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Meet the 'don't ask, don't tell' veteran who became Stonewall's first park ranger

Jamie Adams served in the military under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Now, she's the out and proud park ranger for the Stonewall National Monument.
Image: Jamie Adams
Jamie Adams is the first national park ranger for the Stonewall National Monument in New York City.NBC News

For Jamie Adams, 37, the first National Parks Service ranger for the Stonewall National Monument — the site of the 1969 uprising widely considered the spark that ignited the modern LGBTQ rights movement — the job is personal.

Adams always felt drawn to public service. “I was kind of born into it,” she told NBC News. She grew up an Air Force brat and lived on military bases. Many of her family members served the U.S. as both civilian government employees and military service members.

In 2000, a few days after her 19th birthday, she went into basic training for the Coast Guard. But as Adams realized she was queer, a “dark cloud” hung over her head: the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

From 1994 to 2011, “don’t ask, don’t tell” barred LGBTQ people in the military from living openly while on active duty. Their coworkers weren’t allowed to ask if they were gay, either. If there was evidence someone on active duty was a lesbian or gay, an investigation could be opened into their sexual orientation, whether the “evidence” was on or off base. The policy, signed by President Bill Clinton, was intended as a compromise. Prior to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” gays were banned from military service all together.

Adams never thought “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a reason not to join the service, but she said she internalized the military’s attitudes about homosexuality. She was initially stationed in Tillamook Bay, Oregon, with the Coast Guard and worked in both search and rescue and foreign vessel inspection.

Image: Jamie Adams
Jamie Adams served in the military under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.Courtesy of Jamie Adams

“I really felt like I was helping, because we were actually running down piers, jumping on boats and getting out into the water to try to save people,” she explained.

Adams loved her work but said she struggled to come to terms with her sexual orientation. The fear of being kicked out of the Coast Guard for being gay was crippling.

“I knew that if I got caught even trying to talk to anybody about what was bothering me, I could lose my job — and maybe in a disgraceful way,” she said.

Even after Adams’ time in the Coast Guard, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy followed her. When she worked in a civilian role for the Department of Defense, she handed military recruits paperwork that included bullet points on the now-defunct policy. “It broke my heart,” she said.

In 2015, four years after “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, Adams joined the National Parks Service. Less than a year later, she heard rumors that the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Street Park and the surrounding area might be designated a national monument under the Obama administration.

Even in 2015, with “don’t ask, don’t tell” long gone, Adams said she did not “live out.” She said she did not feel comfortable enough to come out professionally until she was assigned to work at the Stonewall National Monument, which was officially given the prestigious status in June 2016. Adams was stationed at the monument part-time in 2016, and became its full-time ranger in 2018.

In addition to being armed with a significant amount of historic information about the Stonewall National Monument and its LGBTQ legacy, Adams said she’s also been a de facto therapist for visitors, who like to share their personal stories about what the monument means to them. In turn, she shares her own story with visitors.

“The best way I could do my job is to give a little bit of my own personal story,” she said. “What kind of LGBTQ ranger would go to Stonewall and be a storyteller and not use a little bit of their personal story?”