Gay rights activist Barbara Gittings addresses a rally in center city in 1972, when speaking out publicly for gay rights was a very dangerous thing to do.

Gay rights activist Barbara Gittings addresses a rally in center city in 1972, when speaking out publicly for gay rights was a very dangerous thing to do.

by Len Lear

There has been a lot of attention in the major media — and rightfully so — to the five-day celebration that started July 4 of the 50-year anniversary of the nation’s first gay rights protest, held July 4, 1965, in front of Independence Hall. The coverage reminded me of my own experience with this historic occasion, probably as audacious an act as any other protest in the nation’s history.

I had just been hired for my first reporting job by the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s oldest black newspaper, in May, 1967, amid the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement. Less than two months later, city editor Mark Bricklin transferred a phone call to me. The woman on the line said she was Barbara Gittings, of the Mattachine Society, which I had never heard of.

“We would like you to come and cover our demonstration July 4, 2 p.m., in front of Independence Hall,” she said. “I and a group of other homosexuals, both men and women, will be peacefully picketing on behalf of equal rights for homosexuals. We would very much like you to come and write a story about it and take pictures.”

It is impossible for me to explain fully to people under 50 what it was like to hear those words. I would have been less shocked if Gittings had said that a group of Martians would be picketing outside Independence Hall. If a poll had been taken in 1967 on the issue of homosexual marriage, I doubt if one straight male or female in the entire country would have favored it. In the neighborhood I grew up in (West Oak Lane), “fag” was the ultimate insult. It was a fighting word.

Consensual homosexual relations (the word “gay” was not used yet in this context) were against the law in almost every state in the nation. Psychiatrists and psychologists considered it a mental illness along with schizophrenia, pedophilia and pyromania. It was justification for being thrown out of school, fired from a job, being put in prison, even being forced to undergo electric shock “conversion” therapy or a lobotomy.

There was a rumor in my neighborhood that one chubby, effeminate boy my age was a “fag” (I do not know if he was or not), and he basically became a leper. His grades were terrible, he had no friends and he dropped out of high school. I do not know what ever happened to him, but I doubt if he had much happiness in his life.

This is what came to mind when I received the phone call from Barbara Gittings. “Is this a joke?” I asked. She assured me it was not. She said this would be the group’s third annual July 4 demonstration and that she had called the Tribune the previous two years, but no one had come out to cover it. After I took down the information and told the editor about it, he said, “Are there supposed to be any Negroes involved in the protest?” I told him I had no idea, that I was so shocked by the call, I did not think to ask.

“Well, July 4 is a national holiday, and we are all off,” Bricklin said. “You can go if you want, but I would not waste my July 4th for that. It’s not as if this a march led by Martin Luther King. But it’s up to you.”

Believe me, for what I was being paid — $80 a week before taxes — I did not exactly feel like working overtime on a holiday, but I could not stop thinking about the phone call. I always believed that homosexuals were as rare as unicorns. What do these people look like, I wondered. How is it possible to get a group of them together in one place? Aren’t they afraid they will be beaten by police? (Frank Rizzo, who had a reputation for beating up homosexuals in center city personally when he was a “beat cop,” was the police chief.)

Needless to say, I went to the demonstration and saw a group of men in suits and ties and women in dresses walking quietly and solemnly carrying signs with messages like “Support Homosexual Rights” and “Homosexuals Should be Judged as Individuals.” I was stunned, as were tourists and passersby who happened to be in the area. One pedestrian saw me taking pictures and asked me, “Is this a scene in a movie?”

I spoke to some of the marchers after the demonstration was over and was shocked to find that they seemed so normal. I was really skeptical as to whether they were really all homosexuals. I thought maybe the organizers had recruited straight people to pretend to be homosexuals.

But that was the beginning of a long, slow, gradual transformation in my own thinking and, I’m sure, in the thinking of millions of other Americans right up to the present day. The non-famous marchers, who were thankfully not beaten by police or onlookers that July 4 (I didn’t even hear any insults hurled at them), were incredibly gutsy pioneers who deserve their place in American History books alongside Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King and so many other revolutionaries who jeopardized their very lives to persuade us to live up to the ideals in our Constitution.