How Philadelphia Helped Give Birth to the LGBT Rights Movement

Fifty years ago — four years before the Stonewall riots — Independence Hall was the site of one of the first gay rights protests in our nation’s history.

Left: The first Annual Reminder in 1965 (photo: Right: Marchers in 1969 (photo: Nancy Tucker/Lesbian History Archives).

Left: The first Annual Reminder in 1965 (photo: Right: Marchers in 1969 (photo: Nancy Tucker/Lesbian History Archives).

It was Sunday, July 4, 1965. Marj McCann stood behind a trash can across from Independence Hall and watched the marchers. How brave these people are, she thought, the men in their shirts and ties, the women in their dresses. But how foolish, too, holding up signs saying SUPPORT HOMOSEXUAL CIVIL RIGHTS and HOMOSEXUALS SHOULD BE JUDGED AS INDIVIDUALS. Wouldn’t they all lose their jobs? She envied their courage. She was 25, an office manager at a typesetting firm in Center City, and hadn’t come out at work or to her family. “Oh my goodness,” she thought as she watched the marchers walk in dignified formation around their permitted protest area. “It must be great to be that brave.”

This month, over the course of three days, Philadelphia will commemorate that bravery. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the initial Annual Reminder march, one of the first organized LGBT protests in our nation’s history. That march and subsequent ones, which took place annually in front of Independence Hall until 1969, were the first group pickets that advocated for overall equal rights for gays and lesbians. They were pride marches before there were pride marches. They were determined demonstrations of personhood by people who’d been told they were sick, criminal and lost — who were classified by the medical community as diseased.

“The prevailing attitude was horror and pity,” says McCann, who grew up reading in novels in the backs of bookstores that lesbians would end up “either suicidal or alcoholic or quite possibly both.” All around her were jokes and snide remarks about homosexuals. Sodomy was illegal in every state except one. To be out and proud — proud of what? “We certainly heard people talked about in ways that at that time solidified our desire to remain anonymous,” says McCann.

Yet even within this context, activists Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and others — a group of people who’d go on to be known as the famed “Gay Pioneers” — organized the Annual Reminder marches. The Reverend Robert Wood — author of the 1960 classic Christ and the Homosexual, and a participant in the first Reminder march — says Philadelphia was chosen for its historic significance: “We were picketing for freedom and equal rights, and the Liberty Bell was a great symbol.”

But the city was also selected for a more strategic reason. The Liberty Bell had recently been the site of a protest by the NAACP, notes Bob Skiba, curator at the William Way LGBT Community Center, who says the late Kameny took great inspiration from the tactics of the black civil rights movement. “Before 1965, gay organizations were not activist,” says Skiba. “Then the NAACP demonstrations down South started to get attention. Frank Kameny looked at that and said, This is what you got to do. Till you start making trouble, no one’s handing you your rights on a silver platter.

In fact, in Philadelphia in the 1950s and ’60s, being gay was criminalized. “We considered ourselves good citizens; we had jobs,” says local activist Ada Bello, who had come to the U.S. from Cuba in the late 1950s. “But when it came to trying to socialize, we had to go to these places that were dark and down alleys, and the police were always a potential threat, with raids that could have terrible consequences on people’s lives.” She and her friends had to strategize on when it was safe for them to go out in terms of getting arrested. Perhaps saddest of all, remembers Bello, many gay people thought they deserved the treatment they got. “In so many cases, homosexuals had internalized the societal picture of them and were almost apologetic — almost saying, ‘We’re lucky we’re not in jail. We’re lucky we actually have places where we can get together and drink.’” (Those Philadelphia raids were so notorious that they were the subject of an episode of the TV show Cold Case.)

At the beginning, so many people were afraid to march openly in their hometown that most of the marchers came from Washington and New York. (Bello didn’t participate until 1969.) Still, the demonstrations promoted empowerment and a lack of shame, especially for those who stood in the shadows.

“The marches were to convey to everybody that we were just as entitled as any citizen to have our rights respected,” says Bello. “It wasn’t defiant. That came later, after Stonewall. But it was very forceful.” When Bello finally marched at Independence Hall, she says, “It gave you a certain pride to finally say, ‘Yes, this is who I am.’”

The last Reminder march came shortly after Stonewall in 1969, a year before New York’s first gay pride parade. Kameny and Gittings realized the movement was evolving beyond Independence Hall’s symbolism. But the Reminder marches served their purpose. They have their own historic marker at Independence Mall, and a street in Philadelphia is named for Gittings. Timelines of LGBT civil rights regularly include the marches as seminal moments.

Marj McCann, who would later become an activist, never did get a chance to march in an Annual Reminder, but she watched each year. “I was pretty reluctant to talk to you about this,” she says, “but my partner Carole suggested to me that it was important people know that some of us stood behind poles and watched the marchers. I was there, but I was not visible.” She’s visible now.

Originally published as “Independence Days” in the July 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.