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‘Milk’ screenwriter reflects on LGBT progress at dedication for historic gay landmark

It’s been 37 years since the Philadelphia Conference. What’s changed?


Mary Emily O'Hara


The 2016 Democratic National Convention has been jokingly called “the gayest convention in history” by LGBT activists and delegates in attendance, and it’s no coincidence that the nation’s largest annual LGBT civil rights forum is happening in Philadelphia during the same week.

The Equality Forum typically takes place each May, bringing LGBT rights advocates from all over the country together to discuss the future of the movement. This year, the date was adjusted so that the forum overlapped with the presence of over 550 LGBT delegates as well as dozens of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender icons and celebrities—all in town for the DNC.

On Wednesday, one of those luminaries was Oscar-winning filmmaker and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar), who gave an emotional speech at the dedication of a historic city marker on the site of the 1979 Philadelphia Conference—an event often referred to as the “gay Seneca Falls.”

Black, 42, grew emotional as he spoke about visiting Philadelphia decades prior as a “closeted student” and learning about the city’s place in LGBT history.

“When the original folks who were demanding freedom here decided to make signs and march, they did so knowing they would lose their jobs and be called mentally ill and felons,” Black said of the 300 gay and lesbian activists from across the country who met in the city in 1979 to plan what would become the first-ever gay rights march on Washington that October with over 100,000 marchers. “They threatened their very livelihoods and their own freedom by doing so. And I found that very brave.”

Equality Forum’s executive director Malcolm Lazin also took the podium at the historic dedication, and described the context of the meeting.

“In 1979, when this conference was held, we were ‘toxic.’ There was no other meeting place,” Lazin said. “The Philadelphia Quakers were the only ones who embraced the LGBT rights activists.”

Not only was it difficult to find a hall that would allow openly gay activists to meet in 1979, but many of those young “avowed homosexuals” (as gay people were referred to in the media at the time) were terrified at the thought of standing up for their rights.

Original Philadelphia Conference attendee Richard Burns was present at the historic marker dedication, and gave a live Periscope interview to the Daily Dot.

Burns was a 23-year-old Boston resident who volunteered with that city’s Gay Community News and drove to the conference with three others.

“In 1979, there really wasn’t a national lesbian and gay liberation movement. There were local movements,” Burns told the Daily Dot. “The organizing around the march, I think, was one of the sparks that allowed us to evolve into a truly national movement for what then we used to call lesbian and gay liberation.”

The Philadelphia Conference wasn’t the only major event that led to the birth of the LGBT rights movement on a national level. On Tuesday, the Equality Forum hosted a second historic marker dedication at the former residence of Barbara Gittings—known as the “mother of the gay rights movement.”

Gitting, along with Frank Khameny, organized the first series of LGBT protests, starting in 1965 in Philadelphia. The “Annual Reminders” took place every 4th of July through 1969; in 1970, Gittings and Khameny suspended the annual protest to plan a New York commemoration of the previous year’s Stonewall riots, which resulted in the first-ever pride parade. Gittings also ran the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis and published the nation’s first lesbian magazine, The Ladder.

After Wednesday’s dedication at the Philadelphia Conference site, filmmaker Dustin Lance Black sat down with the Daily Dot for an exclusive interview—in which he reflected on the immense progress made in the 37 years since the event, but also noted the remnants of discrimination that still need to be fought.

Black noted the significance of the LGBT delegates who make up over 11 percent of the DNC delegation, but joked that he’d like to see “50 percent” in the future because “I’m never satisfied, I think LGBT people are awesome.”

Black—an astute historian whose Academy Award-winning screenplay Milk provided an intimate look at the life of one of the first out gay politicians, Harvey Milk—noted the transformation in politics since the days when Milk was told to hide his sexual orientation in order to run for office.

“It’s great to see that, finally, we’re attending this convention in equal proportion to how we exist in the country,” Black told the Daily Dot. “It’s about time.”

The fight for marriage equality is something Black is no stranger to, having fought against Proposition 8 in California starting in 2008 and co-founding the marriage equality nonprofit American Foundation for Equal Rights. But he’s looking ahead now.

“We absolutely have to get the federal Equality Act passed,” said Black. “In most states in this country, you can get married on Sunday, and go to work and immediately get fired on Monday….when the law says we’re unequal, then other people start to treat us as unequal too. The law is what leads.”

Black recently wrapped the series When We Rise, which features transgender actors in trans roles, and he stressed the importance of the entire LGBT community fighting for transgender rights and equality “to make sure they are protected and respected in every state in the union.”

He closed out the reflections by encouraging LGBT people to show solidarity with other marginalized groups like the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“It’s time for us to take these lessons and reach out to our brothers and sisters in other communities,” Black said. “It’s incredibly important that we make sure no one is treated unequally under the law.”

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