Pride Issue 2015: Philly celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first march for equality

click to enlarge QUIET STORM: Barbara Gittings picketing Independence Hall on July 4, 1966, the second of the four Annual Reminders. - KAY LAHUSEN
Kay Lahusen
QUIET STORM: Barbara Gittings picketing Independence Hall on July 4, 1966, the second of the four Annual Reminders.

In the weekend following St. Pete Pride, another notable celebration of freedom takes place in a city about a thousand miles north of
here: Philadelphia.

I’m not talking about Philly’s traditional Independence Day festivities, whose historic cachet is already well-known, but of a Fourth of July milestone being celebrated there for the first time: the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking gay rights demonstrations first held in front of Independence Hall on July 4, 1965, and repeated on subsequent Independence Days through 1969. Called the Annual Reminders to draw attention to the fact that gays and lesbians were not being granted the rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, the marches were conservative in tone (jackets and ties for the gentlemen, dresses for the ladies) and did not shake up the status quo as loudly as 1969’s Stonewall riots.

But the first assemblage, 40 marchers strong, was at the time the largest gay rights picket in history, as well as the first to attract participants from multiple states, and laid the groundwork for the changes to come. Now, thanks to the ambitious efforts of a Philadelphia-based organization called Equality Forum, the pioneers of the gay civil rights movement are being granted the wide recognition they have long deserved.

According to EF Executive Director Malcolm Lazin, the seeds for the anniversary observance were planted during a smaller-scale event 10 years ago honoring Reminder organizers Franklin Kameny and Barbara Gittings, whom Lazin calls “the father and mother of the movement.” He promised them that “if, God willing, I was still around for the 50th, it would be remembered.”

EF had already co-produced (with Philly PBS station WHYY) an acclaimed documentary about the Reminders called Gay Pioneers, and successfully petitioned to have an historical marker commemorating the marches placed across from Independence Hall. But the 50th anniversary celebration will be the biggest tribute by far. A collaboration of 55 regional and national organizations, the four-day event (July 2-5) includes panels, parties, exhibitions, and appearances by a passel of LGBT luminaries including Wanda Sykes, Bishop Eugene Robinson, Judy Shepard (mother of Matthew) and the woman who brought down DOMA, Edie Windsor.

The timing couldn’t be more propitious. Lazin predicts that the Supreme Court will issue its decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case, on June 29. Two of the key figures in that case — plaintiff Jim Obergefell and lead counsel Douglas Hallward-Driemeier — will be on hand for the 50th. We suspect they’ll have a lot to say.

[UPDATE: The Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the U.S. was announced on Fri. June 26. Equality Forum announced on Mon. June 29 that Jim Obergefell will be a featured speaker at the 50th anniversary ceremony on July 4 at Independence Hall.]

Many of the events over the four days are free, including the national legal panel on July 2, with Hallward-Driemeier among the panelists, and the 50th anniversary ceremony on the Fourth. (There is no registration fee.) The exhibitions are also free, and intriguing, including “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights and the Supreme Court” at the National Constitution Center, which features such artifacts as lobotomy instruments used to “cure” homosexuals and the dress Barbara Gittings wore for the Reminders, and “Legendary” at the African American Museum, which looks at the drag-tastic culture of house balls.

And since we’re talking Philly on July 4 weekend, the 50th celebration coincides with the city’s display of fireworks on the Fourth, preceded by a concert starring (who else?) The Roots. If you haven’t visited Philadelphia before, this would be an ideal weekend to discover it: a town whose gay-friendliness has become a living example of the ideals forged on its own home turf.

National LGBT 50th Anniversary Celebration, July 2-5, lgbt50.org

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