National Park Service effectively bans uniformed staffers from Pride marches

Pride revelers will likely see less — if any — National Park rangers marching in uniform at LGBTQ Pride events across the country this year. 

The National Park Service is effectively prohibiting uniformed employees from marching in public events that “could be construed as agency support for a particular issue, position, or political party,” according to internal memos and documents shared with NBC News. This effective ban would extend to Pride marches, according to those documents.

The memo, which an NPS spokesperson described as a “reminder” of existing guidelines, is a departure from how the agency has traditionally enforced the policy and has caused confusion among staff. The NPS, which oversees the country’s national parks and monuments, has long permitted uniformed rangers to participate in LGBTQ Pride marches, including some of the country’s largest, like those in New York City and San Francisco (where police officers, firemen, military service members and other government employees can often be seen in uniform, too). A ranger for the Stonewall National Monument — which commemorates the site of a historic 1969 uprising that marked a turning point in the gay rights movement — has participated in many Pride events in uniform. 

The NPS spokesperson confirmed the veracity of three internal documents shared with NBC News — the initial internal memo clarifying the agency’s existing policy, a follow-up Q&A document and an email sent to staff on Monday — but stopped short of confirming that the policy constituted an outright ban. 

“Official NPS participation in community events that directly relate to a park’s mission can be approved by the park superintendent, provided it is consistent with applicable laws, rules, regulations, and NPS policies,” the spokesperson said in an email to NBC News Tuesday.

Another NPS staffer, who is involved in planning for this year’s employee Pride march and has participated in uniform in a Pride parade and in multiple Pride events in parks nationwide, told NBC News that they have been “appalled” by the agency’s “lack of professionalism” and clumsiness in handling the policy clarification. The employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared losing their job for speaking to the media, said the agency’s participation in Pride events is important because it honors the thousands of LGBTQ employees who were fired or forced to resign from the federal government during a period in the late 1940s to the ‘60s known as the Lavender Scare, and it serves as crucial outreach to a community that has been historically underrepresented in the nation’s parks.

“I see Pride as a key service to the public, and I see stepping away from that as a political statement,” the employee said. “I see denying this decadeslong tradition as cowardly, and I see it as validating the far-right provocateurs who are trying to push into political discourse whether or not queer people can exist.”

The back-and-forth over the uniform policy and its potential effect on Pride participation began May 9, after Frank Lands, NPS’ deputy director of operations, said in a staffwide memo that the service had recently received an influx of requests from employees asking to participate in a variety of non-NPS events in uniform and requests to wear ornaments like pins, ribbons and buttons on their uniforms. 

The requests prompted NPS to review its policy, which will be updated later this year, according to the memo, first reported on by Politico’s Environment & Energy News. In the meantime, Lands said, employees should refer to the current uniform policy and refrain from “participating in or attending any demonstration or public event wherein the wearing of the uniform could be construed as agency support for a particular issue, position, or political party.” The current policy also prohibits all ornaments except the NPS-issued badge, name bar, American flag pin and, for dress uniforms, a collar insignia, Lands wrote. 

Though Lands did not mention Pride events specifically, an internal follow-up Q&A document, shared with NBC News by the anonymous employee and confirmed by another who is involved with NPS’ LGBTQ employee resource group, said out-of-park Pride events are included in the prohibition.

The Q&A also includes the question: “Isn’t a Pride event more related to identity than a political issue or cause?” To which the document answers, “When analyzing First Amendment concerns, the courts do not make a distinction between events which celebrate or support an ‘identity’ and events which advocate for a ‘cause.’ Parades and similar events are seen as a form of communication, both for the organizers and participants, so participation by uniformed employees would be viewed as communication on behalf of the NPS.”  

Then, in an email sent to employees Monday, which the two employees shared with NBC News, Lands affirmed this stance: “Ultimately, uniformed participation in any non-NPS event is viewed as official communication on behalf of the NPS and therefore on behalf of the United States government.” Lands also noted that the policy clarification does not affect scheduled in-park events, and that there has been no directive to cancel any events planned to celebrate Pride Month.

Lands’ email said most of the internal questions from employees about the clarification have focused on “What’s changed?” and “Why now?” 

“Simply put, no policy has changed,” Lands wrote. “We sent the reminder because more and more employees are now asking to participate in uniform in non-NPS events that support a wide variety of topics and causes. Previous interpretations of our uniform policy were inconsistent and did not receive the comprehensive review we are currently working through.”

NBC News asked the NPS spokesperson a similar question about whether uniformed employees’ previous participation in public Pride parades was against the policy and received a response nearly identical to what Lands stated on his email.

The NPS staffer who has helped plan employee Pride march participation said Lands’ email was “disappointing to me because it was not an apology and resignation.” 

LGBTQ staff, employee resource groups and employees who do community outreach “deserve an apology for the grief and the turmoil and the distraction that this has been to those committed to the work and to the mission of the Park Service.”

When asked about the NPS spokesperson’s assertion that, in some cases, a park superintendent could approve uniformed employees marching in a local Pride parade, the NPS staffer involved in Pride planning, said “there’s been no clarity, at least to me, about what the waiver process necessarily looks like.” The employee shared internal emails that show park superintendents stating that they are going to request approval from their managers for such waivers, indicating that the superintendents can’t approve the waivers themselves, as the spokesperson suggested. The employee added that they never had to go through such an approval process to participate in uniform in past Pride events and parades.

The NPS policy clarification takes place amid an increasingly hostile political climate for LGBTQ people, as conservative lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 500 bills targeting the community so far this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Within the last month, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and State Department have all warned that terrorists could target events during Pride Month, which is celebrated every June. Pride events have also faced mounting threats in recent years from white nationalist groups, among others.

The NPS employee who is involved in the LGBTQ employee resource group said they are receiving questions about the policy from employees nationwide.

“The questions are, ‘Can we still participate in Pride parades? What does this mean for the future of participation?’ Because at this point, it’s now nine days until the beginning of Pride Month and people have been planning for many, many months in some cases,” the employee said. “And the primary question is, ‘How is being queer an issue, position or political party-related thing?’ And we have not gotten any clear answer. It’s an identity, it’s not an ideology, and they are confusing the two greatly.”

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Jo Yurcaba

Jo Yurcaba is a reporter for NBC Out.

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