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Philadelphia July 4th events to recall bold 1965 gay rights protest

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Robert Wood
Rev. Robert Wood began speaking and writing for gay causes shortly after his ordination in 1951. He wrote “Christ and the Homosexual” (1960), which helped begin the dialogue between organized religion and the LGBT community. He was among the first clergymen to advocate for same-sex marriage. His partner of over 26 years, American abstract artist Hugh M. Coulter painted the painting behind him. Coulter died in 1989. Geoff Forester, The Concord Monitor (AP)
Marjorie McCann
Marjorie McCann, left, and her wife, Carole Smith, near their home in Kennett Square, Pa. In 1965, gays and lesbians were prohibited from working in the federal government under an order signed by President Dwight Eisenhower a dozen years earlier. Those kinds of rules were one reason McCann, who worked for the city of Philadelphia at the time, watched the July 4, 1965 protest but didn’t participate. “I was hiding behind a tree,” said McCann. “We were all hiding, passing in the way we dressed and carried ourselves.” Matt Rourke, AP

President Barack Obama is congratulated by Franklin E. Kameny, right, after delivering brief remarks and signing a Presidential Memorandum regarding federal benefits and non-discrimination during a ceremony in the White House Oval Office, Wednesday, June 17, 2009, in Washington. Applauding from left to right is Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.
President Barack Obama is congratulated by Franklin E. Kameny, right, after delivering brief remarks and signing a Presidential Memorandum regarding federal benefits and non-discrimination during a ceremony in the White House Oval Office, Wednesday, June 17, 2009, in Washington. Applauding from left to right is Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. Haraz N. Ghanbari, AP

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.”

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