NPS “Spokesranger” for the LGBT Community, Michael Liang

Part 2 of our Q&A with the Visual Information Specialist & SCA alum

NPS ranger and SCA alum Michael Liang received some much deserved praise from Out Magazine recently for the work he does to make sure that America’s national parks and historical sites feel welcoming, relevant, and representative to people of all backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations.

Here’s Part 2 of our recent interview with him. Click here for Part 1. 

Why is it so important to make sure national parks and historic sites feel relevant and welcoming to ALL Americans, regardless of age, race, background, gender identity, or sexual orientation?
The simple answer is that everyone pays taxes and deserves to benefit from and have access to the National Park Service. It’s our obligation to serve those who fund the agency.

But it’s also the right thing to do. As I spend more and more time in this agency, my understanding of American history broadens and I find myself interested in who actually gets to write history or deem that something is of national significance.

I’ll give an example: at one of my favorite parks, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, located just north of Portland, OR, they tell the story of the Hudson Bay Company and the settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Traditionally, this story has centered on the dozen or so British gentlemen who lived within the fort because they were the ones who kept a written record. However, a village of several hundred employees existed just outside of the fort and at the time was the largest multicultural community in the northwest. Europeans, French-Canadians, Hawaiians, and members of 30 different Native American groups all lived and worked together in a unique fur trade culture. But if they left no written record and their living quarters have since disappeared, does that mean that their stories don’t matter?

It’s moments like these where the National Park Service really shines. Today, Fort Vancouver has a robust archeology program that helps inform the park’s interpretive programs by filling in the gaps in the written record and revealing a more holistic, inclusive view of site’s history. It’s amazing how a tiny bead, button, fractured tool, piece of coral or broken pipe can spark the imagination and pay homage to all those who lived before us, and tell us about how they worked and lived. Our national parks have the power to connect with anyone, no matter his or her background, and sometime we just have to dig deep enough to find those connections (sometimes, literally!).

How are you helping NPS achieve this critical goal?
I’ve become a big advocate for the little guys, one might say. My understanding of the system of parks and programs really expanded when I worked at a regional office in Philadelphia. There I understood that the National Park Service protects not just large tracts of wilderness out west, but also our most important moments in American history, like the Civil War or the immigration story at Ellis Island.

Many of our more recognizable national parks are famous because they are inherently beautiful and awe-inducing. I’m not immune to such grandeur, but I guess I’ve just become more interested in the hidden histories that require a bit of handholding and deliberate unveiling. People who work in creative media are always making decisions about what to emphasize and I try to use those opportunities to share the new, forgotten, or undervalued.

Michael serving as an SCA Intern at North Cascades National Park in 2004.

What do you remember most about your SCA experience?
There are so many wonderful specific memories that it is hard to choose just one! The entire summer was filled with amazing hikes, laughter with coworkers, never-ending potlucks, and so much professional and personal growth. If I had to choose one overarching theme for my SCA experience, it would be finding a sense of belonging. I had never lived out west nor worked for an organization like the National Park Service, and I when I arrived, I immediately felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

How did serving with SCA impact your life and career?
My first supervisor and I still stay in touch and I’m always thanking her for hiring me. Without a doubt, my summer with the SCA set in motion a series of events that would ultimately lead me to my current career. The SCA gave me hands-on experience and exposure within the organization that made finding a job that much easier.

One unexpected benefit to my internship was becoming part of a rich community of alumni. It’s incredible how many National Park Service employees are also alums. There is an instant connection based on a shared experience that occurs when two alums meet. So the SCA gave me both a career and also life-long friends.

What would you say to a gay teenager who likes the idea of becoming a park ranger, but isn’t sure if they would fit in at NPS?
I’ve worked in many different national parks and offices and I’ve never felt that being gay was a professional liability or something I needed to hide. I’m sure that was not always the case, but as a whole, this is a very gay-friendly and accepting organization. I think this happens because employees are always moving around and meeting different types of people. The people I get to work with each day are just as inspiring as the places we strive to protect.

BELOW: Michael leading an interpretive talk as an SCA intern at North Cascades National Park in 2004. 

Gallery: Examples of graphic design work Michael’s done as a Visual Information Specialist for the National Park Service. 

Click here for Part 1 of this interview.