History is alive in Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s LGBT community sometimes just doesn’t appreciate what they have in their own backyard. What would you say if someone told you Philadelphia has the nations foremost expert on HIV/AIDS drugs; one of the first trans activists in the nation who just happened to be out in an early John Waters films; a Stonewall/Gay Liberation Front pioneer; someone who brought LGBT liberation media to San Francisco in the late 1960’s; a woman who help create the nation’s first Gay Youth organization fighting LGBT homelessness, bullying, and suicide; a government employee of the 1960’s who marched in those Independence hall demonstrations every July 4th from 1965-69; a researcher working with the Smithsonian Institute studying Emory Malick, the first man of color in the world to have an aviator’s license; and one of the first radio talk show hosts to feature LGBT subjects, all under one roof in Philadelphia? 

That roof is also the first federally approved and funded building in the nation to have the approved title of “LGBT Friendly,” proudly emboldened on the front of the building which was also revolutionary in its day.  

The building is the John C. Anderson LGBT Friendly Senior Affordable Apartments. There is no other building in the U.S. with so much LGBT history under one roof with the exception of a museum.

The residents of JCAA are our first out generation, and their accomplishments for this community are almost always ignored by local activists and organizations. Almost.

The Atlantic magazine published this headline last week: “The King of AIDS Treatments Is Turning to COVID-19. There are few drugs proven to help people infected with the coronavirus, and it’s giving John James déjà vu.”

That’s John James, JCAA resident. He’s also the Government worker who risked his job by marching outside Independence Hall in the 1960s along with Barbara Gittings, Kay Lahousen and Frank Kameny.

Then there’s Elizabeth Coffee Williams, who as an out trans actress appeared in John Waters’ film “Pink Flamingos” and actually lost out on the role of the trans character in Dog Day Afternoon due to being an out proud trans actress. The role ultimately went to a male actor.  There’s also Frank Potopa, who worked on the evolutionary San Francisco publication “Gay Sunshine,” which literally brought Gay Liberation to that city. And how about Susan Silverman, who at 19 was part of the country’s first gay youth organization where she helped create the first LGBT suicide line, helped homeless LGBT youth, and set up dances and movie nights. It might seem trivial but at that time all of that was illegal and anyone involved could be arrested. She was also was a major presence in the feminist movement in NYC of that time and marched in that first gay Pride in 1970.  

There literally is not enough space in this column to record all the works of so many individuals who live at JCAA. I always wonder why the people at this Philadelphia treasure haven’t been recognized much. Perhaps it’s that our nonprofits and individuals in this community don’t see those with age. Or it’s that they don’t fit in with what’s popular right now.

While I believe they deserve more recognition, they continue to quietly contribute to our community and make a difference as heroes. That’s what they’ve always done. That’s who they are.