Most people know about Stonewall, but protests starting 5 years earlier in Philadephia set the stage
PHILADELPHIA — On the Fourth of July 50 years ago, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and a same-sex couple’s public declaration of love put their lives and livelihoods at risk, about 40 people took a stand by staging a peaceful protest in front of Independence Hall.
Philadelphia’s Independence Day festivities this year will include the usual concert, fireworks, parade and public reading of the Declaration of Independence, but will also mark the city’s important place in the history of America’s gay rights movement with events billed as the 50th anniversary of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement.
While these weren’t the first public protests for gay rights, nor were very large when compared with demonstrations that came later, many LGBT activists say they are worthy of being celebrated as stepping stones to 1969’s Stonewall riots in New York City, a turning point in gay rights.
Philadelphia participant John S. James, now 74, said he was relieved when no one staged a counter-protest that day. Still, the mood of the time was summed up by the comments an ice cream vendor made to him.
“He said something like, ‘I never thought I’d be doing this,’ and it was obvious he meant doing business with homosexuals,” said James, who now lives in an LGBT-friendly senior apartment building in Philadelphia.
James didn’t want his photo taken that day for fear of losing his government job. Yet among the images is one of James holding a sign that says, “Homosexual citizens want their right to make their maximum contribution to society.” James kept his position — possibly because there was very little media attention given to that march and the ones that followed.
“What they were potentially subjecting themselves to far outweighed the benefits,” said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the nonprofit LGBT rights organization Equality Forum. “At the time, there were at most 200 people in the U.S. who identified as gay activists. Very few gay people were willing to rock the boat, because it could always get worse.”
Over the four years that followed the protest, a growing number of people took part in the “Annual Reminders” outside America’s birthplace, where both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were debated and signed.
Even their supporters thought they “were out of their minds,” said Lazin, who is organizing a series of events over the holiday week to mark the half-century anniversary of the protest, which is also recalled in a state historical marker that went up a decade ago.
Protest organizer Frank Kameny set the rules that “men had to wear suits and women had to wear similar formal wear,” James said.
“We had to show respectability because of the public sentiment towards gay people at that time,” he said.
The Associated Press covered the third Annual Reminder in 1967. It noted the protesters were “neatly-dressed” and carried “hand-painted signs saying, ‘Homosexual American citizens, our last oppressed minority’ and ‘Fifteen million U.S. homosexuals ask for redress of grievances.’”
Some of the planned events this Fourth include a ceremony in front of Independence Hall, parties and legal panels. There will also be a VIP lunch with Judy Shepard, the mother of slain gay man Matthew Shepard, and Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act. Museums are also showing special exhibits.
The Philadelphia celebration comes at a momentous time in gay history and is a stark reminder how different things were just 50 years ago.
Same-sex couples can now marry in a majority of states. Hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity are punishable by federal law. States, counties and cities are adding the LGBT community to the list of those protected under employment discrimination statutes. Openly gay candidates are regularly elected to public office.
In Philadelphia, just a stone’s throw from the protest site lies the area everyone knows as the Gayborhood, the heartbeat of the city’s LGBT culture, where gay bars line the streets and rainbow “Pride” symbols pepper storefronts and street signs. Crosswalks will be painted in rainbow colors to commemorate the protest.
But back in 1965, gays and lesbians were prohibited from working in federal government under an order signed by President Dwight Eisenhower a dozen years earlier. Those kinds of rules were one reason Marj McCann, who worked for the city of Philadelphia at the time, watched that first protest but didn’t participate.
“I was hiding behind a tree,” said McCann, 75, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with her partner. “We were all hiding, passing in the way we dressed and carried ourselves.”
The Rev. Robert Wood took part in the 1965 protest and many others wearing his clerical collar. While most were peaceful, there were always name-callers, he said, and he never got fully used to being denounced with words like “sinner” and other derogatory terms.
“Men and women, you could see the viciousness in their faces and their voices,” said Wood, now 92 and living in New Hampshire. “But we expected it. We survived it.”
Online: 50th Anniversary: http://lgbt50.org/
Key players in the Philly protests
PHILADELPHIA — One of the nation’s first gay rights protests was held 50 years ago this July Fourth in Philadelphia. About 40 people participated; here are profiles of some of the most prominent protesters and their legacy.
• FRANK KAMENY
A World War II veteran with a doctorate from Harvard University, Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer with the U.S. Map Service in 1957 after his superiors learned he’d been arrested in a park known as a gay pickup spot. Four years earlier, President Eisenhower had signed an executive order barring gays and lesbians from holding government jobs because of “sexual perversion.”
Kameny appealed his dismissal to the Civil Service Commission and sued the government in federal court. He then founded the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Mattachine Society, which organized the first pickets for gay rights in Washington in summer 1965 and the first of the
Annual Reminders — gay rights protests held each July Fourth between 1965 and 1969 in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall — a few weeks later.
He advised his fellow activists and followers to model themselves after the Civil Rights Movement, coining the slogan “Gay is good.”
At the time, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness that could be treated by lobotomy or shock therapy.
Kameny and fellow gay rights activist Barbara Gittings fought the classification and lobbied the organization to get the classification changed.
They were successful in this effort in 1973. Kameny described it as the day “we were cured en masse by psychiatrists.”
• BARBARA GITTINGS
As Kameny is considered the father of the movement, Gittings is called its mother. Although she lived in Philadelphia, she founded gay rights organizations in New York and San Francisco and was the editor of the first national lesbian magazine.
She and Kameny organized the “Annual Reminders,” ending them after 1969 as the focus switched to organizing a march the following year to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City.
In 1958, Gittings opened the East Coast chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, the first known lesbian organization in the United States, started in San Francisco. In the 1970s, she and Kameny challenged the American Psychiatric Association’s stance on homosexuality as a mental illness.
She advocated for more gay and lesbian literature in libraries. She was chairwoman of the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, the first of its kind, from 1971 to 1986. The Free Library of Philadelphia established a gay and lesbian collection named for Gittings in 2007. The New York Public Library houses a collection of papers from Gittings and her longtime partner, Kay Tobin Lahusen.
Gittings died in 2007 at age 74. A street in a section of Philadelphia known as the Gayborhood is named in her honor. She’s also featured in a nearby mural called “Pride and Progress,” her white-haired, bespectacled image looking directly at the observer.
• JOHN S. JAMES
James joined Kameny and the other D.C. activists who bused to Philadelphia for the July 4, 1965, protest. He told organizers that he didn’t want to be photographed for fear of losing his job as a computer programmer at the National Institutes of Health.
One image from that day clearly shows James wearing a dark suit and carrying a sign that says, “Homosexual citizens want their right to make their maximum contribution to society,” but it did not affect his employment because of the lack of coverage.
But anti-gay employment sentiment did influence his career choice. He considered physics and “the Oppenheimer track” but feared being outed, losing his government clearance and being tossed from the field. He chose software, he said, “because I could be judged by my work instead of being judged as a person.”
The 1965 protest was his only public activism for gay rights because “I was never one for demonstrations. I’m more about working relationships,” he said.
James thinks his bigger contribution to the LGBT community was working on AIDS awareness campaigns and creating AIDS Treatment News, which he founded in 1986. The award-winning, biweekly newsletter shared insights on drug developments and other health matters, as well as public policy issues. It had 5,000 subscribers at its peak and was also published free online. The paper edition folded in late 2007.
• THE REV. ROBERT WOOD
Wood and his longtime partner, Hugh Coulter, joined the nation’s first gay picket line organized by Kameny in June 1965 in front of the Civil Services building in Washington, D.C. When Kameny mentioned the upcoming Philadelphia protest, Wood decided to march there, too.
“We were involved long before Stonewall,” said Wood, now 92 and living in New Hampshire. Coulter died in 1989.
In 1960, Vantage Press published Christ and the Homosexual with his name, Rev. Robert W. Wood, boldly printed on the cover. He wanted it that way, he said, because the author of another book on a similar theme had used a pseudonym and “there’d been enough subterfuge.”
Wood, a World War II veteran who was wounded in Europe and received the Bronze Star, has said he had his first homosexual experience in the military. After the war, he used the GI Bill to earn degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Oberlin School of Theology. He was ordained at the Congregational Church in Fair Haven, Vermont, in 1951.
Wood’s first posting was to a church in New York. After building a strong, trusting relationship during seven years as a pastor there, he wrote and released his book, which called for the Christian church to welcome gays and lesbians and allow them to marry. He gave copies to the church’s leadership council.
The church and congregation had no problem with Wood’s book. He would go on to serve as a parish pastor there and elsewhere for another 28 years.
— Natalie Pompilio
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2015.