For four days under the cool, shadowy cover of Cherry Street Pier, designer Todd Marcocci labored over his latest creation: a 34-foot-long float set to make its debut in this Sunday’s Pride Parade.
At the front sits a glinting gold 7-foot-tall replica of the Liberty Bell. At the back, complete with the image of a neon-red sign, a 3D-printed reproduction of the Stonewall Inn, the historic New York gay bar that, 50 years ago, was the site of the country’s most important LGBTQ rights protest. A platform hand-painted to look like a road connects the two.
The float — a collaboration between the city, the state, and the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund — tells a tale of two cities and two rebellions: Philadelphia’s Annual Reminders and New York’s Stonewall Riots.
In June 1969, 200 Stonewall patrons protested a police raid, an instance of the era’s ongoing public harassment and criminalization of LGBTQ identities. It led to the first aggressive push for LGBTQ rights and visibility in every sphere of public life, from politics to pop culture.
But while Stonewall is considered the most pivotal point in the fight for LGBTQ rights, the foundation for the struggle began years earlier, with Philadelphia’s Annual Reminders — a relationship that the Pride Parade float brings to life.
Between 1965 and 1969, local gay rights groups organized yearly pickets on July Fourth in front of the Liberty Bell. At these Annual Reminders, as they became known, the long-accepted symbol of the colonies’ fight for independence and America’s eventual founding was claimed as an image of Philly’s LGBTQ rights movement.
The location was purposeful, said Bob Skiba, curator of collections at the William Way LGBT Community Center.
“Independence Hall — where our country was born, the Declaration of Independence was written, and our Constitution drawn up — was the perfect venue to talk about citizenship and what American citizens do and don’t enjoy in terms of the liberties and freedoms that our Constitution promises,” he said.
Annual Reminders were the first demonstrations of their kind in U.S. history, led by Philadelphia activists and joined by a constellation of regional gay rights groups.
An estimated 45 demonstrators attended the first Reminder, most from New York and D.C.; many locals abstained for fear of being recognized. Just five or six people used their real names when signing a log of bus passengers, according to Skiba. Protesters holding picket signs marched in a circle by the Liberty Bell while two representatives spoke to members of the press.
These activist groups had so far shied away from direct political action. The 1965 Reminder marked a significant shift in tactics — to a point.
“They were fighting for jobs and equality, so they needed to look employable,” Skiba says. “The people who marched dressed very conservatively and it was all very heteronormative. They specifically eliminated men who were too effeminate, women who were too masculine, and certainly trans people.”
The last Annual Reminder was held a week after the Stonewall Riots, which had sparked a different kind of gay rights movement. Over five years, the number of marchers at the Reminders had grown from 45 to roughly 125. And though some passersby still vocalized disgust over the activists' display, others voiced their support and offering words of encouragement. A pair of women even momentarily held hands.
Ultimately, the rousing outcome of the Stonewall Riots convinced activist groups that a tide in the fight had turned. Instead of another Annual Reminder in 1970, they chose to demonstrate in New York in honor of Stonewall.
“That’s the Christopher Street Liberation Gay Parade,” Skiba said of the country’s first Pride march, which the 69-year-old Philly native and Center City resident attended when he was 20. “The first gay pride parade is born right here in Philadelphia. The old Philadelphia guard showed up not knowing what to expect and found 2,000 people.”
That road to Stonewall — and the 50 years of fighting for equal rights and recognition that followed — is embodied in Marcocci’s float, from its decoration to its riders.
“My concept was focusing on this road, like a physical highway, going to Stonewall,” said Marcocci, president of the West Chester special-events company Under the Sun Productions. “I had a suggestion of putting the Liberty Bell in the front, which actually made sense, as you see two different cities at the same time.”
Besides its two towering figures and the road connecting the bar and the bell, the float features a “field of honor”: rows of ascending flowers that flank the float’s sides, color-coded to match Philadelphia’s gay pride flag.
Up to 15 people will ride on the float, including five LGBTQ pioneers and Annual Reminder participants — plus a drag queen host, a nod to the queens that appeared on early Pride Parade floats. The remaining spots will go to young, diverse LGBTQ community members.
“It’s our way of elevating and honoring history makers, beginning with those who already made history to those who are making it now,” Visit Philly CEO Jeff Guaracino said of the city’s decision to produce the float.
From noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, the public can stop by Cherry Street Pier at 121 N. Christopher Columbus Blvd. to write messages on the ribbons tied to it. After making its rounds on Sunday’s Pride Parade — from 13th and Locust to Penn’s Landing — the float will travel to New York’s Pride March on June 30 before making a final trip back to Philadelphia for the Fourth of July parade.