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 counterprotest 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.