Many credit a buttoned-up and orderly 1965 march that took place outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia with helping to ignite the modern gay rights movement.
It was a small group of picketers, around four dozen or so, who wore suits and dresses and held up signs reading “Homosexuals should be judged as individuals.”
The “Annual Reminder” brought gay rights activists to Philadelphia the next four years and laid the groundwork for better-known demonstrations, such as the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in New York.
Months away from the 50th anniversary of the march, Mayor Michael Nutter and gay rights activists spoke Tuesday about the significance of the event.
“For decades, Philadelphia has been an LGBT history-making city,” Nutter said, noting a city gay rights bill passed three decades ago providing protections based on sexual orientation.
Nutter also mentioned that, in May, a federal judge struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage following a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I’ve had the incredible opportunity to marry a lot of same sex couples. A lot. I can’t even tell you how many,” Nutter said.
“I like to think that many would think, at this point, that I am in fact an LGBT ally and advocate and proud of our fight, our collective fight, for equal rights for all Philadelphians.”
The Fourth of July in 1965 is a day one man in the audience remembers vividly.
It was a hot afternoon and John James traveled to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C, to participate. The event was intended to focus attention to widening inequalities between gays and lesbians and everyone else — a disparity that bore out in a small way when he stopped marching to buy an ice cream sandwich from a food cart vendor.
“The guy who was selling them said, ‘Well, there were some things I never thought I’d be doing,’ and obviously he meant selling something to homosexuals,” he said.
The march infused James with new energy. He went on to create Aids Treatment News, an underground newsletter that published for 20 years.
He said at the time of the march, a more equal society seemed like a distant dream.
“I didn’t see it as nearly as historic as it became. I mean, I realized it was new, and we had good hopes for it, but I’ve just been amazing in the years since of the progress in gay and lesbian equality,” James said.
Now living in Philadelphia in his 70s, the newsletter has faded away. But he’s started a new online newsletter focused on a different cause. It’s called Age Treatment News.
Nonetheless, James says being part of what’s considered the first public LGBT rights demonstrations will always stay with him.