by Logan Boldon, SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador
The National Park Service Centennial slogan is “Find Your Park” and, as of last Friday, the LGBTQ community has a park of their own. President Obama designated the Stonewall Inn in New York City as the country’s first national monument to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights.
“I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country – the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us,” said the President.
I’m a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador with the Student Conservation Association. I am also transgender. Even though I was aware of my gender identity at a very early age, I bottled up that knowledge out of fear. For nearly two decades, I suffered in silence, the only external expressions of my internal pain emerging as acts of self-harm and suicidal tendencies.
But nature, for me, has always been a sanctuary. Somewhere I could be myself, where no one would judge me or look to prey upon me. The outdoors has always offered a glimmer of light that could pierce even the darkest of days.
I applied to SCA because I wanted to be part of its long history of preserving national parks and other public lands. I wanted to help connect people to America’s natural and cultural legacy in hopes of promoting conservation and stewardship. I was desperate to find something to live for, something bigger than myself.
Serving as an Ambassador for Great Smoky Mountains National Park – by far one of the most popular parks in the US, drawing more than 10 million visitors per year – might seem like an odd choice for someone as shy and introverted as I am. But there is such diversity here! This temperate rainforest has more tree species than all of Europe, more salamanders than the rest of the world! Black bears, one of the park’s most iconic symbols, number over a thousand strong. For one who used to so often focus on death, I am drawn by the abundance of life. Everything is so intricate and interwoven, with every foray out of doors sparking intense feelings of fascination and curiosity.
Of course, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is partly located in North Carolina, a state which recently passed a controversial law requiring transgender individuals to use restrooms that correspond to their sex at birth. Yet everyone here at the park has assured me they’ll do everything they can to make me feel comfortable, dignified and respected.
At the same time, we want others to know this remains a safe and magical place to visit, not only for the LGBTQ community, but also for people of all backgrounds and walks of life. My supervisor has given me considerable leeway in reaching out to the LGBTQ community, and I’m now representing the park in the National Park Service LGBTQ Employee Resource Group. In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, the park and the Park Service are being more aggressive in their bid to become more inclusive.
If you look at some of our most recently added national monuments, you’ll see a deliberate effort to better reflect America’s rich, diverse culture: Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality, Cesar Chavez, Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad and Pullman among them. And as an ongoing LGBTQ Heritage Initiative advances within the National Park Service, others will surely follow Stonewall.
As they do, I will continue to engage the LGBTQ and other communities on behalf of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The public outreach may be a little out of my comfort zone, but this spectacular haven makes me feel right at home.
“Find Your Park” is about more than just traveling to a physical place; it’s about making personal connections to the intangible themes present there: life, death, rebirth, protection, freedom, struggle, endurance, hope, survival. After all, the history of the National Park Service is the story of everyday Americans – a story I hope we can continue for centuries to come.
So, as we celebrate our past and look to our future, get out and find your park! You just might find yourself. My growing passion for the National Park Service and its mission to preserve unimpaired our natural and cultural resources for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this generation and generations to come saved my life. Further, I figure if I can survive the centennial year at a park as busy as the Smokies, I can survive anywhere, and anything!