April 1, 2010 at 5:27 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Mixing business with pleasure

For many LGBT activists, the most efficient way to get an up-to-the-minute handle on the state of the gay rights movement — and also have some fun mingling — is the annual Equality Forum, always in Philadelphia and slated for April 26 to May 2. With about 50,000 in attendance, organizers say it’s the largest gay civil rights forum in the world.

“It’s really the one location where all our major issues are discussed and it really brings together literally all the major and preeminent movement leaders and we’re very proud of the fact that there’s no registration fee and so many of the programs are free,” says Malcolm Lazin, the Forum’s executive director and one of its founders.

The International Equality Dinner, the event’s central event which is slated for May 1 at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, will feature an especially heady list of honorees this year. David Boies and Ted Olson, the straight attorneys working to have California’s Prop 8 overturned, will receive a role model award. CNN’s Tony Maddox will pick up a business leadership award on behalf of the network. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania’s Gov. Ed Rendell and Maryland’s Gov. Martin O’Malley are scheduled to attend. Several leaders from national gay rights groups will also be there representing some of the movement’s most influential players. Dan Choi, an officer in the U.S. Army facing discharge because of his outspoken gay rights activism, is also scheduled to attend.

Past honorees have included straight allies like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and New Mexico’s Gov. Bill Richardson and lesbian tennis legend Martina Navratilova.

“We’ve always honored folks who’ve been on the cutting edge of our movement and folks who perhaps when they step forward, weren’t always as appreciated by our community but we believed in what they were advancing,” Lazin says.

The Forum also promises seven days of panels and parties. The highlight, organizers say, will be SundayOUT! at the Piazza & Liberties Walk on May 2, which is a seven-hour street festival slated for Philly’s newly revived Northern Liberties area, an old brewery that’s been dubbed “the Piazza.”

No registration is required. Except for the dinner, where tickets run $200, most events cost between $5 and $10. Panel discussions are free. Hotel Palomar Philadelphia is the official Forum hotel.

Organizers say a must-see event is the Brian Sanders Dance Tribute on April 30 at Merriam Theater. The 11th annual Gay and Lesbian Art Exhibit will feature the works of photographers Richard Renaldi and Marc Yankus. A panel featuring appointees of President Obama will highlight the visibility of LGBT people in this administration. Two new LGBT-themed documentary films will be shown and nine parties are scheduled. Visit equalityforum.com for a complete schedule of events.

Judd Proctor, a Richmond, Va., resident who produces LGBT history radio show “The Rainbow Minute,” attends the Forum annually and says he finds the experience enriching.

“There’s a little bit of something for everyone who attends,” he says. “I especially enjoy the evening panels based on current LGBT topics. They always have activists and people in the know and the Q&A sessions give attendees a chance to participate and meet leading experts and activists nationwide.”

Bruce Yelk, who heads the gay division of Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, the city’s marketing arm for leisure tourism, works with the Forum to help promote its events and coalesce its offerings with other aspects of gay Philadelphia which, Yelk says, has become one of the East Coast’s most gay-friendly cities.

“We have a very strong community,” Yelk says. “I don’t know if anybody has a number other than the traditional 10 percent [for LGBTs]. We’re not a Ft. Lauderdale or a Miami, not a resort destination, but a traveler who has gone to the traditional beach resorts and really wants a more sophisticated sort of vacation, with great museums, we have a lot of that. It’s hard to compare to New York, but we do offer lots of arts and culture here. Also our gayborhood is right in the heart of the city. You don’t have to get on a train and travel 25 minutes from where all the tourists would be.”

The Equality Forum is just one of 10 gay events scheduled for spring in the city. Mr. Gay Philadelphia, a celebrity-judged pageant, is April 17 at Voyeur Nighclub. Also that week is Philadelphia Black Gay Pride. Every Saturday in May is the Frontrunners Philly Fun Run and a Pride event in nearby New Hope, Pa., in Bucks County (May 13 to 16). And the Liberty Bell Classic, the city’s largest LGBT sporting event, hosts a weekend of softball competitions at the end of May (go to visitphilly.com or uwishunu.com for more information). Philly Gay Pride is June 13. QFest, Philly’s gay film festival, is July 8 to 19.

And if you haven’t been to the City of Brotherly Love in a few years, some aspects of nightlife have changed. Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar, which opened this month at 200 South 12th St., is the newest space. Several others, including Voyeur Nightclub at 1221 St. James St. (formerly Pure), Q Lounge and Kitchen at 1234 Locust St. (formerly Bump) and Westbury Bar and Restaurant at 261 South 13th St., have had major renovations. JR’s Lounge (no connection to Washington’s JR.’s) opened about six months ago at 1305 Locust St. It was formerly Camac Bar. Yelk says the pizza there is first rate.

And speaking of food, a couple new gay restaurants are also worth checking out, Yelk says. Look for Sampan (sampanphilly.com) at 124 South 13th St.; Chifa (chifarestaurant.com), the latest from superstar chef Jose Garces at 707 Chestnut St.; and nearby Knock Restaurant and Bar (knockphilly.com) at 225 South 12th St., which Yelk says is the best place to go for Friday night happy hour.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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