Pennsylvania’s LGBT History

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to go through my boxes of memorabilia that I’ve collected over the years. Since I’ve been an activist on LGBT issues since 1969, and here in PA since 1971, it makes me one of the longest serving members of Pennsylvania’s struggle for equality. And that means that there are a lot of souvenirs from over the years.

Pennsylvania has an incredible history and was a leader in LGBT rights nationally in the ‘70s making our Commonwealth one of the most historic stops on the LGBT history tour. Let’s take a look at the highlights:

In 1955, the City of Pittsburgh enacted an ordinance establishing one of the very first Commission on Human Relations in the United States. The ordinance merged the city’s two agencies administering the laws prohibiting discrimination in employment.

The first LGBT sit-in or demonstration took place in April 1965 at Dewy’s restaurant in Philadelphia. Located at 219 S 17th Street near Rittenhouse Square (now Little Pete’s), management made it clear that they would refuse service “to a large number of homosexuals and persons wearing non-conformist clothing.” Modeled on current African-American civil rights protests, on Sunday, April 25th, more than 150 protesters, black, white, trans, lesbians and gays staged a sit-in, an amazing thing to do in Philadelphia in 1965. Police arrived and three of the protesters who refused to leave were arrested. They were young; two males and a female.

The Janus Society, a local gay rights group, was notified and over the next week, in support of the protesters, they distributed some 1,500 leaflets outside the restaurant. On Sunday, May 2, they staged a second sit-in. This time, when the police were called, they spoke with the protestors and simply left, declining to take any action at all. The management finally agreed to end the discrimination and the protesters left, having staged the first successful gay rights sit-in in the country. This marked an important step in the struggle for LGBT people to lay claim to the right to public space in 1960s Pennsylvania.

In 1965, the Annual Reminders were the first pickets organized by homosexual organizations specifically to demand equality for gays and lesbians. They were among the earliest LGBT demonstrations in the United States. Led by Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, the Annual Reminders included activists from New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. The protests took place each Fourth of July from 1965 to 1969 in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Referencing the self evident truth mentioned in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” the activists called for legislative changes that would improve the lives of American homosexuals.

At the first Annual Reminder, 40 demonstrators participated. By 1969 their numbers had tripled. The Annual Reminders were commemorated in 2005 by the placement of a Pennsylvania state historical marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at 6th and Chestnut Streets where it is viewed by thousands of visitors daily. In Philadelphia, the 50th anniversary of the Annual Reminder will be held on July 4, 2015.

In 1973, at a time when no one higher in government than a mayor would meet with gay activists, Pennsylvania Governor Milton became the first governor in the nation to do so. That meeting, with me and Harry Langhorn, led to the launch of the first official governmental body to look into the problems faced by the gay community – and the governor ordered all state departments to participate in that effort. This was a first not for just Pennsylvania, not for the nation, but the first such official governmental body of its type in world history. Never before had a government offered to create an official panel to look into ways to better serve its LGBT citizens. It was called the Governor’s Commission on Sexual Minorities. And it became the model for the world.

In 1975, Gov. Shapp issued the first state executive order to end anti-gay discrimination in state government, again something never done before. The following year, he issued the state’s first official gay Pride resolution. And, when he went on to run for president that year, he had the first official presidential gay campaign outreach called Gays for Shapp. While he only won one precinct in the Florida primary, Coconut Grove (then the gay ghetto in Miami), his campaign did lead another candidate to look into gay rights – a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia whose name was Jimmy Carter, and he appointed the first presidential liaison to the gay community.

In 1990, the City of Pittsburgh Human Relations Act was amended to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. The bill, which was initially vetoed in 1988, was approved by City Council 6-2 and was signed into law by Mayor Sophie Masloff.

Established on July 1, 2009, the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission was established to ensure that all persons enjoy the full benefits of citizenship and are afforded equal opportunities for employment, housing and use of public accommodation facilities. These benefits must be accomplished regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry or place of birth, sex, gender identity or expression. The Commission was signed into law by Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

In 2004, the University of Pittsburgh agreed to provide health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of employers. The decision ended a class action sexual orientation case originating at the Pittsburgh Commission in 1996 by seven university employees.

On May 20, 2014, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. The ruling was not stayed and same-sex couples, anticipating a stay in the ruling, rushed to fill out paperwork for marriage licenses all over the commonwealth. Governor Tom Corbett announced on May 21 that he would not appeal Judge Jones’ decision, making Pennsylvania the 19th state to recognize same-sex marriage.

While LGBT people are not covered under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act they are protected by ordinances in 34 Pennsylvania municipalities including the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Senate Bill 300 seeks to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” to the protected categories under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). If Senate Bill 300 were to pass, it would allow persons discriminated against in employment, housing or public accommodation because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression to seek redress under the PHRA.

We have accomplished much, but one item is still undone today. While we have continually introduced non-discrimination legislation, it has never passed. Today that should be our number one objective since as it has often been said that you can get married today in Pittsburgh and tonight a hotel in the Poconos can deny you a room for your honeymoon.

So as you look back on the struggle of the LGBT community, do so with incredible pride since we here in Pennsylvanian have contributed to that progress in many ways. We still have a long road to travel, but we do so knowing that our Commonwealth started us on that journey.

Mark Segal is the publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and an award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He was one of the four members of the Action Group that organized demonstrations for three nights after the infamous Stonewall Riots. Mark has been named to the National Lesbian Gay Journalist Hall of Fame, appointed to the Comcast Joint Diversity Committee to advise on LGBT issues, and in 2014 developed and opened the John C. Anderson LGBT Friendly Senior Affordable apartments in Philadelphia.