On July 27, during the Democratic National Convention, a ceremony was held at the Arch Street Meeting House to dedicate a historic marker that has since been installed along Arch Street, east of Fourth Street. It is the first such marker issued by the City of Philadelphia, and reads:
Malcolm Lazin, Executive Director of the Equality Forum, related that “[i]n 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.”
In his welcoming remarks, the clerk of the Arch Street Meeting House Preservation Trust, Wally Evans, recognized that years ago the LGBT community “at a critical time in history, needed and deserved Friends’ ‘understanding compassion’ and support.”
The Society of Friends have often been noted for their opposition to discrimination and have actively led or participated in numerous civil rights and reform movements in the United States, including: the equality of women, Native American rights, prison reform, the abolition of slavery, the Underground Railway, and woman’s suffrage. In the 1970s, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting focused on LGBTQ equality.
In 1972, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting appointed a Committee on Homosexuality under the Meeting for Social Concerns to work for the assurance of gay civil rights. A year later, the Yearly Meeting went on record as opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation, stating:
“We should be aware that there is a great diversity in the relationships that people develop with one another. The same standards under the law which we apply to heterosexual activities should also be applied to homosexual activities. As persons who engage in homosexual activities suffer serious discrimination in employment, housing and the right to worship, we believe that civil rights laws should protect them. In particular we advocate the revision of all legislation imposing disabilities and penalties upon homosexual activities.”
In conclusion, Evans related that “Friends are uncomfortable in seeking acknowledgment or validation of our social activism. But this is a marker that praises your historic accomplishment; and we take pride that we were able to provide a stage for you thirty-seven years ago. Congratulations for the progress that we have been privileged to witness since 1979 and the anticipated strides that will move us forward.”
The ceremony concluded with the Keynote Speaker, Dustin Lance Black. An American screenwriter, director, film and television producer (Milk, J. Edgar, When We Rise) and LGBT rights activist, Black provided an emotional recounting of personal struggles during his youth as a “closeted student”, a life changing visit to Philadelphia where he learned of the LGBT movement in the city, and his vision of raised awareness of civil rights in the LGBT community He was truly inspiring.
Photo (l. to r.): Wally Evans, ASMHPT; Paul Steinke, Preservation Alliance; Malcolm Lazin; Richard Burns, original attendee of the 1979 conference; Keynote Speaker Dustin Lance Black; and Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla.