The evolution of LGBT rights at the National Constitution Center

On July 4, 1965, a group of gay and lesbian activists led the first organized protests for gay rights in the country in front of Independence Hall. They’d return the following three years on what were called “Annual Reminders” to picket for equal rights despite the potential harm to their families, their livelihoods and even their personal safety.

Fifty years later, two of those protestors sat directly across the expanse of Independence Mall at the National Constitution Center for a preview of “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, & The Supreme Court.” President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen called the new exhibition the “most moving and timely exhibit” that’s been presented at the Constitution Center during his tenure, noting its synchronicity with current headlines.

“This is the first exhibit in the United States that tells the story of the evolution of gay rights in the courts,” Rosen noted, “and it’s opening just weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a landmark decision about whether or not the Constitution protects marriage equality.”

Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, pointed out that he’d had no way of knowing how perfectly history would align with the exhibit when his organization partnered with the Constitution Center three years ago. “We couldn’t have imagined the momentum that would develop as history literally grabbed us in its wave,” Bartlett said. “Suddenly we found ourselves having this major national LGBT exhibit dealing with constitutional issues at the same time that there was a major case in front of the Supreme Court. We couldn’t have been more excited.”

What you’ll see

The exhibit traces the history of the LGBT civil rights movement from the time of those first marches, when being gay was often considered a criminal act or a mental disorder. The story continues through the first court cases on the issue, the Stonewall riots, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, to the major decisions of the last 20 years, including “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.

These landmarks are depicted through artifacts, original documents, film and video (including a clip from a 1967 CBS News documentary called “The Homosexuals”), and a collection of vintage items behind a literal closet door.

Given the Constitution Center’s nonpartisan mandate, Rosen and Bartlett stressed that the exhibit is meant to stoke discussion and reflection in visitors from differing perspectives. “We wanted to make sure that we engaged the school student, the LGBT senior, and everyone in between in these really key issues,” said Bartlett. “Our vision was to take something which might be viewed as very deep, difficult, and impenetrable, and reveal it in all of its beauty and wisdom.”

If you go

“Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, & The Supreme Court”
Friday through Jan. 3
National Constitution Center
525 Arch St.
$8-$14.50 admission, 215-409-6700

Enter to win four free tickets to “Speaking Out for Equality”

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