Fight over Pride flag, LGBTQ rights lands at national parks

By Rob Hotakainen | 07/18/2023 01:40 PM EDT

The House Republican spending bill for the Interior Department would ban flying Pride flags at all National Park Service sites, while rainbow flags at Stonewall National Monument were torn down three times last month.

A National Park Service ranger place rainbow flags representing LBGTQ pride along fencing around Christopher Park in New York's Greenwich Village.

A National Park Service ranger places rainbow flags representing LBGTQ pride along fencing around Christopher Park in New York's Greenwich Village. Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

Pride flags could not be flown at any facilities operated by the Interior Department or EPA, including the 424 sites owned by the National Park Service, under a spending bill by House Republicans that’s set for a committee vote on Wednesday.

The bill, which also calls for deep spending cuts for the agencies, would only allow “official flags,” including U.S. flags, POW/MIA flags and those that represent a state, tribe or agency. The measure cleared a subcommittee on a voice vote Thursday and now heads to the full House Appropriations Committee.

While the rider does not specifically mention Pride flags, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, the top Democrat on the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said “it’s clear that the intent of this language is to halt the celebration of LGBTQ+ Americans.”


“I am strongly opposed to any effort to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community and as ranking member I intend to fight this provision,” Pingree said in a statement to E&E News.

If approved by the full Congress, the bill could force Stonewall National Monument, an NPS site in New York dedicated to telling the story of the gay rights movement, to take down its Pride flags.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City on June 26, 2023.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City on June 26, prior to delivering remarks at the 24th annual LGBTQ+ Leadership Council Gala. | AFP/Getty Images

The bill is just the latest in a string of attacks on the Pride flag and a Republican focus on LGBTQ issues in Congress and statehouses across the country this year. There are signs that the conservative emphasis on these issues has a growing number of Americans questioning the morality of same-sex couples.

NPS finds itself in the middle of this increasingly tense debate, which only promises to intensify in the 2024 elections as more Republicans seize on the issue.

New York police launched an investigation at the Stonewall monument last month after rainbow flags were torn down and vandalized at least three times during Pride Month.

Former President Barack Obama designated the site in Greenwich Village as a national monument in 2016, only a year after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. It commemorates the site of the riots at the Stonewall Inn that kicked off the modern gay rights movement on June 28, 1969.

Steven Menendez, an NPS volunteer at Stonewall who created the monument’s Pride flag display in 2017, called the vandalism “a targeted attack” and said it had never happened before. He blamed the situation on the current political atmosphere.

“It makes me very sad that there have been so many false narratives and hatred targeted towards the LGBTQ community by both pundits and politicians over the past year that are just looking to sow the seeds of hatred and division,” Menendez said.

Yosemite, another popular national park in California, faced a storm of criticism after a Tik Tok video went viral showing NPS employees at the park celebrating Pride with a drag queen.

As employees waved rainbow flags, the drag queen — Wyn Wiley, going by the name Pattie Gonia — joked that “gay people are literally taking over the National Park System.”

“This isn’t a Pride for visitors to the valley,” Wiley said. “This is a Pride for the park employees, of which, as you can see, there are literally hundreds of queer Yosemite employees. We danced, we marched, we celebrated, and we got wet.”

Ending the clip, Wiley said: “Mother Nature is a lesbian.”

As the issue gains more political traction for gay rights opponents, the Human Rights Campaign responded in June by declaring its first “state of emergency.” The civil rights organization said it decided to act after more than 75 anti-LGBTQ bills were signed into law by governors this year.

Kelley Robinson, HRC’s president, said the new laws “pose an imminent threat to the health and safety of millions of LGBTQ+ people and families, who are living every day in uncertainty and fear.”

‘A special interest flag’

A rainbow flag was added to a display of American flags on June 1, 2023, to commemorate LGBTQ+ Pride Month at the Pass Road entrance to the Biloxi VA Medical Center in Biloxi, Miss.
A rainbow flag was added to a display of American flags on June 1 to commemorate LGBTQ+ Pride Month at the Pass Road entrance to the Biloxi VA Medical Center, which is also the home of the Biloxi National Cemetery, in Mississippi. | Stephanie Poole/WLOX-TV via AP

NPS has not been the only federal agency feeling the pushback.

A fight over the Pride flag also erupted in Mississippi when the state’s senators, Republicans Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, complained that the Biden administration had allowed the flag to be flown at the Biloxi National Cemetery during the month of June.

The senators said the decision showed “deep disrespect” to veterans and service members and that a national cemetery should not be used as a place for “public virtue signaling.” But the Department of Veterans Affairs defended the move, calling the flag a symbol of inclusion.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, also wrote a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, saying it was wrong for him to encourage VA-owned facilities to fly the Pride flag, which he called “a special interest flag.”

“When veterans who have served our country enter a VA facility to seek the care, benefits and services they earned, they deserve to do so without facing political ideations before they even walk through the front door,” Westerman said.

Many Republicans also complained when President Joe Biden allowed the Pride flag to be flown alongside two U.S. flags during a Pride Month celebration at the White House last month.

It prompted Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) to introduce a bill, called the “One Flag for All Act,” that would prohibit the flying of the Pride flag at all federal buildings. Marshall said the president had chosen to prioritize a “woke socialist agenda” over patriotism.

It’s unclear who added the flag rider to the Interior-EPA bill. Spokespeople for the House Appropriations Committee and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chair of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, did not respond to requests for comment.

In her statement vowing to fight the provision, Pingree defended the Pride flag by saying flags that fly in federal spaces “are chosen to reflect the full history, culture and people of this great country.”

Despite the complaints from Republicans on Capitol Hill, gay rights advocates have been urging more national parks to join in the Pride celebrations.

Even in Utah, one of the country’s most conservative states, NPS employees gathered for their first in-park Pride event at Zion National Park this year. Volunteers and staff at the park used the event to host a “service parade” that involved picking up trash and cleaning up the site.

“As your public lands, we welcome people of all genders, sexual orientations, and experiences to form meaningful connections to the great outdoors,” the park said in a “Happy Pride Month” posting on Facebook.

NPS officials also defended the Pride Parade at Yosemite, saying on Instagram that it had kicked off Pride Month with a celebration to tell diverse stories and make sure “the full vibrancy of our human story shines.”

The Yosemite event caused a quick online backlash after Charlie Kirk, a conservative commentator with more than 2 million Twitter followers, tweeted a video clip of the drag queen celebrating with park employees, prompting calls for a boycott. “Now even our national parks are hosting drag queens for ‘Pride Month,’” he tweeted.

Some critics on Twitter lamented that the park was no longer safe for families.

At the same time, The North Face, a company that specializes in outdoor clothing and supplies, also took heat when it began running a “Summer of Pride” campaign that featured the same drag queen in an advertisement.

In New York, the city’s police department began investigating the vandalism at Stonewall after more than 60 flags were torn down from a fence that lines the monument. At least two other similar incidents were reported at the park during the month of June.

It reignited a controversy dating back to the Trump administration, when the Interior Department ordered the Pride flag be removed at Stonewall, saying they would not allow it to fly on federal property.

But the Biden administration quickly overturned that decision, with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland setting the tone.

In June of 2021, she went to the roof of Interior’s headquarters in Washington to fly a Pride flag over the building for the first time in the department’s history. She also made Stonewall one of the very first NPS sites that she visited, making the trip to New York less than three months after she was confirmed by the Senate.

A heated political moment

A National Park Service ranger places rainbow flags on the fence at Stonewall National Monument in of Greenwich Village, New York City, on June 19, 2019.
A National Park Service ranger places rainbow flags on the fence at Stonewall National Monument in the West Village neighborhood of Greenwich Village in New York City. | AFP/Getty Images

The new battles come at a key time for the gay rights movement.

While a record high 71 percent of Americans last year said they believed gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable, that fell to 64 percent this year in Gallup’s most recent Values and Beliefs poll released in June.

Republicans accounted for the biggest share of the drop, with their support declining from 56 percent last year to 41 percent this year, the lowest level of support measured by Gallup since 2014.

Many conservatives also applauded when the Supreme Court last month ruled that that a Colorado graphic artist who designed wedding websites could refuse to work with same-sex couples due to her Christian beliefs.

The issue also appears poised to figure prominently in the 2024 elections, particularly with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bid for the GOP presidential nomination. Last month, his campaign released a video that criticized former President Donald Trump for his earlier comments on gay rights and Pride Month, calling him “the politician who did more than any other Republican to celebrate it.”

In May, DeSantis signed four bills that restricted LGBTQ rights, including a ban on transition-related medical care for transgender youth. DeSantis also championed — and this year expanded — Florida’s law putting limits on classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity. The governor and other Republicans have argued that parents should discuss these issues with their children, keeping them out of schools.

Gay rights backers say they’re ready to do more battle.

With Stonewall now a must stop for many politicians on the campaign trial, Vice President Kamala Harris marked the 54th anniversary of the riots with a late June visit to the site, where she bemoaned the introduction of more than 600 anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures this year.

“We’re not going to be silenced,” Harris told a group of supporters at the inn. “We’re not going to be deterred.”

Biden also visited the Stonewall Inn as a presidential candidate in 2019, buying a round of beers for roughly 10 people who had gathered at the historic inn.

The Biden administration also plans to make the monument larger in stature next year, when NPS opens a new visitor center that will be the first of its kind in the United States devoted exclusively to the gay rights movement.

NPS also has worked to advance its telling of gay rights stories on its website, featuring a 2016 theme study of “LGBTQ America.” Its website also recounts the life of Albert Cashier at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi. Born in Ireland in 1843 and given the name Jennie Irene Hodgers, Cashier lived as a man and fought in the Union Army in 40 Civil War battles, including the Siege of Vicksburg.

At Stonewall, Menendez, the NPS volunteer, said he was happy that the monument hosted its own drag shows during the month of June. He called them “the first permitted drag shows at a national monument,” featuring local residents who are regular visitors to the park.

He said the monument now “represents sacred grounds” for the LGBTQ community.

“I have been at the park when younger folks have visited and seen tears in their eyes when hearing them say they have nothing like this where they live and how much it means to them,” Menendez said. “I have met Stonewall veterans at the park, as well, and seen their incredible joy to see the flag display.”