Equality Forum draws tens of thousands

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Tuesday May 4, 2010

Unseasonably sultry weather drew tens of thousands of people to the Piazza in Philadelphia on Sunday, May 2, for the annual Equality Forum.

Dozens of same-sex couples exchanged wedding vows under a blazing sun as the Rev. Timothy Safford, rector of Christ Church Philadelphia, Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Mishkan Shalom and Elder Joseph Tolton, pastor of the Rehoboth Temple Christ Conscious Church in New York, officiated. Rafael de Jesus and Bruce Atzer of Conshohocken, Pa., were among those who decided to take part. Atzer, who has been with de Jesus for three years, said he hopes the ceremony sent a message to state lawmakers.

"Same-sex marriage is not legal in Pennsylvania; maybe this will help to push that here," he said.

Rafael's sister Penny and her partner Olga also took part. The Philadelphia couple joked to EDGE they have tied the knot three times in just the last year-including once in New Jersey. Like her brother, Penny de Jesus said the ability for her and her partner to get married is very personal.

"We love each other and we want to show that love for each other," she said.

A handful of Repent America protesters picketed the event (as they do every year,) but Penny de Jesus paid no attention to their anti-LGBT rhetoric.

"God loves everyone," she said. "God is about love and we are all [his] children. People are the ones who judge. God is our savior."

As EDGE previously reported, Equality Forum honored lawyers David Boies and Ted Olsen at the annual International Equality Dinner at the National Constitution Center on Saturday, May 1. Governor Ed Rendell was noticeably absent, but U.S. Sen. Bob Casey [D-Penn.] announced he plans to introduce a bill on Capitol Hill that would address school bullying.

This bill comes roughly four months after Phoebe Prince took her own life after her Massachusetts classmates bullied her and more than a year after Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old from Springfield, Mass., hanged himself after his fellow students harassed him because they thought he was gay.

"I have an obligation to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect our children," said Casey to sustained applause. "We must enact legislation and do a better job to protect our children-especially those... who are getting bullied everyday because they are gay or lesbian."

In addition to safer-schools, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a prominent topic during the week-long series of events, parties and workshops. Lieutenant Dan Choi and Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Equality Forum, discussed the issue on a panel Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff moderated at the Arts Bank on Saturday, May 2.

"You have to engage by letting people know what you're going through," said Choi. "You shouldn't be afraid to share that kind of pain. When we can't share that pain, it hurts all of America."

Choi has been arrested twice in recent months-once on March 18 and again on April 20-after he and other LGBT armed forces members handcuffed themselves to the to the White House fence.

Choi spoke on the panel a day after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked Congress to delay any action on DADT's possible repeal. And he was quick to specifically criticize President Obama.

"The obvious political target here is and should be the president because he is failing to show leadership," said Choi.

Choi also alluded to simmering tensions between him and the Human Rights Campaign. He and Equality Forum executive director Malcolm Lazin discussed the perception Joe Solmonese, president of the HRC, remains in bed with a portion of the Democratic Party. Choi, however, stressed GOProud, Log Cabin Republicans and other non-Democrat organizations need to continue to play a role in the fight to repeal DADT.

"We will never be able to reach full equality if we say I don't care if Obama is president in 2012," Choi told EDGE after the panel. "Full dignity is not based on whether Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney is president. Obama will not respond until the gay community is able to say that the GayTM is closed for the Democratic National Committee."

Matthew E. Pilecki contributed to this story.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.