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‘I can be me’: Philly’s Gay Pride March marks 50 years

Thousands came together to remember past struggles, celebrate the LGBTQ community’s diversity and success, and steel themselves for growing political attacks that threaten to unravel hard-won rights.

Crowds gather on Independence Mall Sunday at the start of the Pride March, kicking off the city's 50th annual Pride celebration.
Crowds gather on Independence Mall Sunday at the start of the Pride March, kicking off the city's 50th annual Pride celebration.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

On a cool, overcast Sunday in June 1972, a crowd of 2,500 or so people met at Rittenhouse Square, and trudged across Chestnut Street toward Independence Hall — the tentative first steps of the city’s first gay pride parade.

Some dropped masks and chains into coffins, symbolically shedding the guilt and shame they’d been taught to carry for simply being who they were. “There are an awful lot of gay people,” one marcher said that day, “who feel alone.”

Fifty years later, a rainbow-streaked sea of thousands pooled in front of the National Constitution Center on Sunday to remember past struggles, celebrate the LGBTQ community’s diversity and success, and steel themselves for growing political attacks that threaten to unravel hard-won rights.

Minutes before marchers in the PHL Pride Festival embarked on a two-hour route through Center City under a cloudless sky, Dominic Bey, 24, stood in a Deadpool T-shirt and rainbow wristbands on a lawn near the Independence Visitor Center, and expressed gratitude for the gathering.

“Everyone looks like you. You can just be comfortable, and not have to worry,” he said.

Bey, a trans man, wasn’t deterred by a Saturday mass shooting on South Street that left three people dead and 11 wounded. “We have this one day,” he said, “to not think about all the horrible things that are going on all the time.”

In February, Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, instructed state child welfare officials to investigate parents of transgender children for child abuse, if their kids had received gender-affirming care.

A month later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who is often mentioned as a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate — signed a law that banned schools from teaching students in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation. The state’s Department of Health has since advised doctors that gender reassignment surgery, puberty blockers and hormone therapy should not be made available to minors.

“All of the stuff that has to do with trans children, and trans-affirming care, to me, it’s just very clear this is not about protecting children,” said Rachele Fortier, an organizer with Philly Dyke March, which co-produced Sunday’s march with the volunteer-run PHL Pride Collective. “It’s about trying to erase trans people, and trying to force children into being people that they’re not.”

The political storm clouds aren’t just gathering from afar. In the second half of 2021, at least 456 book bans were reported in Pennsylvania school libraries — second only to Texas. Book bans have been coordinated in school districts across the country, and focus largely on removing from shelves stories that introduce readers to characters and themes about LGBTQ communities, and communities of color.

Last month, Doug Mastriano won a crowded Pennsylvania Republican primary race for governor, and targeted the LGBTQ community during his victory speech. “On Day One [of his administration], you can only use the bathroom that your biology and anatomy says,” he said. “This is how low we’ve gone.”

As Sunday’s march wound along Arch Street toward Eighth Street, Inez Brown, 55, of North Philadelphia, acknowledged the gravity of the current climate. “If people don’t wake up,” Brown said, “they will lose [their rights].”

“It’s traumatizing. It’s a scary time,” said Tatiana Darden, 27, who identifies as bisexual. “But we cannot stop living. The more we keep going, the stronger we’ll be as a community.”

Resiliency has been a theme since the first pride march, in 1972. The Inquirer reported that some sidewalk spectators grumbled their disapproval of the demonstrators, while then-Mayor Frank Rizzo — who’d tormented the gay community years earlier as police commissioner — told the Daily News that he’d refused to designate the day as “Gay Pride Day” because “that’s going a bit too far.”

A handful of demonstrators on Sunday hoisted “Homos Go to Hell!” signs on Arch Street, but were met by throngs of marchers whose voices swelled as they chanted, “We are proud!”

Jamese Williams, 18, said hostility toward LGTBQ people made her slightly hesitant to attend the march. “It started pushing me back toward the hole I crawled out of. It took a lot for me to be here,” Williams said, while a pink, purple and blue bisexual flag dangled from her shoulders. “But I feel mostly good. I can be me. If I had to choose one word for how I feel, it would be ‘free.’”

This year’s march is the first to be organized by the PHL Pride Collective and the Philly Dyke March. Philly Pride Presents, the longtime organizer of past parades, dissolved last year, in response to criticism from the LGBTQ community.

The new march was meant to focus more on marginalized members of the community, and acknowledge pioneers, such as Gloria Casarez, the city’s first director of LGBTQ affairs, and a founding member of Philly Dyke March. Casarez died in 2014; a mural was painted in her honor on the 12th Street Gym — and then covered by developers.

A fabric replica of the mural rippled in a light afternoon breeze as Steve Angell, 77, leaned against a tree on 12th near Locust, and grinned appreciatively at a handful of young people who danced in the street.

“It took me until I was in my early 40s to come out,” said Angell, who wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow Phillies logo. “Things are definitely a little better today than they were then, for sure.”

The march gave way to a festival in the heart of the city’s Gayborhood. Music thumped through the streets, drowning out, for a moment, any thoughts about mass shootings or harmful legislation. The sun hung low in the sky, and rainbow flags and pride T-shirts seemed to be on every street corner and sidewalk for blocks — a sight that might have been too much to imagine for the first pride marchers five decades earlier, some of whom had wanted only to be accepted.

“Hate is always going to exist. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth,” said Stephan Burse, who put his age as somewhere in his mid-30s, as he stood on 13th Street near Walnut. “We just have to be brighter than the darkness.”

On his shirt was printed one word: “Human.”