Equality Forum hosted a conference to dedicate a historic marker at the Arch Street Meeting House, 320 Arch St., July 27. The marker commemorated the Philadelphia Conference, when 300 activists from around the country met in February 1979 to organize the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The 100,000-person demonstration was a pivotal moment in LGBT history.
The keynote speaker of the event was Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” Dustin Lance Black. Black told the crowd this wasn’t his first visit to Philadelphia.
“I came here a couple of decades ago when I was a closeted student and I remember walking through Independence Hall and seeing the Liberty Bell and being painfully aware that that Constitution likely did not include me,” he said. “That emblem for freedom in the Liberty Bell was not my emblem. And I was still overcome with shame and with fear and not feeling protected or respected in this country.”
He said he went on to become a “student of history” and learned about people like Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, and about the Reminder Day marches for gay rights that were held here in the 1960s.
“I started to draw inspiration from that. Seeing their signs … they were so bold,” Black said.
Looking back, Black said he’s angry that he and other LGBT young people weren’t exposed to LGBT history decades ago.
“Why did I not know that there were places like this when I came here as a young man? Places that were demanding our full equality. Places where people met to march on Washington to say the to constitution ought to apply to all of us. Why did I not know? We’re here to say never again shall it be robbed from us because history, my friends, is not nostalgia. It’s not about looking backward. History is about course correction and learning about our past. History is what pride is built on. History is where we find power.”
Black closed his speech by expressing why markers like the one unviled Wednesday are important to current and future generations.
“When they pass places like this and see plaques like this they understand that a promise was made and that they could be free and equal no matter where they call home,” Black said. “They can gather strength from this history. They will gather pride from this history. And with that strength and with that pride, you and them and us together will turn history into power and we will be together from sea to shining sea. That is the power of history and that is the power of today.”
Additional speakers at the ceremony included Malcolm Lazin, founder and executive director of Equality Forum, Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla, Preservation Alliance executive director Paul Steinke, and Wally Evans, clerk of the Arch Street Meeting House Preservation Trust.