Out in the backcountry
A profile of a gay ranger in the National Park Service.
Eston Littleboy Jones stands on Plateau Point, a short hike from the Bright Angel Trail in the heart of the Grand Canyon. It’s a brisk January afternoon, and Littleboy Jones has come upon a boy who has jumped out onto a lone tower of rock, across two yards of what seems to be an endless drop down to the river below. "Do you think your mom would want you doing that?" he asks the boy, who shakes his head and then leaps back to the security of the point.
Once the boy is safe, Littleboy Jones tells me that working as a backcountry park ranger is addictive: "People come to the park, something goes wrong, and you are there to help." The 32-year-old makes an imposing figure –– standing 6-feet-two with a shock of cropped red hair, a pistol and taser riding at his hip –– but the impression is softened by his big smile and ready sense of humor. Littleboy Jones patrols the park by foot, kayak and raft, often sleeping out under the stars. He monitors known archaeological sites and keeps an eye on the park’s busy campgrounds and trails, answering questions, checking permits and dispensing first aid.
As a Park Service incident commander, Littleboy Jones organizes search-and-rescue efforts and is skilled in technical rope and helicopter rescues – doing "really risky things in close proximity to the (canyon) wall." Like his fellow backcountry park rangers, he does everything he can to keep park visitors happy and safe.
So it’s hard to believe that Littleboy Jones once wondered whether he was cut out to be a park ranger. It had nothing to do with any perceived lack of skills, experience or courage. Instead, he feared that he couldn't do the job he loved because he was gay.
Littleboy Jones' entire life had prepared him to be a park ranger. When he was a small child, his family moved to Grand Canyon Village on the park's South Rim, where he gained outdoor skills before enrolling at Utah State University. In college, he took a summer internship with Grand Canyon Search and Rescue. That’s when he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
After getting certified at a National Park Service law enforcement academy and becoming an emergency medical technician, he worked as a seasonal ranger at Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Dry Tortugas National Parks.
He was 24 when he began coming out to close friends, but he wasn't yet ready to be out at work. It wasn’t that he was concerned about getting fired: he knew sexual orientation had been included in the federal government's employment non-discrimination rules in 1999. But he’d never heard of a gay police officer or park ranger "that wasn't some kind of joke on a sitcom." With only a few seasons under his belt, and without any role models to learn from, Littleboy Jones wondered whether his supervisors and colleagues would treat him differently once they knew he was gay.
Littleboy Jones turned to Google: "I searched for gay park rangers." There, he learned about John Evans, an out, partnered gay man working as Grand Canyon’s district ranger. "I was reading about somebody that I could identify with and respect," he recalls, "somebody I'd want to be like, a role model."
This discovery provided Littleboy Jones with more than just permission to be a park ranger — it gave him the confidence to be an out, gay park ranger. Before learning of Evans, Jones was prepared to hide who he was while in uniform. "OK," Littleboy Jones recalls thinking, "for four or five months a year, you can tone things down and bottle things up, and you can be whoever you need to be to have a really fun job."
Three years later, Littleboy Jones unexpectedly found himself working under Evans’ supervision at Grand Canyon National Park. He overlapped with Evans and his husband, David Smith, who worked in the park’s interpretive division, before they moved with their two children to Washington, D.C. Littleboy Jones says that both men were exceptional leaders at work and in the community. He found it life-changing to see a gay couple living so openly and confidently. For the first time, he thought: “Yes, I can have a family. I don’t have to hide anything.”
Littleboy Jones is now engaged to his longtime partner. By being out, Littleboy Jones believes he is helping to normalize being gay. Some Park Service staff and visitors, he says, may have “never met a gay person that wasn’t in high heels and a feather boa.” And though Littleboy Jones appreciates gay culture and history, he wants to discourage preconceived notions of what it means to be gay.
His sexuality, he says, is just one part of who he is as a man and a park ranger, and he believes that his acceptance of it helps those he meets find the courage to be true to themselves. “It’s a duty that we have to each other,” he says.
The National Park Service is well aware of the challenges involved, says Mariah Cissé, workforce development and diversity program specialist at Grand Canyon. According to Cissé, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who don't feel comfortable in the workplace are more likely to leave the Park Service –– or never apply in the first place. Park Service administrators like Cissé believe that failure to address LGBT struggles means that the agency is not serving the public to the best of its ability.
The Park Service believes that the best way to attract diverse, representative visitors is to have a diverse, representative staff: "Anybody from the world (should) be able to walk into a park," says Littleboy Jones, "and hopefully find somebody that they can have a connection with."
But to accomplish that, the park needed to address the recruitment and retainment barriers that minority groups, including LGBT people, face. In 2012, for the first time, Grand Canyon National Park employees officially participated in Pride in the Pines, a gay pride festival held near downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. At the festival, staff distributed material about park employment as well as general information about visiting.
Other parks have made efforts to reach out to the LGBT population within their ranks. Also in 2012, the Alaska regional office officially celebrated gay pride month by producing a series of films featuring gay and lesbian staff. Yellowstone National Park has sent an official delegation to the Montana Pride Parade since 2011.
People who Google for gay park rangers today will find a National Park Service webpage devoted to LGBT staff. Even the Department of Interior, under whose administration the National Park Service falls, has picked up the welcome banner. In September 2011, Interior created a video for the “It Gets Better” project, a global online video campaign to provide encouragement to young LGBT people.
Despite the increased tolerance and his own sense of peace with his life, Littleboy Jones acknowledges the challenges gay rangers still face. Isolated national park locations can be challenging for anyone, even without the compounded loneliness of being one of very few LGBT people. Littleboy Jones’ fiancé works in Flagstaff, over an hour and a half away, and for years they have had to commute back and forth weekly to be together.
Rural Western communities are not historically known for being gay-friendly, and so Littleboy Jones and his fiancé have sometimes felt like they had to hide their affection. "That's something that I think a lot of straight folks don't even think about," Littleboy Jones says. "You have to be constantly assessing your environment."
He feels comfortable being out in Grand Canyon Village and the park as a whole, though. Its polyglot culture is more diverse than the average Western town, thanks to visitors and residents from across the globe and the local Native American populations.
Littleboy Jones learned about accepting other people’s differences early in life. When he was a kid, two transgender people walked up to his mother’s yard in Grand Canyon Village one afternoon to ask for directions to the visitor center. Afterward, he asked his mom whether they were men or women. His mom, he says, “told me they were men that wanted to be women. Before I could say anything, she said, 'And you accept them for who they are.' ”
Other than one old-timer instructor at the Law Enforcement Academy who had a penchant for offensive jokes, Littleboy Jones says he’s faced no outward discrimination from the Park Service. He considers the run-in with that instructor — whose “jokes” were dealt with by Littleboy Jones’ supervisor ––as an indication of how much the Park Service has evolved in recent decades.
Littleboy Jones can recount many adrenaline-laden adventures –– dangling from helicopters and running the monster waves of the Colorado –– but he’s found his greatest satisfaction at quieter times. He recalls meeting a distressed woman who had hiked down 3,000 feet in elevation to reach the Indian Garden, but feared she lacked the strength to return to the rim. Littleboy Jones hiked alongside the woman for the six and a half hours it took for her to get back up. He told her stories, made her laugh and offered his iPod –– and in the process, showed her that she could do what had seemed impossible.
Over time, she's sent him three different thank-you letters. Littleboy Jones just shrugs his shoulders and smiles. "It's nice when you impact somebody's life in a positive way like that."