By KYW community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The William Way LGBT Community Center has announced details of a new exhibit it is organizing at the National Constitution Center that will chronicle the gay rights movement, from the nation’s first protests, in Philadelphia, 50 years ago.
Titled “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court,” the exhibit will showcase artifacts, photographs, and legal precedents that tell the story of the gay civil rights movement.
“They carried posters that demanded equality for gays and lesbians in a society that treated them as criminal and deviant,” said Chris Bartlett, executive director at the William Way Center (at lectern in top photo), referring to the pioneers that led the first LGBT civil rights march in Philadelphia, in 1965.
“The public demonstrations were the first sustained national effort to focus on the discrimination against LGBT people,” he notes, “and became a catalyst for LGBT Americans to organize for equality.”
Bartlett says the exhibit, which will open at the National Constitution Center on June 5th, will be historic in many ways.
“It’s the first time that we’ve ever had a LGBT history exhibit at a major national museum,” he says, “and it’ll be historic because we’re celebrating the anniversary when we still have some of the original activists involved that can celebrate.”
Pioneers such as John S. James, who participated in that first LGBT rights march, are among those featured in photographs that will be included in the exhibit.
“I’m amazed that so much progress has been made,” says James, who was in his early 20s when he demonstrated outside Independence Hall in 1965. “I was only half-out where I lived,” he recalls. “The story I heard at the time was that if you worked for the federal government, you could be fired from your job.”
James says he didn’t tell people at NIH, where he worked, that he was gay, but he didn’t lie about it either. He says there were some concerns prior to the protest, but they went ahead just the same.
“We didn’t know what would happen,” James remembers, “but everything was handled in a very civilized way. It wasn’t much of a crowd, and things went as planned.”
The exhibit, which runs through September 7th, will be a centerpiece of Philadelphia’s LGBT 50th anniversary celebration on July 4th. Other LGBT history exhibits will be featured at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the National Museum of Jewish American History.