Twenty years ago, when gay pride parades had become the big-city standard, about 200 people gathered in Philadelphia to take the issue of civil rights to another level.

Pridefest Philadelphia was a three-day forum for the discussion of LGBT issues focusing on rights denied to a community that was raising its voice.

Since then, the gay rights movement has taken a quantum leap, and so has Pridefest, which has evolved into Equality Forum, a gay rights advocacy organization celebrating its 20th anniversary during the group's annual international conference in Philadelphia.

"We are beyond the tipping point," said Malcolm Lazin, executive director and founder of the Equality Forum. "The question isn't whether the LGBT community is going to achieve equality, because I believe they will. The question is how soon."

The shifting public attitudes toward support of gay rights on issues of workplace protection, military service, and same-sex marriage are markers of change, Lazin said. But there is still work to do, he said.

Equality Forum conference, with an expected attendance of 20,000, tackled those issues and more this week in meetings that gathered important figures to discuss serious topics, but didn't leave out the party.

Events included a banquet honoring Mayor Annise Parker, of Houston, the first openly gay mayor of a large U.S. city. Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, delivered the keynote address, part of the conference's focus on Israel as its featured nation. Israel and its history of treatment toward the LGBT community were a focus of the conference. Also, a weeklong art exhibit at the Gershman Y highlighted the work of Israeli photographer David Adika.

Panel discussions examined issues surrounding being gay in college sports, school, the military, politics, on vacation, and in a retirement community.

The week's programming is capped Sunday by "SundayOUT! at The Piazza," a festival of food, art, and music in Northern Liberties.

As part of its advocacy work, Equality Forum also has produced award-winning films, helped establish a historic marker to commemorate gay demonstrations at Independence Hall, and coordinates LGBT History Month in October.

On Saturday, Kisha Webster, of the Human Rights Campaign, led a session on creating a welcoming environment for diverse families in elementary schools.

"I think schools do want to have environments that embrace all kinds of students, but educators feel challenged about what subjects they can discuss, because it can cause repercussions," Webster said.

Carly Cohen, 18, a senior at Quakertown High School, said she has witnessed the use of gay and racial slurs at school.

"This is 2012," said Cohen, who attended the conference with her mother, Helene. "[Classmates] don't see how every time they do that they break down someone's self-worth."

In a panel on military service, Lt. Col. Maureen Fry talked about discrimination that remains even after repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"There's a fear that if something happens, [a partner] wouldn't get the death benefits or the insurance," Fry said.

Partner benefits, HIV treatment, and transgender rights are the next big issues in the military, said Katherine Miller, who helped organize the panel.

Miller, 22, came out to her superiors at the U.S. Military Academy in 2010 and then resigned to protest "don't ask, don't tell."

She is a now a senior at Yale University and plans to return to the military.

Miller was one of three panelists featured in a discussion on youth activism. Before she resigned, Miller never saw herself as an activist.

"But in situations where discrimination is apparent, we find out how to speak up and find communities that will support us," Miller said.

About 75 people were in the audience as Miller moderated the discussion, including 23 members of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Delsea Regional High School in Gloucester County.

The club, wearing matching blue T-shirts, was attending the forum for the fifth year, said Jessica Ippolito, the club adviser.

"We do a picture at LOVE Park, then go to Giovanni's Room [a LGBTQ bookstore], and then here," Ippolito said.

Sam Mazzi, 18, a senior and the group's student adviser, called the forum important "because people should feel accepted and safe — and not discriminated against because of who they love."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or