By: Jarek Ervin
Many people are familiar with the Stonewall Riots, a series of street protests that erupted in New York City following the June 28, 1969 police raid of the Stonewall Inn.
That event is actually predated by dozens of protests, strikes, and sit-ins. The 1950s and 1960s saw an explosion of LGBTQ activism. This included the Los Angeles uprising at Cooper’s Donuts in May 1959, when patrons began pelting police officers with donuts and coffee cups, and the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco, led by transgender people to protest targeted harassment by law enforcement.
One of the earliest organized marches on behalf of LGBTQ equality actually occurred in Philadelphia – on the Fourth of July, 1965.
The city of Philadelphia harbored an LGBTQ population well before the sixties, woven into a hidden fabric of coffee shops, nightclubs, and political organizations. But that era saw greater public consciousness of a community that was increasingly difficult to ignore.
In 1962, the forerunner to Philadelphia magazine (Greater Philadelphia) published an article alluding to “The Furtive Fraternity” hidden in the LGBTQ underground. By April of 1965, that fraternity took on an irrefutably political edge: after Dewey’s Restaurant adopted a policy of denying service to LGBTQ clientele, Philadelphians launched a sit-in.
The July 4 march stood aside from many precursors in its organizational depth. The event was coordinated by East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO), a coalition including the Mattachine Society, the lesbian activist group Daughters of Bilitis, and Philadelphia’s Janus Society – known for publishing one of the first LGBTQ magazines (DRUM, 1964-1967).
Reportedly, 39 people participated in the first protest, gathering around Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Set on the spot where the Declaration of Independence was signed (nearly two hundred years prior), the protest called attention to the fact that LGBTQ Americans were regularly denied access to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
For the next four years, the march was repeated under the name Reminder Day. Activists Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny led the charge, deploying a strategy of silent picketing and conservative dress – a tactic aimed at promoting the respectability of LGBTQ people.
In 1970, activists chose to replace Reminder Day with Christopher Street Liberation Day, commemorating the Stonewall Riots – and bearing the name of the street on which the bar stands to this day.
This shift reflected not only a growing sense of solidarity with a broader LGBTQ rights movement, but also a more militant notion that assimilation into an otherwise unchanged society was unacceptable.
Even so, Reminder Day paved the way for Philadelphia-based LGBTQ organizing. 1972 saw the city’s first gay pride demonstration, in which massive crowds marched from Rittenhouse Square to Independence Mall. By 1976, Philadelphia Gay News was founded, bringing even greater awareness and self-consciousness to the community.
Today, Reminder Day stands as an important historical marker of Philadelphia’s struggle for LGBTQ freedom.
The march is celebrated in the large mural adorning the Gayborhood’s William Way Community Center. Just around the corner is 13th and Locust, which was given a new name by the City in 2012: “Barbara Gittings Way.”