Celebrating Gay Pioneers: A 50th Anniversary

On July 4, 1965, 40 brave people carried signs calling for homosexual emancipation and marched at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was the largest demonstration of its kind ever in the country and was the first of many homosexual demonstrations for civil rights held every July 4th in Philadelphia until 1969. The demonstrations were called “Annual Reminders.” July 4, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of that first courageous protest.

Gay Pioneers Film Poster

Gay Pioneers Film Poster

Noted lesbian comic Wanda Sykes was the Master of Ceremonies at a series of events taking place in Philadelphia (July 2-5) to commemorate this historic event. “America the Beautiful” sung by the New York, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia Gay Men’s Choruses opened the celebration. “Over the Rainbow” was sung by Jonathon Allen, the 18 year-old America’s Got Talent opera singer who was thrown out of his house by his parents for being gay, and former Lady Ga-Ga back-up singer/ dancer Go-Go Morrow.

James Obergefell, the victorious plaintiff in the recent historic United States Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, laid a wreath at the Gay Pioneers historical marker, which is across the street from Independence Hall. There were LGBT history exhibits at the National Constitution Center, The National Museum of American Jewish History, and the African- American Museum. One of the many events staged was a reenactment of the first picket line with 40 activists who marched in front of Independence Hall with reproductions of the original signs.

1965 Protest

1965 Protest

Attendees participated in legal and political panel discussions, an interfaith service, a 50th Anniversary concert, numerous parties and celebrations, and a special screening of The Gay Pioneers as the centerpiece of the celebration. The Gay Pioneers was produced in 2013 by the Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that produces documentary films to advance LGBT civil rights, and WHYY-TV, which has chronicled the modern gay rights movement since before Stonewall.

Before the rainbow, before anyone threw a strappy sling-back or smacked a policeman across the head with a beaded handbag, before a lesbian threw a punch, before a homeless gay youth lobbed a bottle into the fray that became known as The Stonewall Uprising, there was a group of people who had already been marching for equal rights for years.

Celebration Logo

Celebration Logo

The Gay Pioneers documents footage from FBI files of the early demonstrations, and includes interviews, protocols, and photographs from the early activists. According to the documentary, the fear of retribution fueled the debate as to whether or not to do something so public as a demonstration. They decided on a strict dress code. They were instructed to look as normal as possible—like any one of the neighboring businesses would want to hire them. The idea was not to have people gawk at them but to focus on the messages on the picket signs. When the lowering of the American flag occurred, they lowered their signs and stood with their hands over their hearts to show that they were proud Americans—first-class citizens, not marginal or second-class citizens. These homosexual Americans did this every year on the fourth of July and their numbers increased each year. In 1969, just one week after Stonewall, the group attracted about 150 people.

Gay Historic Marker (photo by K.Ciappa)

Gay Historic Marker (photo by K.Ciappa)

They weren’t queer with a capital Q then. They weren’t even gay. Homosexual first appeared in the American dictionary in 1938. Until then, they were referred to as degenerates and perverts. After that they were referred to as homos, fruits, light in the loafers, and Nancy boys. The word dyke was always preceded by the word bull, and queer was always said with a sneer. They were that way, and confirmed bachelors or spinsters in polite society.

Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings organized the first demonstrations in Philadelphia in 1965 and are arguably considered the mother and father of the gay rights movement. In 1969, they recognized the events at Stonewall as the homosexual Boston Tea Party moment, and shifted their energies after the march in Philadelphia to help organize the 1970 march from Greenwich Village to Central Park, marking the first anniversary of Stonewall with what would eventually come to be known as the first Pride Parade.

Gittings Pickets in 1966 (photo by Kay Lahusen)

Gittings Pickets in 1966 (photo by Kay Lahusen)

Barbara Gittings (1932-2007) started the New York chapter of the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis in 1958, and served on the boards of the National Gay Task Force and the Gay Rights National Lobby in the 1970s. She also presented to the American Psychiatric Association, urging them to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, and won an honorary Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Library Association for her work in promoting gay materials and eliminating gay invisibility in libraries.

Frank Kameny (1925-2011) was dismissed from his job as an astronomer in the U.S. Army because of his homosexuality. His was the first recorded appeal in civil court based on sexual orientation. He lost twice and took his case to the Supreme Court who refused to hear it. In 1961, he co-founded the Mattachine Society. Kameny launched a picket line with other gays and lesbians at the White House on April 17, 1965. Twelve of the picket signs from that march are in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In 1971, he became the first openly gay candidate for congress in the District of Columbia. He sat in the front row when President Obama signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010” and his house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Frank Kameny

Frank Kameny

This 50th anniversary celebration featured prominent guests such as Judy Shepard and Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, the first soldier to win the Purple Heart in the Iraq War. Supreme Court Plaintiff Edith Windsor was also honored. The aforementioned Gay Men’s Choruses closed the ceremonies with their rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”

In a letter to attendees from the White House, President Obama stated: “Let us recommit to reaching for a tomorrow where no matter who we are or who we love, each of us is equally recognized and celebrated.”

For more information regarding this 50th anniversary celebration, visit www.lgbt50.org.

Spectators at LGBT 50th Ceremony (photo by Christopher Brucks)

Spectators at LGBT 50th Ceremony (photo by Christopher Brucks)

National LGBT 50th Anniversary photos courtesy of Equality Forum.