The Fight for LGBT Rights in Philadelphia (1965-85)

The Fight for LGBT Rights in Philadelphia (1965-85)

On June 14, more than 25,000 people attended the Philly Pride Parade and Festival; among them were Mayor Michael Nutter, Governor Tom Wolf, and many others. This year marks 50 years since the first public gay rights demonstration in Philadelphia, and 2015’s event was far different from 1965. This 50 year history is the story of Philadelphia’s transformation into one of that nation’s most LGBT-friendly cities.

The first gay-rights demonstration in Philadelphia was held on July 4, 1965 outside Independence Hall. Forty people participated. Homosexuality was still illegal in Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Police Department would arrest suspected homosexuals.

The man devoted to zealous enforcement of the law was Frank Rizzo, and his officers were known as Rizzo’s Raiders. As Captain of the Center City district in the 1950s he personally led raids on gay bars, clubs, and coffee houses. “There has to be some controls over degenerates,” he told the Philadelphia Bulletin. Rizzo was promoted to Police Commissioner in 1967, and he was elected Mayor of Philadelphia in 1971.

The police under Mayor Rizzo regularly patrolled the city in vans, ordering men who looked gay into the vehicle and depositing them in jail until the next day when they were then released by a judge.Thom Nickels, Journalist

In 1974, Philadelphia City Council held the first hearings on proposed gay rights legislation, which would ban housing and employment discrimination against gays and lesbians. It never had a chance. Opponents of gay rights were well organized, vocal, and had the support of Philadelphia’s political leadership.

City Council President George Schwartz assigned the bill to a hostile committee, and he publicly questioned gay rights activist Mark Segal about his sexual activities. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) warned Council that passage of the bill would lead to, “more crime on the streets.” Rev. Melvin Floyd, a former police officer, told Council that the worst crimes in the city were committed by homosexuals. He also said if the legislation passed, the city would be forced to hire gay police officers who would be helpless to seduction by criminals. “The policeman comes in, and the man beating you up turns around and winks at him. They go together and you’re half-dead on the floor. You wouldn’t like it a bit.”

The gay rights bill was debated for a year and a half before dying in committee in 1975. It was never put to a vote. It was a defeat, but Philadelphia’s gay and lesbian community was only just beginning to organize. The Gay Community Center of Philadelphia (now the William Way LGBT Community Center) was incorporated in 1975. The following year, Mark Segal founded Philadelphia Gay News, a weekly newspaper focused on LGBT issues. The Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, a gay rights advocacy group, was founded in 1978, and Lavender Health (now the Mazzoni Center), an LGBT healthcare provider, was founded in 1979.

After serving two four-year terms, Rizzo was prohibited by the City Charter from seeking a third consecutive term in the 1979 mayoral election. It was an opportunity for the now well-organized and politically-aware gay-rights movement.

William (Bill) Green, III was elected Philadelphia’s 94th mayor in 1979 and inaugurated in January 1980. Green was a liberal, and had privately promised the city’s gay and lesbian communities that he would support reforms, including an anti-discrimination gay-rights bill. Green also wanted to change the Police Department, and hired the reform-minded Morton Solomon as Police Commissioner.

That same year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s sodomy law, which made homosexuality illegal. This was the same law that had been used to justify police harassment in the last three decades.

On June 30, 1982, Philadelphia Councilman Lucien E. Blackwell introduced a gay-rights bill nearly identical to the one that failed eight years before. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “Noticeably lacking from the scene were the scores of Gospel-quoting, placard-carrying religious fundamentalists who had dominated the first round of hearings,” in 1974.

This time, more than 50 witnesses testified in support of the bill including Police Commissioner Morton Solomon, Congressman Thomas Foglietta, Managing Director W. Wilson Goode, and District Attorney Ed Rendell. No one publicly testified against the gay-rights bill. The only objection came in the form of a letter from the Oak Lane Civic Association. City Council approved the bill on August 5, 1982 with a 13-2 vote.

However, the gay-rights bill wasn’t completely without controversy. Mayor Green refused to sign it, saying only that he “disapproved of the language.” Gay and lesbian leaders called it a betrayal, but Mayor Green also didn’t veto the bill. It sat on his desk. When the deadline for his signature passed, the gay-rights bill became law.

This seemed to mark a turning point for the gay-rights movement in Philadelphia. Observers noted that gays and lesbians comprised 10 percent of the city’s electorate, and some estimated up to 30 percent of voters in Center City districts. “Our numbers haven’t increased, just our political awareness has increased,” Mark Segal said.

Nowhere was this change starker than in the 1983 Democratic primary election for mayor of Philadelphia. Mayor Bill Green declined to seek re-election, making it an open primary. The office was sought by Green’s Managing Director W. Wilson Goode and former mayor Frank Rizzo.

In a move that surprised many, Rizzo gave his first interview to Mark Segal at Philadelphia Gay News. “I’m wiser,” Rizzo said as Segal questioned his history on gay-rights. “I know there are gays in the Police Department,” Rizzo continued. “All I’m concerned about is that they do their job and do it well.”

I used to work Broad Street on New Year’s Day Parade and all the queens would come up to me and kiss me. They were my friends. I can name them for you.Frank Rizzo

The new Rizzo made for some sensational headlines on Philadelphia Gay News: “Bar-Buster to Rights-Backer? Has Rizzo Changed His Spots?” But the charm-offensive wasn’t enough. Philadelphia Gay News endorsed Rizzo’s opponent, W. Wilson Goode, and on May 17, 1983 voters chose Goode (53%) over Rizzo (47%) with the help of the LGBT electorate. On January 2, 1984, Goode became Philadelphia’s first black mayor, and the city seemed poised for and era of progressive reform.

Unfortunately, the 1980s would bring a new challenge for LGBT rights. By the start of 1984, a mysterious illness had killed thousands nationwide, many of them gay men. The epidemic was entering its fourth year, and it had only recently been given a name: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).