Philly Celebrates its Gay Past

The ‘City of Brotherly Love’ commemorates 50 years of activism

1965Protest

Courtesy of Visit Philadelphia

On July 4, 1965, 40 LGBT activists from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia gathered in front of Independence Hall for what would become the largest demonstration for gay and lesbian equality for its time. Carrying pickets  such as “Homosexuals Ask For: Equality Before the Law” and circling the area chanting, this protest and would repeat this for the next four years.

This was just a few years before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, really kicking off the gay rights movement in the United States.

“The city sort of has a culture of wanting to be the first to do things. If you look at our history, there were lots of firsts here,” said Bruce Yelk, the director of public relations at Visit Philadelphia.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of those demonstrations, or “The Reminder,” as locals call it, the people of Philly are coming together in a big way. While it’s been remembered year after year, for the big golden year, museums are putting on special exhibits, the Gayborhood has planned block parties, historical landmarks are hosting events, and most importantly, a reenactment of the demonstration is planned.

“It shows how the city and its citizens appreciate and celebrate its LGBT community similarly to other communities among the city’s population,” said Mark Segal, the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, one of the oldest LGBT news outlets in the U.S.

Philadelphia, literally “city of brotherly love” in Greek, has long been known as a progressive place to live. In 2014, Philadelphia was one of 38 cities in the entire country to be given a perfect score on the Human Rights Council’s municipal equality index. The HRC judges cities by their LGBT laws, activism, relationship with the LGBT community, and other factors.

On the big day, the city has asked Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Fidelis Alva to lead the Pledge of Allegiance before a crowd of thousands at Independence Mall. Alva was the first American member of the Armed Forces seriously injured in the Iraq War on March 21, 2003 and is also openly gay.

“I’m excited to stand in front of a bunch of people who recognize me for who I am and even our allies, but standing in front of a group of people who I can lead in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and really mean what it says — with liberty and justice for all,” he said.

“American the Beautiful” will then be sung by gay men’s choruses from New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia — commemorative of the three cities that came together 50 years ago.

“The city in general surprises people,” Yelk said. “I hope [visitors] take away a greater appreciation for how beautiful, vibrant, and wonderful Philadelphia is.”

HOO RAH! Meet Staff Sgt. Eric Alva

Courtesy of LGBT 50

Courtesy of LGBT 50

It was March 21, 2002, and the landmine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva stepped on didn’t care if he was gay, straight, black, white or Hispanic.

It went off.

It was the first day of the American ground invasion in Iraq, and Alva became the first member of the American Armed Services to be injured in the war.

“I remember the smoke, I remember my face being hit with this force of wind and dirt and smoke. It knocked me back… my hearing was gone. I had this enormous ringing in both ears,” he remembered. “The pain alone is indescribable.”

About 10 minutes later, another landmine went off, and his fellow Marines were jumping on the HumVee, trying to avoid being in the sand. Alva described the sand like “a sea of sharks.”

He thought he was going to die. He was hospitalized in Germany, and doctors amputated his right leg above the knee, his left leg was broken, and his right arm had severe nerve damage. But perhaps even more painful was he would have to call his mother, who he promised before he left for Iraq that he wouldn’t get hurt.

“Sure enough I got hurt and the first time I got to talk to [my parents] I actually said, ‘Mom, I’m sorry, I broke my promise, I got hurt,’” he said.

When Alva recovered, he became a media sensation. News outlets everywhere wanted to talk to the American hero from San Antonio who lost his limb for our country (ever humble, he doesn’t consider himself a hero, “I walked in the wrong place.”). Although he was out to his family, he was still in the closet and he wondered if everyone would still applaud him if they knew he was gay.

“Here I am shaking people’s hands, even Gov. Rick Perry at a breakfast, but would he have shaken my hand or thanked me beforehand if he knew, oh, he’s a gay Marine? I would say no,” Alva said.

In 2004, after 13 years of service, he had a medical retirement from the Marine Corps.

Although his mother was afraid more harm would come to him if he came out publically, Alva gathered the courage to do it, coming out on “Good Morning America” in 2007 with the help of the Human Rights Council.

Thankfully, he said the reaction was largely supportive.

“It was something I had to do, it was something I had to tell the American people since everybody was paying me such homage,” he remembered. “They think we’re some pariah or some lepers with diseases or something. We’re not, we’re just people who served our country or anyone else who is in the Armed Forces.”

Alva said he did get some hate mail, including an email where someone told him, “Too bad you didn’t get your head blown off and died in Iraq, you faggot.”

The former Marine became an activist, working to overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and even testified before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee about the law. While attending conferences and workshops around the country, he met Danny Ingram, a former Army soldier and national president of Veterans for Equal Rights. Alva respected him, but had no idea he was gay until 2013 when they had a long conversation and hit it off. A southern gentleman from Georgia, Ingram asked Alva before leaving, “with your permission, may I have a kiss?”

On July 4, Alva will lead the crowd at Independence Mall through the Pledge of Allegiance, something he’s honored, excited, and nervous to do.

“That’s what I was fighting for, the freedom, and liberty, of happiness, and pursuit of happiness — for people to be free,” he said.

Just How Gay is Philly?

Check out this exhaustive list of the city’s LGBT happenings

Courtesy of Visit Philly

Courtesy of Visit Philadelphia

Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference

June 4 to 6 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets. In its 14th year, the conference works to promote wellness in the mind, body, spirit, and community for transgender, gender variant, and gender nonconforming people. Call 215-563-0652 or visit Trans-Health.org.

Speaking Out for Equality: The Supreme Court, Gay Rights, and the Constitution

June 5 to Sept. 7 at the National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St. A look at how Supreme Court decisions over the decades have shaped the gay rights movement. Call 215-409-6700 or visit ConstitutionCenter.org.

En Blanco y Negro (In Black and White): A Gay-Latino Perspective

June 12 to July 25 at Taller Puertorriqueño, 2721 N. Fifth St. An exhibition of works by Philadelphia native, José Luis Cortes, one of the earliest out Puerto Rican artists. Call 215- 426-3311 or visit TallerPR.org.

Legendary

June 12 to Aug. 16 at The African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St. A collection of photographs by Gerard H. Gaskin documenting “house balls” thrown by LGBT African Americans and Latinos, an event where they could be themselves. Call 215-574-0380 or visit AAMPMuseum.org

Pride Day LGBT Parade and Festival

June 14 throughout Philadelphia. Live music, DJs, food, and drinks along the parade route from the Gayborhood to Penn’s Landing. Call 215-875-9288 or visit PhillyGayPride.org

Activism

June 22 to Aug. 14 at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ Library, 1901 Vine St. A profile of the life and times of Barbara Gittings, the founding coordinator of the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force and the protests she lead in Philadelphia in the 1960s. Call 215-686-5322 or visit FreeLibrary.org

National Legal Panel and LGBT Party

July 2 from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East. National legal experts discuss gay rights across the country. Then, from 10 to 11:30 p.m., the LGBT Party. Call 215-923-3811 or visit nmajh.org

National Politics Panel

July 2 from 8:15 to 9:30 p.m. at Congress Hall, Sixth and Chestnut Streets. A panel, hosted where Congress held sessions from 1790 to 1800. Call 215-965-2305 or nps.gov/inde.

National Interfaith Service

July 3 from 4 to 5 p.m. at Christ Church, 20 N. American St. A service by Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, delivers an interfaith service where George Washington and Betsy Ross once worshipped. Call 215-922-1695 or visit ChristChurchPhila.org

Live Nation 50th Anniversary Concert

July 3 at 8 p.m. at the Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing, Columbus Boulevard and Spring Garden Street. Performers will be announced. Visit FestivalPierPhilly.com

Celebration of Freedom Ceremony

July 4 at 10 a.m. at Independence Hall. Part of the city’s general celebration with music, speeches and readings from the Declaration of Independence with a special homage to the Reminder Day demonstrations.

50th Anniversary Ceremony

July 4 from 3 to 4 p.m. at Congress Hall, Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. The Equality Forum hosts the official ceremony with a reenactment of The Reminder. Visit WelcomeAmerica.com

Wreath-Laying Ceremony

July 4 from 2 to 2:30 p.m. at Congress Hall, Chestnut Street and Sixth Street. A commemoration of the protests.

Reminder Block Party

July 5 in the Gayborhood. A celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Reminder, a party with vendors, food, and music. Call 215-875-9288 or visit PhillyGayPride.org

qFLIX Philadelphia

July 10 to 20 throughout Philadelphia. Formerly QFest, the film festival features dozens of films and events. Visit QFest.com.

GayFest!

Aug. 7 to 22 at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Place and Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St. LGBT themes are the focus of this theatre festival with plays, music, dance, performance art, and spoken word. Call 215-627-1088 or visit QuinceProductions.com/gayfest.html.

Philadelphia Phillies’ Gay Day

Aug. 5 at Citizens Bank Park, One Citizens Bank Way. The annual day of baseball for LGBT fans returns. Call 215-463-6000 or visit PhillyGayDays.com.

The Boys of Summer

Aug. 7 to 9 at Voyeur Nightclub, 1221 Saint James Place. The best and the hottest show up for the Philly Gay Calendar’s annual swimsuit party and fundraiser. Visit PhillyGayCalendar.com/bos.

OutFest

Oct. 11 in the Gayborhood. Celebrate National Coming Out Day with a block party filled with drag shows, games, bar crawls and shopping. Call 215-875-9288 or visit PhillyPride.org

Pink Pub Crawl

Nov. 25 throughout the Gayborhood. Meander through the Gayborhood and its iconic bars. Visit PinkPubCrawl.com

Originally published in South Florida Gay News.

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