A veteran US journalist has recalled covering one of the earliest ever LGBTI rights protests in US history to remind people of how much the world has changed in half a century.
Len Lear is the Local Life editor of the Chestnut Hill Local newspaper, but in 1967 he had only just started as a rookie journalist for the Philadelphia Tribune.
Just two months into the job he recalls receiving a call from a Barbara Gittings, who identified herself as a member of pioneering US gay rights group the Mattachine Society.
‘We would like you to come and cover our demonstration July 4, 2 pm, in front of Independence Hall,’ Lear recalls her saying, in a recollection of the event published earlier this week.
‘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.’
Lear says people under 50 just wouldn’t understand what it was like to receive a call like that during the 1960’s.
‘I would have been less shocked if Gittings had said that a group of Martians would be picketing outside Independence Hall,’ Lear writes, ‘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.’
Lear says his first response was to ask if he was being prank called.
‘She assured me it was not,’ Lear recalls, ‘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.’
Despite the protest being on a public holiday Lear decided to cover the protest even though he was not getting paid for it.
‘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,’ Lear recalls.
‘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.’
Two years later the Stonewall Riots would put the issue of LGBTI rights under a national spotlight and a year after that the Mattachine marchers would travel to New York to take part in the first march commemorating the riots – which today continues as New York City’s Pride Parade.
The city of Philadelphia is this month commemorating the first ever public call for equality by LGBTI Americans which took place 50 years ago outside the city’s Independence Hall in 1965.