Constitution Center explores long, complicated struggle for gay rights

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Beginning Friday, visitors to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia can take in a new exhibit dedicated to the storied history of the LGBT community’s struggle for equal rights.

The “Speaking Out For Equality” installment chronicles 50 years of abuse, protest, significant court decisions and pop culture moments decade by decade — starting with the 1960s, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and ending with a display about the landmark marriage equality case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s a long complicated story,” said Bob Skiba, who curated the exhibit. “I hope we’re able to tell it here in a way that’s clear, personal and moving.”

The exhibit coincides with the 50th anniversary of one of the first gay rights marches, which took place on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall on July 4, 1965. It will be the centerpiece of a series of events planned in the area this summer to celebrate a half-century of LGBT history, art and culture.

Inside “Speaking Out For Equality,” visitors can explore a collection of photos, artifacts, news clippings and court cases that offer a peek into the evolving U.S. mindset toward the LGBT community.

For instance, a television screen plays clips from a 1967 CBS broadcast called “The Homosexuals,” in which anchor Mike Wallace states that, according to a CBS survey, “most Americans are repelled by the mere notion of homosexuality.”

At a preview event Wednesday, Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, stood looking at a photo of himself taken during a 1992 protest at City Hall against the high cost of HIV medication.

“It’s very moving,” said Bartlett. “It reminds me of how different things were 25 years ago and how much we struggled for, how much achievement we’ve made, how much more work we still have to do.”

He started planning this exhibit three years ago, and partnered with Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen last year to tell a story that was framed around the Constitution and equality.

“It’s thrilling to be able to tell one of the most important constitutional stories of our time, and at the very moment the Supreme Court is about to decide the fate of marriage equality,” said Rosen.

In fact, the last display visitors see as they leave the exhibit is a map of the United States showing which states allow same-sex marriage, and an explanation of the marriage equality case the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on in the next few months.

As they leave, visitors are encouraged to write their opinion of the case on a yellow post-it note and stick it on the wall.

“I hope that this exhibit will inspire citizens of very different perspectives to debate what the Constitution means and to experience how it has come to be more inclusive over time through the equal protection clause,” said Rosen. “That’s one of the most thrilling stories of American citizenship, and here they can see it.”

The exhibit, which had been scheduled to run through the end of summer, has already been extended through January.

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