Outside of the Stonewall Inn, in a plot of greenery known as the triangular Christopher Park, sits a flagpole and an LGBTQ+ Pride flag. Ahead of its 2017 installation, activists noted it was the first time a Pride flag had been permanently installed on federal ground. This was made possible by President Barack Obama’s designation that Stonewall was a National Monument, the first in the country dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights and history. But according to internal emails, uncovered in a Freedom of Information Act request, the Trump administration worked to distance the federal government from the display.
Todd Willens, previously an assistant deputy secretary in the Interior Department — now the chief of staff to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt — wrote an email to another official asking for details from the National Park Service about the location of the flag back in 2017. According to emails viewed by E&E News, the inquiry came after learning the flag was on federal property. It was later determined that though the flag flies in Christopher Park, which the federal government owns, it is technically right outside of the official area.
The flag, which the NPS had purchased, was gifted to the New York City’s parks department. By claiming the flag was no longer on federal land, the NPS was distancing the government from the display.
"The feds were washing their hands of the whole project — it was crazy town; it was shocking," said Ken Kidd, a long time activist who had helped organize the installation ceremony told E&E. "There was a little bit of radio silence, and then, as the emails will attest, the message changed, and then suddenly the flagpole wasn't part of the federal envelope."
Not only do emails detail the change but also expected blowback. Bob Vogel, the National Park Service acting deputy director of operations wrote in an email, “Needless to say there is significant concern on how this will transpire with the community.” And rightfully so: the move essentially reneged on the earlier decision to respect and underscore the history of queer and trans people in this country. Instead the Trump administration went out of its way to make sure it had distanced itself from one of the most recognizable signs of the community.
The move seems to echo the Trump administration’s recent move to reject requests from American embassies around the world to fly the Pride flag. Of course, several embassies, from Vienna, Austria, to Chennai, India, flew the rainbow flags anyway, according to the Washington Post.
In the uncovered emails, no one details explicitly what the issue would be to have the Pride flag be on federal land but not all communications were done over email. “Please keep in mind that this exchange could be subject to a FOIA request in the future," John Warren, a communications chief wrote. Other emails requested government employees and officials call to discuss matters, suggesting that offline conversations were held.
To the casual observer, there would seem to be no difference though. As over six million visitors flood New York City for WorldPride alone, they will see the flag, seemingly on Stonewall, the first gay National Monument, with few knowing the extent to which the Trump administration went to distance itself from the display.