Anyone would think queer history began with Stonewall in New York. But, four years earlier, the world's first universal gay rights demo in fact happened in Philly. Now on the 6th anniversary of his death, there's a chance to catch up with OutUK's Adrian Gillan and his interview with one of those pioneer demonstrators in the "City of Brotherly Love".

"We weren't really thinking, 'No one's done this before'," reminisces 80-year old Frank Kameny, pioneer protester at what is widely considered to be the world's first demonstration to call for universal gay rights, more than 50 years ago on 4th July 1965 - four years before the famous Stonewall riots.


The world's first gay rights demo.
Kameny died 6 years ago in October 2011, but was actively campaigning almost all of his life. He was instrumental in overturning the ban on gays in the US civil service; reversing the American Psychiatric Association's classification of homosexuality as a mental illness; organising the first gay demos in Philadelphia, Washington and New York; and co-founding the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), plus another group that evolved into the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). In 1968, who coined the phrase "Gay is Good"? You bet: Frank did.
"We didn't know what was going to happen," he casts back over decades. "We thought stones might get thrown. I could see the girl in front of me was so scared that, if I clapped, she'd jump a mile. Afterwards we retired to a nearby pub, and I asked her what she'd learnt. She said: Never to picket in high heels."

A few other protests were happening at almost the same time in Washington and New York, but they were all ad hoc and single-issue, focusing on specifics like (alas perennial) discrimination in the military. The first Philly demo in fact kicked off a series of four "annual reminders", held on 4th July 1965-9, all highlighting the general abuses of gay human rights in the US at that time.


Frank Kameny.

"Philadelphia; 4th July; in front of Independence Hall," muses Malcolm Lazin, Executive Director of Equality Forum, organiser of America's largest annual gay conference and symposium which back in 2005 paid homage to Kameny and his colleagues at their week-long event in the city. "It was all clearly well thought out - challenging America's notions of liberty, at the very cradle of our democracy, on Independence Day. It was also very courageous - when few would publicly identify themselves as gay, the forty brave pioneers that first day were challenging an almost all-pervading homophobia."

"The last Philly protest in 1969 was just after Stonewall," rejoins our Frank, of an annual demo that had by then grown to 150-strong. "But Stonewall would never have happened without our demos. We laced the boot straps and Stonewall pulled them up! Even though Stonewall was - in many ways - a spontaneous outpouring, our demos produced the mindset that allowed the people at the Stonewall Riots to even think they could express themselves publicly."

These annual demonstrations in Philly were consolidated in 1970, to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, leading to the (then) largest ever gathering for LGBs: between two to five thousand people congregated in New York's Central Park. The 1970 demonstration encouraged activists to stage the first gay pride parade in NYC. The New York Pride Parade was emulated in large and small cities across North America and worldwide and helped catapult an international gay civil rights movement.

Frank rounds off, reflecting on the current queer state of affairs in the US: "In any kind of movement, it's two steps forward and one step back. Gay rights have been moving forward marvellously for the last few decades, away from being on the outer edges. We may have met a bit of an impasse over gay marriage - and that may continue for some time yet - but I'm always optimistic."

Wikipedia now features his legacy to freedom, equality and gay rights:

Astronomer, Franklin Edward "Frank" Kameny was an American gay rights activist. He has been referred to as "one of the most significant figures" in the American gay rights movement.
Born: May 21, 1925, New York City, New York, United States
Died: October 11, 2011, Washington, D.C., United States
Books: Gay is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny
Education: Queens College, City University of New York, Harvard University

Read out travel guide to: Visiting Philadelphia

 

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