Philadelphia’s gay community came out by the tens of thousands Sunday to celebrate two significant events: the 31st annual Pride Parade and the 50th anniversary of the historic Stonewall riots in New York City, a clash at a Greenwich Village bar between patrons and police that historians consider the opening salvo in the gay liberation movement.

Along the parade route, which began late morning in the heart of the city’s Gayborhood at 13th and Locust Streets, then twerked its way through Center City and ended at Penn’s Landing with a music festival expected to last into the evening, celebrators remarked on how far things have come.

Peter Ford, 55, who was with his partner, Jim Blake, 56, recalled that, about 15 years ago, Philadelphia’s Pride Parade route was a handful of blocks and wrapped up in about a half-hour. As Sunday’s massive show of pageantry passed them on Locust, he marveled at how things have changed.

“Now, everyone comes, the politicians, the police, everyone,” said Ford, an accountant who lives in Rittenhouse.

On the minds of many was late Deputy Sheriff Dante Austin, who authorities said died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head Friday morning at his desk. Austin was the first openly gay deputy sheriff and in May 2017 was appointed the office’s first LGBTQ community liaison, Sheriff Jewell Williams said.

Austin’s mother was presented with a rainbow flag during the parade, sources said.

For Sarah Morris, 22, her face adorned with a painted rainbow flag, this was the first Pride Parade she attended since coming out as gay last year, she said on Locust Street.

“It means a lot to be surrounded by my own community, to see that my life is validated. It’s comforting. It’s also fun,” said Morris, who lives in Chester County and works in advertising.

As she spoke, female impersonators on towering floats pelted spectators with strings of beads and other trinkets while marching bands blared. A few blocks away, the deafening squeal of whistles drowned out even the bands. Members of the LGBTQ community were trying to shut down an anti-gay protester who was standing on a cooler and shouting into a bullhorn Bible passages that condemn homosexuality. Police officers circled the man to keep things peaceful.

On Seventh Street, three friends one asexual, one bisexual and one lesbian who met in elementary school in Malvern, said lingering intolerance made them leery of being identified by their last names, even in a sea of supportive people at an event celebrating self-pride.

“It’s a safety thing,” said Sarah E., 22, a lesbian and recent New York University finance graduate.

“You can be out and proud here, but then you go home to your normal life and you can’t always be out and proud there,” said Nicole H., 21, who is asexual and a new graduate of Slippery Rock University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and computer science.

Patrick M., 21, a bisexual who graduated with a chemical engineering degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, noted that some employers still discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community.

Not far away, Marquis Thomas, 21, and Casey Harms, 24, a couple from York, Pa., were reveling in all that the Philadelphia Pride Parade had to offer. “Up in York, we don’t get a parade, we don’t really get pride at all, so it’s really nice to come down here and feel accepted,” said Harms, a hairdresser whose black outfit was accessorized with a wing-like cape.

“I just wanted to spread the love, honestly. This is a time when everyone can come out and celebrate who they are and love themselves,” said Thomas, a Temple University film and media arts student.

Both men said that despite affirming events such as the parade, being gay in 2019 is still fraught with challenges that straight people don’t have to deal with.

“The place where I’m from is very redneck and backwoods, so I get called ‘faggot’ on the daily," Harms said. “I think that’s very harmful to anybody, being called names and bullied.”

“There’s supposed to be a straight Pride in Boston in August and we’re like, ‘Why do you need a straight Pride?’ You get to live everyday as yourself without the fear of being killed, or tortured, or hated," Thomas said. “Even though being gay is more accepted, we still face hate crimes and punishments for who we are.”

At the end of the parade route, at Front and Chestnut Streets, there was another clash between LGBTQ community members and anti-gay activists. Pastor Aden Rusfeldt and his followers shouted that the Pride marchers would die young and burn in hell if they did not renounce their wicked ways. They held signs with such proclamations as “Homos Deserve AIDS” and “Trump Make America Great Again: Ban Homo Marriage.”

Members of the gay community shouted back insults. Some threw things at Rusfeldt’s group, which was surrounded by stern-faced police officers who used their patrol bicycles to create a barrier.

Belinda Raia (left) kisses Claire Cannon after accepting an engagement proposal during the Pride Parade.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Belinda Raia (left) kisses Claire Cannon after accepting an engagement proposal during the Pride Parade.

“Free speech being what it is, they have a right to be here, but we have a right to stand here and tell them you cannot be here unopposed,” said Andrew Young, 21, a Temple University media studies student who identifies as non-binary, which means he does not identify as exclusively male or female.

Across Front Street, where parade participants had begun heading for the festival at Penn’s Landing, the Sinrich family of Cherry Hill was relaxing in the shade. John Sinrich, wearing a rainbow-colored T-shirt bearing the words “Proud Dad," and his wife, Melissa, said they came to the parade to support their son Jared, 16, who came out two years ago. “I was tired of hiding,” Jared said.

“It took work, it took a lot of work," Melissa said of accepting that Jared is gay. "But we love him and we just want the best for him.”