Philadelphia's Equality Forum was founded in 1992 as a regional event with 15 organizations. It was eight years before the first U.S. state legalized same sex marriage, 11 years before consenting men were able to legally consummate same sex relationships in all parts of the country and 20 years before gender identity discrimination was banned from federal housing programs.
"Twenty years ago, there was tremendous oppression for the gay community," Equality Forum founder Malcolm Lazin said as the event nears its two-decade anniversary, which begins Thursday. "Looking back over the 20 years, there is unbelievable progress that has been made, particularly around the support for gay issues people are giving across the board. Something that would have seemed unimaginable 20 years ago – same sex marriage – is legal in six states and the District of Columbia."
Philadelphia itself has seen great gains this year alone. Mayor Michael Nutter and longtime advocate Mark Segal recently announced plans for a senior housing facility that will be the country's largest publicly-funded construction project serving the LGBT community.
Attorney Brian Sims unseated longtime state House representative for Center City Babette Josephs in last week's primary elections, poising him to become the state's first openly gay legislator. “I know for certain that 20 years ago this was impossible. I don’t think 20 months ago this was possible," Sims said. "Watching so many people stand up over the last year, Republicans and Democrats, Pennsylvanians have heard a lot about equality and democracy.”
Equality Forum has followed suit, steadily growing in size and scope. "Today, we’re regional, national and international, with 25 panels, six parties and lots of special events that have evolved over the years," Lazin said. "Our annual Equality Forum is now viewed as the premier national and international LGBT rights summit."
But he cautions advocates that the fight for equal rights is nowhere near over. "Pennsylvania is one of the only states where there’s no hate crime workplace protection and other equalities," he said. "Despite the progress, there’s still a lot of homophobic bullying that results in emotional damage and suicides."
"I think the biggest thing is to stay committed," he continued. "I think a lot of people can be misguided by assuming that achieving same sex marriage is equivalent to achieving equality. I think equality is when youth are safe and there’s full equality across the board for all Americans."
Equality Forum's three-day roster is, in many people's minds, reduced solely to its very public face: the glitter-dusted, club music-thumping, unabashedly exhibitionist SundayOUT! pride parade that caps off the itinerary each year.
But the summit's core is sustained by substantial discussions and presentations that draw prominent advocates from around the world to discuss the state of LGBT rights. This year, the schedule includes national racial, legal, sports and military panels, an art exhibit featuring renowned openly gay Israeli photographer David Adika, and programs addressing youth advocacy, safe schools, elder rights, adoption and assisted reproduction.
For a full schedule of events, visit the Equality Forum website.
The Equality Forum's has chosen to feature Israel in 2012.
"Every year, probably for about the last 10
years, we either feature a nation or region. What we do is look at the condition
of the LGBT community in that area," Lazin said. "Israel is obviously an interesting country. In some ways, it’s ahead of the United States, but in many ways, it’s to some degree held back by the influence of the ultra religious community."
Daniel Kutner, the Mid Atlantic Regional Consul General to Israel, noted that same sex Israeli couples married abroad have the right to register their marriage with the state the same way heterosexual couples do. "Israel serves as a lesson to others about respecting individual freedom and liberties in a land steeped in tradition," he said.
The openly gay Sharon Singer, director for public information and social media, will serve as the consulate’s point person for the Equality Dinner. "I have always felt that gays are part of the mainstream of Israeli society and that they are allowed to bloom there," she said. "The Israeli army has always had lesbian and gay soldiers out of necessity."
She cited two other signs of the progressiveness of Israeli society. "The army has recognized the rights of same sex partners for more than twenty years. The identity cards for children of same sex couples can list two mothers or two fathers."
The selection of the country caused some controversy due to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Kutner vigorously defended Israel’s right to be featured. "We are not perfect, but every country has the right to flaunt their achievements, such as technological advances and progressiveness on gay issues," he said.
When Lazin was asked about concerns that the controversial topic might deter some would-be attendees, he said he didn't foresee any problems. "I think what’s true of Israel is also true of the United States," he said. "Which is that we have freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech – and that includes dissent and appreciating dissent."
– With additional reporting by Laura Goldman