Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Isn't it ironic? Major LGBT summit being held in still-unchanged Pennsylvania

At the 21st annual Equality Forum Summit, you'll hear talk of how much is changing nationwide for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community - and how little is changing in Pennsylvania state law.

"Shakespeare's R&J" will be staged by Mauckingbird Theatre Company.
"Shakespeare's R&J" will be staged by Mauckingbird Theatre Company.Read more

At the 21st annual Equality Forum Summit, you'll hear talk of how much is changing nationwide for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community - and how little is changing in Pennsylvania state law.

That's the irony surrounding the summit, one of the nation's foremost LGBT gatherings.

It started Wednesday and runs through Sunday at locations throughout the city, with 18 panels, an art exhibition, special guests, a four-man production of Romeo and Juliet, and some great parties.

"The advances of the last two years would have been all but unthinkable a decade ago," says Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Philly-based Equality Forum, the nonprofit he founded in 1993 (originally PrideFest Philadelphia) to advocate for LGBT rights. "You have so many states now providing same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court about to decide on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8," which outlawed same-sex marriages. "Rights and protections are advancing on all fronts."

New York provides gay marriage, as does Delaware. New Jersey has civil unions. Pennsylvania?

"We stack up pretty pathetically, to be frank," says Ted Martin, executive director of Harrisburg-based Equality Pennsylvania. He will chair a Saturday panel titled "Winning Equality by Battling Locally."

"This is one of the few states left in which, under state law, it's legal to fire someone for reasons of sexual orientation," he says. "So we'll be discussing the best ways to get nondiscrimination ordinances passed in your locality."

Nationally, things are changing, and fast. Kevin Naff, editor of the venerable Washington Blade newspaper, will join the "Politics" panel, which will examine the Obama administration - "an absolute godsend for LGBT people," he says. "Before Obama, there really wasn't anyone else."

The summit already has had its suspense. Mariela Castro, niece of former Cuban leader Fidel, is her country's sex-education czar and an outspoken advocate of LGBT civil and human rights. She was scheduled to be on a panel about featured country Cuba, and to receive an award with former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (who will be there with spouse James Ready) at the International Equality dinner on Saturday. But the U.S. State Department balked at letting her travel from New York to Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, State said OK, and Castro will now be on hand.

Other guest stars include Joan Specter and Shanin Specter, wife and son respectively of the late Sen. Arlen Specter, receiving the Distinguished Service Award in his name at the VIP kickoff. Pennsylvania's first openly gay lawmakers, state Reps. Mike Fleck (R., Huntingdon) and Brian Sims (D., Philadelphia), will be on the LGBT "Elected Officials" panel on Friday at the National Constitution Center. The Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral - where he has said he will celebrate same-sex weddings - will be in the National Religious Colloquy on Thursday at the University of the Arts.

The arts will also add their voice. Mauckingbird Theatre Company will present Joe Calarco's 1998 play Shakespeare's R&J, which depicts four young men at a New England prep school exploring Romeo and Juliet. Producer Peter Reynolds, head of musical theater at Temple University, says the four "face issues of gender, intimacy, and sexuality."

Recent social changes throw a supercharged new light on this play. "There is, after all, a forbidden, clandestine marriage," says Reynolds, "which may be more resonant, more palpable now than it was in the late 1990s."

This is the 14th year the University of the Arts has partnered with the summit to present artists from all over the world. Cambodian artist Vuth Lyno enjoys his first-ever U.S. exhibition all week at the William Way LGBT Community Center on Spruce Street.

Curator Jordan Rockford, a lecturer at UArts, says Vuth "explores the special forms the LGBT revolution takes in Cambodia, which until recently has had few roles for people of these communities." Vuth's two-part set of photographs is titled Thoamada, meaning "usual" or "normal" in Cambodian.

"Part I looks at MSMs [men sleeping with men] who use face paints and other means to explore their identities," Rockford says. "Part II is a series of diptychs, portraying families with LGBT elements, faced with images of how those relationships came to be."

It's a heady time, Lazin says: "You just saw Jason Collins, the first major team-sport player to come out while still playing. More and more Republicans, and a majority of young Republicans, support protections and marriage. Change is happening in every social sector."

So are several celebrations throughout town. As it has the last few years, the big, summit-ending SundayOUT! at Schmidt's bash will bring hundreds to the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties for singers, dancers, DJs, boutiques, artisans, food, and community organizations.

Naff asks an intriguing question, for both state and nation: "What does the end of the gay-rights era look like? Not that we've won all our battles, not by a long shot. We have a long way to go. But it's worth imagining."