On the OutFest fiasco

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There’s a national message in something that happened in Philadelphia about a week ago at a festival known as OutFest. The festival, which is actually a good old-fashioned city block party held in the Gayborhood across eight city blocks, is billed as the largest Coming Out Day party in the world, with tens of thousands of visitors.

What makes this festival different from most cities’ is how almost the entirety of the city involves itself. This is one example of Philly’s title as the most gay-friendly city in America, and makes what happened at this year’s festival even more shocking.

At OutFest there is a family-friendly section, a carnival-rides section, pet-adoption area and finally even an area for protesters. Yes, the city actually blocks off an area for protesters. After all, there is a thing called the First Amendment. But in Philly, we usually handle this well — except this year.

Here’s what seemed to have happened. Over the years, the protesters have diminished in size — we’re talking about a handful, less than a dozen. In the early years, OutFest staff surrounded the protesters, outspoke them with loudspeakers, etc. But in recent years, they have become a joke, sort of a novelty. And all we do is tell people to ignore them. After all, a police unit known as Civil Affairs is there to protect their rights to protest and our rights to gather and celebrate Coming Out Day.

Now I know Civil Affairs well since, when I was doing my protest, this was the unit that had to arrest me. Thanks to their leader at the time, Sgt. George Fencl, almost all protests in Philly went off without a hitch or anyone getting hurt. Let me be very clear: Civil Affairs arrested me more than a dozen times without incident — from chaining myself to the Liberty Bell to my disruptions of TV shows. And they did it with professionalism. That is why this incident has me troubled.

Since the protesters have become sort of a joke, some members of the LGBT community like to have their pictures taken with the protesters in the background. This year that somehow got out of hand when, during this process, Civil Affairs officers claim that an officer got pushed. To shorten the story, at least two officers held down one gay man, kneeing him in the back, although video shows that he doesn’t appear to be resisting. He and his partner were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and criminal conspiracy. Both deny, and witnesses support, that either man pushed the officer. Throughout their nearly 12-hour ordeal, both men say they were never informed why they were arrested.

The incident is now being investigated by Internal Affairs, as it should be. In a city where the LGBT community is involved with all segments of society, in all levels of government, at an LGBT street festival where the police were recruiting LGBT people for the force, how does this happen? Does it mean we still have work to do in educating or was it a fluke? Maybe the day hasn’t come when we can feel that the protesters are just a joke. Or maybe we need to protect ourselves and not trust others.

These are questions and, as they say, the jury is still out.

Mark Segal, PGN publisher, is the nation’s most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He can be reached at [email protected].