Philadelphia freedom: the city of brotherly love celebrates one of the first U.S. gay rights demonstrations.
Pride and Progress, a colorful mural painted on the side of Philadelphia's William Way Center, one of the country's few gay and lesbian community centers built with federal funds, features a bespectacled woman with white hair. It's the only figure in the crowded mural that seems to be looking directly at you, as if she has something important to say.
Barbara Gittings is known for compiling the first gay bibliography for the American Library Association (the extensive gay and lesbian collection at the Philadelphia Free Library's Independence Branch is named after her) and for lobbying the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Four years before Stonewall, ,at Independence Hall on July 4, 1965, Gittings was among a group of pioneering gay and lesbian picketers who held the first Reminder Day, which according to Gittings was meant to "remind the public that there was still a sizable segment of the American people that were not benefiting from the promises in our founding fathers' document."
Gay and lesbian protesters at Independence Hall in 1965 "remind" the public of their existence. Activist Barbara Gittings (top of page) looks out from the Pride and Progress mural.
Gittings recorded a range of public reaction that day, from the incredulous ("I still don't believe it--somebody's kidding") to the matter-of-fact ("When you're as disliked as homosexuals, it takes a lot of guts to stand up for your rights") to the positively churlish ("Hold your noses--it's dirty here").
Most people gawked because the demonstration was so unfamiliar. Even some gay people uttered less-than-supportive statements: "Ridiculous, if not utter insanity. We're not ready for it yet.
It's best to work quietly on an individual basis." But others were ready for it, and these Annual Reminders, held each Independence Day from 1965 to 1969, helped open the door to a string of gay rights victories [see accompanying article]. Though the Pride and Progress mural doesn't seem to be fading, this year's 40th anniversary of that initial demonstration is galvanizing Philly's gay elders to etch a more permanent (and prominent) place in history.
"The governor will be unveiling a historical marker along with Barbara [Gittings] on July 4," effuses longtime activist and community leader Mark Segal. "It might be right in front of Independence Hall, but there are already so many plaques there. My plan is to place it directly across the street from Independence Hall. I want people to see it and notice it!"
That ceremony will undoubtedly be overshadowed by another event Segal is organizing this year, promising to make July 4, 2005, the gayest Independence Day ever: Elton John will perform a free concert on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Benjamin Franklin Parkway (the city's Champs Elysees). Also on the bill is a fund-raising ball for the Elton John AIDS Foundation (dress code is casual/colonial).
Those who make this pilgrimage will encounter a welcoming city where the constitutional blessings of liberty seem almost palpable. The National Constitution Center, just steps from where Gittings and others put their lives on the line in 1965, includes interactive exhibits that highlight the constitution's impact on the rights of gays and lesbians. In January the center will host Blue Ball Weekend, Philly's annual gay and lesbian circuit-party fund-raiser.
"What a marvelous improvement," says the tireless Gittings. "But we still have a lot of work to do."
For information on gay hotel packages and detail about the July 4 Philadelphia Freedom Concert & Ball featuring Elton John, visit www.outtraveler.com.
PHILLY'S BIG GAY MOMENTS
1856 Abe Lincoln is considered as a vice-presidential nominee at the nation's first Republican Convention. You can literally stand in his footprints in front of Independence Hall.
1873-1892 Poet Walt Whitman is based across the Delaware River in Camden, N.J. The Leaves of Grass author's modest wood frame house is open for tours, and one of the bridges spanning the Delaware is named in his honor.
1965-1969 Annual Reminders held in front of Independence Hall.
1971 Mark Segal starts the Campaign Against the Television Networks to change the way the networks portrayed gays and lesbians.
1974 Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp creates the nation's first governmental commission to look into the problems of sexual minorities.
1975 Governor Shapp issues the nation's first executive order to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. The order covers state and local government agencies and their contractors.
1982 Philadelphia becomes one of the first cities in the country to pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
1997 Philly's domestic-partner benefits law is the first in the country to provide a tax break for gay and lesbian couples. The Supreme Court later struck it down.
2004 Philly launches a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign with "Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay," the first commercial spot targeting lesbians and gays for a U.S. travel destination.
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|Title Annotation:||OUR HISTORY|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jul 5, 2005|
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