PHILADELPHIA — Hundreds of people gathered at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the country’s first LGBT rights demonstrations.
James Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices late last month ruled same-sex couples have the right to marry throughout the country, and Edith Windsor, a New York widow who successfully challenged the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, were among those on hand to honor the 40 advocates who participated in the first of what became known as the “annual reminders” that took place in front of Independence Hall on July 4, 1965. Dennis and Judy Shepard, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and Walter Naegle, longtime partner of Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington, also joined Obergefell and Windsor on stage during the event that comedian Wanda Sykes emceed.
Local LGBT rights advocates re-enacted the “annual reminders” during the ceremony.
“40 people stepped forward on our behalf and changed the course of history,” said Equality Forum Executive Director Malcolm Lazin.
Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings organized the “annual reminders” in which gay men dressed in suits and lesbian women wearing dresses and pantyhose picketed in front of Independence Hall. They held signs that contained “Equal treatment before the law,” “Equality for homosexual citizens” and other slogans.
More than 100 people participated in the “annual reminder” on July 4, 1969, that took place less than a week after the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village. The annual protests ended in 1970 when advocates took part in a march from Greenwich Village to Central Park that became the country’s first LGBT Pride march.
“Barbara (Gittings) was a hero when many in our community could not be,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell during the ceremony.
U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives Executive Director Amanda Simpson, who is the highest-ranking transgender federal employee, said that Kameny and Gittings and the other advocates who picketed in front of Independence Hall “laid the groundwork for future activism.”
“I stand on their shoulders,” said Simpson.
Obergefell, Windsor, Judy Shepard honored
The ceremony took place eight days after the U.S. Supreme Court issued their ruling in the Obergefell case.
Lazin and organizers of the event honored Obergefell during a post-ceremony reception. Windsor and Judy Shepard were also presented with awards at a lunch that took place at the Independence Visitor Center.
“Thank you Jim Obergefell for lending your name and your presence and your love story — heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time — for this total win for all LGBT couples,” said Windsor, referring to last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Obergefell on July 2 laid a wreath at a historic marker near Independence Hall that commemorates the “annual reminders.” Three of the original protesters were among those who attended the ceremony.
“Friday was a landmark day,” said Obergefell as he spoke at Independence Hall on Saturday, referring to the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in support of him and the other plaintiffs in the landmark same-sex marriage case that bares his name. “But we need to remember who came before us and the risks and the sacrifices that they made.”
Activists look beyond marriage
Obergefell and others who spoke during Saturday’s events said the movement needs to address lingering issues facing LGBT Americans.
Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund CEO Aisha Moodie-Mills and Out and Equal Workplace Advocates CEO Selisse Berry both noted as they spoke at Independence Hall that dozens of states lack LGBT-inclusive discrimination and employment protections. Retired New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson described religious freedom measures that critics contend would allow discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as an “abomination.”
“We have accomplished a lot, but we have much to do,” said Point Foundation Executive Director Jorge Valencia. “We all know that legislation doesn’t change society.”
Members of GALAEI, a Philadelphia-based LGBT Latino advocacy group, on Saturday held signs in support of rights for trans people and undocumented immigrants as they re-enacted the “annual reminders” protests in front of Independence Hall.
“I don’t feel free,” said Tamika Butler, an LGBT rights advocate who lives in Los Angeles. “I might be able to marry my white fiancée, but I am not truly free.”
Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) earlier in the day made a similar point as he introduced Windsor at the Independence Visitor Center.
The Philadelphia Democrat, who, along with gay state Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) have introduced bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature that would ban so-called conversion therapy in the commonwealth applauded the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell case. He also referenced last month’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and other recent events.
“When immigrants now land there’s a different perspective,” said Williams. “Those words that Donald Trump said, that’s why he got fired. Unfortunately when a young minister, a state senator, was gunned down in South Carolina the nation stopped and paused, not just in horror, but in shock that we can still act that way as Americans.”
“Our struggle for LGBT equality must merge with other social justice movements,” added Robinson during his remarks at Independence Hall. “Black lives matter. Immigrant Dreamers lives matter. People living in wheelchairs and in poverty matter. We who are LGBT are black, are immigrants, are disabled and are poor.”