Though the email stated that no events were canceled, Lands doubled down on the position that wearing a uniform at non-park events was not allowed. According to Lands’ message, “approving participation in some events and not others could be seen as discrimination based on viewpoint, which we just cannot do.”

The directive garnered enough of a response from staff and the public that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland issued a department-wide email to staff on May 24. In it she directs leadership at each bureau to “determine how and when bureaus can participate in…outside events.” In a part of the email in bold, she assured staff that the move “would allow employees to participate in uniform representing their respective bureau,” but Haaland’s statements about each bureau’s authority seem to allow for the possibility that some bureaus could decide not to allow participation in uniform.

Sentient reached out to the Department of Interior for clarification on whether an individual bureau could decide that their employees were forbidden from wearing their uniforms to outside events. Sally Tucker, who works in communications for the Department, declined to offer further clarification, writing only, “we have nothing to offer beyond the Secretary’s email, which is very clear about the authority of each bureau in the Dept.”

For Farlow, the original directive doesn’t make any sense. “Thinking about all the different Pride events I’ve been to,” there is always a high police presence. Cops often march in parades in their uniforms — including in Florida. It seems National Park Service employees would at least be allowed the same, Farlow reasons.

Agency Leadership Accused of Prejudice

One of the loudest voices calling attention to the back and forth has been drag queen, LGBTQ activist and environmentalist Pattie Gonia. The drag queen posts her stance on a variety of issues, including a reel explaining the landback movement as a way to return land to the care of Indigenous communties to holding a sign that reads ‘End Genocide End Ecocide’ at the GLAAD awards in May. And Gonia has been an especially active voice in calling out the National Park Service’s actions as they relate to Pride month.

“National Park Service, this is NOT what allyship looks like,” she posted to Instagram on May 23 before going on to say that “this year pride really is a protest.” Her statement is likely in reference to the 1969 riots at Stonewall Inn — a location among the many significant places from queer history that are protected by the National Park Service. The riots are widely celebrated as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement.

Despite Secretary Haaland’s email, Pattie Gonia maintained in a post on June 13 that “national park service top leaders have thrown into doubt that parks are for everyone.” In it, she claims that park leadership has repeatedly declined meetings, rejected permit requests for events, failed to work efficiently or provide clear policy and denied requests for paid time off. Sentient reached out to Pattie Gonia, who did not have any additional comments to provide.

Parks as Natural Safe Spaces

A history of prejudice has been exacerbated by the recent spate of discriminatory state laws, such as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which is now practically synonymous with Florida politics. The uptick in similar anti-LGBTQ legislation is occurring in parallel with a surge in the frequency of hate crimes, all of which makes safe spaces like parks even more necessary.

The deteriorating policy landscape is also likely to compound factors like stigmatization and discrimination that lead queer people to have worse mental health outcomes than heterosexual people. But the link between nature and improved health, one which has been deeply studied over the last several decades, at least offers some remediation. Some of the benefits offered by a walk include reduced stress, lower anxiety and rumination, lower blood pressure and better overall mental well-being. In fact, the evidence is so compelling that the National Park Service is part of a ParkRx program that works with healthcare providers to encourage people to get outside.

Growing up, Farlow says that attending church services was a way to ground them. Now, as an adult, hiking and spending time outdoors fills that role for Farlow. They also feel privileged to have easy access to nature and parks, since queer people in some rural areas face additional barriers accessing natural spaces. “It’s a really emotional topic,” they say. “Because if there’s anything we belong to in this world, it’s the earth — that and each other. That’s kind of how I felt in the church, but obviously I realized they don’t love me for all of who I am.”

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »