PGN, LGBTQ activists, and allies honored with historical markers

The historic marker for Gloria Casarez was unveiled at City Hall on Oct. 8.

The installation of three LGBTQ+ historical markers in Philadelphia will make the City of Brotherly Love home to the most such markers in the world. The three markers honor Alain Locke, “Father of the Harlem Renaissance” writer, professor and philosopher; Gloria Casarez, Latinx and LGBTQ civil rights leader and the first director of Philly’s Office of LGBT Affairs; and the Philadelphia Gay News (PGN). Locke’s marker was installed Oct. 3, Casarez’s on Oct. 8, and PGN’s will be installed on Oct. 13.

Two more markers commemorating LGBTQ activists and allies will be installed in Harrisburg on Oct. 10. One will honor Gov. Milton J. Shapp for enacting policies that protected the rights of queer Pennsylvanians, while the other will celebrate Richard Schlegel, a gay activist who was fired from his government job in the 1960s because of his sexual orientation. 

The marker honoring PGN will be unveiled on Oct. 13 at 233 S. 13th Street in the Gayborhood, the newspaper’s first office. The marker praises PGN for being one of the most awarded weekly newspapers in the U.S., for its cutting-edge reporting on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and for raising awareness of LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.

“When PGN [initially] started in 1975 at this address, we had no plumbing; one night the neighbors broke in and literally tore out all our electric,” PGN Founder Mark Segal said in a statement. “From that time of intolerance, to Philadelphia becoming one of the most LGBTQ friendly in the country, this plaque states our part in that fight for equality. It’s humbling, and something we could not even imagine in 1975.” 

Locke’s marker was installed October 3 outside of the African American Museum of Philadelphia (AAMP) in partnership with Equality Forum, an organization that helms LGBTQ History Month events, produces documentaries, leads initiatives and hosts the largest yearly national and international LGBT civil rights summit. 

The current Locke marker was replaced from its previous location outside of Locke’s childhood home in South Philadelphia. Locke was a Black gay man who was best known for being the first African American Rhodes Scholar, for his work as a professor at Howard University, and for creating the philosophical concept “New Negro,” collaborative writings that precipitated the Harlem Renaissance. 

Ivan Henderson, VP of programming for the AAMP, spoke of the intersectionality of Locke’s identities as a Black gay man, and how that related to the philosophies and teachings he shared with his students, mentees and the general public.

“My argument therefore is that it’s not about African Americans or LGBT communities — [Locke’s] a great human, a great humanist, even though much of his work was around Black art and culture and cultural production,” Henderson said. “I believe that he understood the weight of and importance of African American experiences, and he wanted to study them and speak about them in a way that not only enriched and affirmed Black communities… I would say he stood for those same things for LGBTQ+ figures of his era.”

Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Equality Forum, pointed out Locke’s impact on society, having been born just 20 years after the American Civil War ended. “[Locke] really in a difficult moment made a mark and laid the foundation for the movement for Black equality,” Lazin said. “There are a lot of similarities between the African American civil rights movement and the LGBTQ civil rights movement where we were both so marginalized that our histories and important contributions really were invisible.”

The marker celebrating Gloria Casarez was installed on October 8 at City Hall, making it the first historical marker in Pennsylvania to honor a Latinx subject. The rainbow Pride flag was also raised during the ceremony to mark LGBTQ History Month, a custom that Casarez initiated when she served as the first executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs. The unveiling of the marker also fittingly comes during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which takes place from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. 

Casarez’s work in organizing and activism left indelible imprints on Philadelphia’s Latinx and LGBTQ communities, as well as intersections of the two. As executive director of GALAEI from 1999 to 2008, Casarez facilitated resources and testing for queer people living with HIV. During her time leading the Office of LGBT Affairs, the city government enacted the most expansive protections for LGBTQ people nationwide. 

The John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives at William Way LGBT Community Center submitted the nomination for Casarez’s marker on behalf of a group of her friends and loved ones. They wrote the text of the application and sought letters of support from community members and leaders. 

At the unveiling ceremony at City Hall, social worker Ninoshka Montas, who attended Casarez’s alma mater West Chester University, said “Gloria’s groundbreaking work sparks a fire inside of me to lead by example and follow in her footprints to advocate for my community. Her work nurtures the Latina dreamer from Philadelphia that lives inside of me, and I hope it also sparks a fire in each of you. Gloria is an example of what happens when you combine hard work, dedication, passion, and love.”

Rue Landau, director of Law and Police at the Philadelphia Bar Association and former executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, mentioned the December 2020 whitewashing and demolition of the mural featuring Casarez at 204 S. 12th Street, and said to applause “I can say today, from this marker, and this monument that is in the cement here in City Hall, it’s not going anywhere.”

The markers honoring Shapp and Schlegel stemmed from a history project by staffers from the LGBT Center of Central PA. They explored members of the LGBTQ community who made central Pennsylvania history, and deemed Shapp and Schlegel’s stories the most noteworthy in terms of national legacy, said Barry Loveland, project chair of the History Project of the LGBT Center of Central PA.  

During his time as governor of Pennsylvania, Shapp created the Council for Sexual Minorities, the first official U.S. government body dedicated to advancing policy for LGBTQ folks. It grew out of a 1974 meeting between Shapp and PGN Founder Mark Segal. “It’s considered probably the first official meeting of any sitting governor in the U.S. with gay activists,” Loveland said. The council began as a task force composed of members from major Pennsylvania cabinet departments. 

On a recommendation from the task force, Shapp issued an executive order barring discrimination against LGBTQ people in state employment settings, making Pennsylvania the first U.S. state to enact such LGBTQ protections. The formalization of the Council for Sexual Minorities became “the first official governmental body in the nation devoted to improving policy for LGBTQ people,” Loveland said.

The council, which was chaired by Dr. Anthony Silvestre, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016, when some of its original members came together for a symposium presented by the LGBT Center of Central PA History Project and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. 

Though many may not know about Schlegel’s work that laid the groundwork for LGBTQ rights, it is an important part of the community’s history. While he was working for the U.S. military in 1961, Schlegel was investigated as part of the Lavender Scare, a period in the 1950s and 60s when federal employers frequently questioned their workers about their sexual orientation and fired them if they identified as gay or lesbian. 

After Schlegel was let go, he sued the U.S. government for the wages he had lost, and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Although the court ultimately ruled against him, his arguments of rational basis and equal protection set precedents for future cases involving LGBTQ rights, Loveland said. “What he did so early really paved the way for legal arguments and case law that would eventually overturn some of these discriminatory practices.” 

Schlegel was later fired from his state job at the PA Department of Highways for his participation in the Janus Society, one of the first LGBTQ organizations in Pennsylvania.