Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Panel and Audience Discussion

After a brief introduction, facilitator Kathy Padilla began the discussion by asking each panelist what was the most profound positive change for the LGBT community that has occurred in your lifetime?

Michael Williams, after a brief personal biography that included his involvement in LGBT activism, said that his most profound positive change was the language change in the fair play code. He continued by explaining how including the LGBT community in the discrimination laws was a monumental step for our country’s civil rights and was a step in the right direction towards looking at the prejudices that exist in both our national and local communities.

Stacey Sobel, after a brief personal biography that included her involvement in LGBT activism, explained that her most positive change was the adding of gender identity to the local non-discrimination ordinance and how this benefited the gay and lesbian community. Furthermore, she argued that this was instrumental in making trans-gendered people an equal part of the community as a whole. Sobel also added that an equally positive change was her personal experience working on hate crimes legislation. She emphasized how this legislation laid a foundation that will have a lasting impact on the state-wide LGBT community for years.

Stephen Glassman, after a brief personal biography that included his involvement in LGBT activism, explained how he witnessed the birth of the gay rights movement throughout his early years and described the most profound change as simply how far the movement has come since its inception. He observed that the inclusion of trans-gendered people in both the LGBT community and legislation about the community as something that was not popular as late as the 1980’s. Also, Glassman expressed his amazement at the growth of the movement for the legalization of same-sex marriage, which he described as not even a fantasy during the 1970’s, yet an achievement that he now considers guaranteed within the next twenty years.

Lastly, William Hewitt, after a brief personal biography that included his involvement in LGBT activism, said that his most profound change was the growth of education about and courses taught on the LGBT community. Furthermore, he has been moved by the great openness of today’s students in living with, accepting, and discussing the LGBT community. He also thinks that it is remarkable how such language and discussions are taken for granted by the younger generations and that they do not realize that such conversations would not have happened even a decade ago. Lastly, he pointed out how all of these developments represent a sea change in thought and the future direction of our society.

Kathy Padilla then related the story of several recent incidents of political protests and similar actions nationally before asking the panel how do these events relate to civil disobedience? What needs to change about celebrity lobbyists and national LGBT organizations?

Michael Williams noted that he is short-sighted about national organizations in that he views them as useful, but that he no longer has the time or patience to work with them.  Stacey Sobel responded by saying that, as a whole, local and state LGBT organizations make greater progress than their national counterparts. She also argued that there exists a disconnect between the two levels and that the national organizations generally have no idea what is happening on the ground level. She reasoned that the entire movement would be further along than it is if the national organizations realized this disconnect. She conceded, however, that these larger organizations serve a valuable purpose in pushing the conversation forward. 

Stephen Glassman explained how, after watching both the state/local organizations and those on the national level, he has seen a very conservative shift by the national groups over the last twenty years. He believes that this is due to their relationship with Congress and the White House. For him, national organizations have become too linked to the political game; they have created many important political relationships but, consequently, have become too afraid to lose them if they press for more progressive changes. He fervently believes, however, that our society is right on the cusp of a series of significant political changes.  Stacey Sobel reinforced this by saying that local Philadelphia legislators talked about LGBT issues before state legislators discussed them. Also, she mentioned how every Philadelphia legislator has been in support of LGBT legislation in addition to voting against any constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Stephen Glassman commented that the entire Pennsylvania Black Caucus supports LGBT legislation and remarked that they have always been there for the LGBT community and their legislation.  Michael Williams responded by saying that the support of the Black Caucus is simply an issue of fairness and that it is not useful to compare the LGBT and Civil Rights movements.

Kathy Padilla then asked the panel what should be in the Encyclopedia that would serve to benefit the LGBT community?

Michael Williams began by expressing his interest in seeing the development of the African-American LGBT story.  Stacey Sobel believes that it is important to know the early history of the LGBT movement, including the 1960’s and Barbara Gittings. Sobel stressed that both the good and bad parts of LGBT history must be included, such as when people were arrested and the fears of the marchers.

Stephen Glassman stated that it is important to remember that Philadelphia is not really “in Pennsylvania.” Compared to how progressive Philadelphia has become, Pennsylvania as a whole moves much more slowly than other states. As an example, he reminded the panel that it took Pennsylvania until 2002 to appoint an openly gay state official. Furthermore, Pennsylvania is far behind other states in openly gay officials. Glassman argued that the encyclopedia must step back and ask why Philadelphia cannot elect an openly gay official.

William Hewitt said he believes that the encyclopedia must go back before the twentieth century and attempt to identify people who were members of the gay community before there was such a community. However, he acknowledged that this would be a particularly difficult task.

The Audience Discussion began with an attendee who expressed how impressed he was with the discussion. He then went on to describe growing up gay in Philadelphia and how he would never apologize for being black and homosexual. He then talked about how, years ago during the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, women pushed for the word “gay” to be used as an all-inclusive term because the word “homosexual” referred only to men. Stacey Sobel responded to this by talking about the shifts in the use of language within the LGBT community. Specifically she mentioned the recent reclamation of the word “queer” and how the older generations do not like the term while youths have fully embraced it. Stephen Glassman added that the discussion has even moved beyond the word “queer” and even beyond gender. He explained how he has noted this trend during a series of conversations that he has held with youths of the movement.

Next, an audience member asked what will be the subject of articles and who will be the author? Kathy Padilla refocused this by asking if there should be different articles with different events? Encyclopedia co-editor Charlene Mires agreed with Padilla by stating that the Encyclopedia will have thousands of topics, and so the LGBT community could be presented from a variety of angles.

Another member of the audience mentioned that religious aspects of the gay community must be included in the encyclopedia. Stacey Sobel added that the introduction and growth of the various transgender subgroups (such as male-to-female and female-to-male) in the movement must be included to show how they learned to support one another. Stephen Glassman wanted to see the LGBT art community well-represented because he believes that it is infused in the identity of the Philadelphia arts and cultural scene. Charlene Mires said that the LGBT community could assist by introducing the encyclopedia editors to individuals and groups who could be included in the project. In response, Michael Williams argued for a group of movement elders to represent the voice of the community. Mires then asked the panel if an oral history of the Philadelphia gay community existed. [An audience members later supplied information about an oral history project under way at the William Way Community Center.] Mires then mentioned that collaborative projects are welcomed by the encyclopedia and said that both groups have resources that can be useful to everyone.

Next, an audience member mentioned that there are so many different kinds of communities associated with the LGBT movement that cross-referencing is a necessity. Charlene Mires agreed with the audience member, affirming that both cross-referencing and digital media are key components of the encyclopedia.

Stephen Glassman wondered how the encyclopedia would handle the fact that most LGBT people are parts of multiple communities. While Mires explained how that specific issue had not been decided upon, she said that the encyclopedia may be dealing less with biographies and more with topical articles. Michael Williams agreed with that idea and argued for bits and pieces of information instead of large biographies of individuals. Glassman responded by saying that he is concerned with individuals being misrepresented in topical material. For example, if a person represents multiple communities but is only mentioned in a single topic then it embodies only a fraction of their identity. Glassman explained that this is a fear of being rendered invisible, a particularly unique fear of how the LGBT community has been marginalized.

A general discussion then began with both audience members and panelists listing specific issues and topics that deserve inclusion in the encyclopedia project. An attendee began by listing the Black LGBT Archivist Society, the history and legacy of Act Up (including the diversity of the Philadelphia chapter), LGBT health service providers, youth communities, and LGBT youth prom organizations. Another audience member continued by listing courses taught at universities and gay sports and religious associations. Furthermore, gay publications, psychological centers, safe sex organizations, and philanthropy were mentioned. A third person mentioned reproductive health legislation driven by queer activists, AIDS legislation, and other projects not directly gay-related, but influenced by the movement. Stacey Sobel added that other legislation, such as laws supporting domestic partnership and the progression of larger Philadelphia legislation, should be included in the project.

Kathy Padilla asked about the geographical parameters of the project and whether the encyclopedia should include regional areas such as Allentown. Charlene Mires answered that if, for example, the history of Philadelphia LGBT legislation leads to other areas, then the encyclopedia project will go in that direction. This began a small discussion of how all of the panelists and project editors are not native to Philadelphia. Someone reasoned that the project should tell the stories of how LGBT community members came to Philadelphia. Stephen Glassman argued that there exists a disconnect between how Philadelphians view themselves and how outsiders view Philadelphia. The session ended with an audience member mentioning how the Philadelphia gay community has grown over the years and how welcoming it has been for them.

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