I woke up early on Saturday, July 4, and prepared for the last two events on my social calendar. The first was a luncheon at Independence Visitor Center. Equality Forum was presenting the International Role Model Awards to Judy Shepard and Edie Windsor. I had the chance to meet Edie Windsor once before, at the Equality Florida St. Petersburg Gala in 2014. Just hearing her speak about her life with her wife, Thea, and all that they’ve done for the LGBT civil rights movement, filled my heart with so much pride. Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor, Mike Stack, was on hand along with Malcolm Lazin, 50th anniversary events chair, to give the Role Model Award to Judy Shepard.
Judy Shepard accepted the award along with her husband Dennis. After losing their son Matthew to a senseless and brutal hate crime in 1998, the Wyoming couple has since worked tirelessly to advocate for equality for all. They sit on the board of directors at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and their work has been felt nationwide. I made sure to thank them for all they’ve done. From tragedy and loss comes hope and inspiration, and we are all thankful for what they have done for us. I know I am.
Pennsylvania State Senator Tony Williams presented the Role Model Award to Edie Windsor. Clearly honored and excited by this recognition, she gave a 15-minute speech about her life with her wife and how far we’ve come in the quest for our civil rights. There was not a dry eye left in the house after her speech. Later, I snagged a shot of her with Jim Obergefell. It’s not every day that the people involved in two of the highest-profile Supreme Court decisions in decades are in the same room together, much less hugging and catching up on old times. I felt like I was witnessing history right there in that moment.
Also at the event, I had the chance to meet Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims in person. One of the only openly gay politicians in the Pennsylvania state legislature, Sims was recognized by The Advocate magazine in their 40 Under 40 issue in 2012. I was also honored in that same issue (for my work in gay media in Arkansas), so I was very excited to meet another person from “the Class of 2012.” We talked about what an honor it was to be in The Advocate. Both of our mothers saved copies of the magazine to look back on later! (My mother even made me sign mine!)
It was a very nice day for a parade, even if there was light drizzle. I caught the tail end of the Philadelphia Independence Day Parade by chance when I stepped out onto the terrace at the Visitor Center. I didn’t realize it until later, but I snagged a photo of Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev on a large red, white and blue float. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t know; I would have booked it to the street and tried jumping on her float! I am a big fan.
Finally, the signature event had arrived. The 50th anniversary ceremony would be held in front of Independence Hall, just as the 1965 protests and the “remembrance” protests were. All of the aforementioned notable people were present, as was comedian and actress Wanda Sykes. I had the chance to interview her for Hotspots in February of this year, and I was particularly excited to see her in person. She gave a funny yet moving speech about what it means to feel like you “belong.” After so many years of struggling, and now having finally reached a point where we have marriage equality, we in the LGBT community feel like we are finally being truly included as Americans. We still have a way to go before we reach full equality, but just 50 years ago, LGBT people had next to nothing, and now we are enjoying more visibility and acceptance than ever before.
A number of important LGBT activists took to the stage to talk about the celebrations and what the civil rights struggle has meant to them. Jim Obergefell gave a powerful speech, outlining what the first gay rights protesters had to deal with by speaking out, yet they were undeterred. A re-enactment of the 1965 protests followed on the street in front of Independence Hall. The same signs and slogans used in 1965 were held up by the group of people marching by me, on the Fourth of July in 2015, and the messages resonate today just as they did back then.
Sadly, the end of the ceremony meant my time in Philadelphia was coming to a close. I picked up my bags at the Loews Hotel and made my way to the airport. I can’t stress enough how honored I was to have been invited to experience Philadelphia on not just any Fourth of July weekend, but one that recognized the unbelievably courageous people who, fifty years ago this month, gave us a helping hand, allowing us to enjoy the rights we have today. I will remember my time in Philadelphia for the rest of my life, and it made me hopeful that full LGBT equality won’t be that far off for all of us, from sea to shining sea.