PHILADELPHIA – One of the nation's first gay rights protests was held 50 years ago this July Fourth in Philadelphia. About 40 people participated; here are profiles of some of the most prominent protesters and their legacy.
A World War II veteran with a doctorate from Harvard University, Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer with the U.S. Map Service in 1957 after his superiors learned he'd been arrested in a park known as a gay pickup spot. Four years earlier, President Eisenhower had signed an executive order barring gays and lesbians from holding government jobs because of "sexual perversion."
Kameny appealed his dismissal to the Civil Service Commission and sued the government in federal court. He then founded the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Mattachine Society, which organized the first pickets for gay rights in Washington in summer 1965 and the first of the Annual Reminders — gay rights protests held each July Fourth between 1965 and 1969 in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall — a few weeks later. He advised his fellow activists and followers to model themselves after the Civil Rights Movement, coining the slogan "Gay is good."
At the time, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness that could be treated by lobotomy or shock therapy. Kameny and fellow gay rights activist Barbara Gittings fought the classification and lobbied the organization to get the classification changed. They were successful in this effort in 1973. Kameny described it as the day "we were cured en masse by psychiatrists."
As Kameny is considered the father of the movement, Gittings is called its mother. Although she lived in Philadelphia, she founded gay rights organizations in New York and San Francisco and was the editor of the first national lesbian magazine.
She and Kameny organized the "Annual Reminders," ending them after 1969 as the focus switched to organizing a march the following year to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City.
In 1958, Gittings opened the East Coast chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, the first known lesbian organization in the United States, started in San Francisco. In the 1970s, she and Kameny challenged the American Psychiatric Association's stance on homosexuality as a mental illness.
She advocated for more gay and lesbian literature in libraries. She was chairwoman of the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, the first of its kind, from 1971 to 1986. The Free Library of Philadelphia established a gay and lesbian collection named for Gittings in 2007. The New York Public Library houses a collection of papers from Gittings and her longtime partner, Kay Tobin Lahusen.
Gittings died in 2007 at age 74. A street in a section of Philadelphia known as the Gayborhood is named in her honor. She's also featured in a nearby mural called "Pride and Progress," her white-haired, bespectacled image looking directly at the observer.
JOHN S. JAMES
James joined Kameny and the other D.C. activists who bused to Philadelphia for the July 4, 1965, protest. He told organizers that he didn't want to be photographed for fear of losing his job as a computer programmer at the National Institutes of Health.
One image from that day clearly shows James wearing a dark suit and carrying a sign that says, "Homosexual citizens want their right to make their maximum contribution to society," but it did not affect his employment because of the lack of coverage.
But anti-gay employment sentiment did influence his career choice. He considered physics and "the Oppenheimer track" but feared being outed, losing his government clearance and being tossed from the field. He chose software, he said, "because I could be judged by my work instead of being judged as a person."
The 1965 was his only public activism for gay rights because "I was never one for demonstrations. I'm more about working relationships," he said.
James thinks his bigger contribution to the LGBT community was working on AIDS awareness campaigns and creating AIDS Treatment News, which he founded in 1986. The award-winning, biweekly newsletter shared insights on drug developments and other health matters, as well as public policy issues. It had 5,000 subscribers at its peak and was also published free online. The paper edition folded in late 2007.
THE REV. ROBERT WOOD
Wood and his longtime partner, Hugh Coulter, joined the nation's first gay picket line organized by Kameny in June 1965 in front of the Civil Services building in in Washington, D.C. When Kameny mentioned the upcoming Philadelphia protest, Wood decided to march there, too.
"We were involved long before Stonewall," said Wood, now 92 and living in New Hampshire. Coulter died in 1989.
In 1960, Vantage Press published "Christ and the Homosexual" with his name, Rev. Robert W. Wood, boldly printed on the cover. He wanted it that way, he said, because the author of another book on a similar theme had used a pseudonym and "there'd been enough subterfuge."
Wood, a World War II veteran who was wounded in Europe and received the Bronze Star, has said he had his first homosexual experience in the military. After the war, he used the GI Bill to earn degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Oberlin School of Theology. He was ordained at the Congregational Church in Fair Haven, Vermont, in 1951.
Wood's first posting was to a church in New York. After building a strong, trusting relationship during seven years as a pastor there, he wrote and released his book, which called for the Christian church to welcome gays and lesbians and allow them to marry. He gave copies to the church's leadership council.
The church and congregation had no problem with Wood's book. He would go on to serve as a parish pastor there and elsewhere for another 28 years.