May 29 2002 12:00 AM ET
City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection
The Betsy Ross House, where the first U.S. flag was sewn
An all-American mix of politics and pride--both historic and up-to-date--makes Philly a great trip
It's somewhat fitting that the two things most gays and lesbians know about Philadelphia are that it's the birthplace of the United States and that Tom Hanks played a gay lawyer in a movie set there. For gay tourists visiting the city—especially those with a limited schedule, like mine—the city's prominent historical and homosexual attractions will keep them plenty busy. Since Advocate Travel tends to focus on the latter, let me begin there.
I arrived during the middle of May's PrideFest America, the 10th annual combo conference–party–arts festival that's unique to Philly yet with an international reach. PrideFest takes place each May and brings together leaders of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community from across the country and around the world to sit on panels addressing vital issues, to host arts functions, to enjoy entertainment, and to party. Not necessarily in that order. There are courses for college or professional credit, over-the-top events such as this year's bodybuilding competition, white-wine-appropriate arts functions, and wild parties.
PrideFest America 2002 featured a partnership with South Africa, with many of that country's leaders present to discuss their uniquely diverse country and constitution; discussion of the impact of "don't ask, don't tell" during the Afghan war; and a full-day conference on transgender health issues—among its dozens of equally substantial events. Not bad for a festival just begun in 1993. (Memo to PrideFest: This was not your 10th anniversary, as all your brochures declared. Your 10th event takes place on your ninth anniversary, unless you skip a year somewhere along the way, which you did not. So feel free to call next year's event the 10th anniversary, same as you did this year's, and you'll be right. Hey, I'm a Virgo. So sue me.)
If your eyes glaze over at the thought of serious discussion (excuse us!), there's also much fun to be had, including parties almost every night, a great opportunity to mix and mingle with both the locals and all the other folks in from out of town just for PrideFest. I had the opportunity to meet some of the openly gay and lesbian heroes of September 11 from New York's police and fire departments; Mary Louise Cervone, the recently very visible and always very eloquent head of the gay Catholic group Dignity USA; the Rev. Barry Stopfel, the out Episcopal priest who's been on my most-admired list for years; as well as activists from South Africa, journalists from Russia and Germany, and folks who, like me, had come in from Los Angeles just for PrideFest. I also kept running into Advocate cover boy and former candidate for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts Patrick Guerriero, who was in town to talk to the local Log Cabin Republican chapter, and Patrick, it turns out, is a sweet, smart (single!) man as well as a savvy politician.
Patrick Guerriero (left) receiving his Abe Award
Center City Philadelphia, which I never left during my three-day stay, is easy to negotiate and fairly compact. I took a cab only once, when I was late for a party. Otherwise I walked everywhere from my base camp at the gorgeous Westin Hotel on 17th Street. It has an ornate but comfy upstairs lobby; large, well-appointed rooms; and dual-headed showers, which made me never want to leave the bath. Mistaking me for a V.I.P., the hotel also provided a delicious plate of chocolate-covered strawberries one evening.
Mmm. Chocolate-covered strawberries
As it happened, walking was a particular pleasure, because the weather was stunning: blue skies with puffy clouds, warm sun, low humidity, temperatures in the 60s and 70s. The streets are almost uniformly clean and felt perfectly safe to me even walking home after midnight. The architecture, to my untrained eye, appeared a pleasant mix of historical buildings and tasteful 20th-century skyscrapers. There are a number of green, well-kept parks of various sizes—I had lunch in Rittenhouse Square, which is also apparently home to a flower market and other activities during the year. The light breezes brought no evil smells, only the freshness of the season. If this is spring in Philadelphia, it's to be highly recommended.
Central Philly is also compact enough that it can give you that small-town feel. I had been invited to the city by Malcolm Lazan, the businessman and activist who created and still runs PrideFest, and before I even had a chance to call to tell him I was in town, I ran into him by chance in Center City. Together we peeked in on an impressive National Legal Symposium in which a couple dozen lawyers were getting bar credit for discussing gay and lesbian issues all afternoon. (I had taken the red-eye and sadly slept through the National Gay and Lesbian Leaders Symposium that morning, which had been broadcast live across the nation on public radio.) Next Malcolm escorted me over to the Philadelphia Arts Alliance a few blocks away to see the Tseng Kwong Chi retrospective. It was the first such exhibition of the work of an incredibly talented gay Chinese-American photographer who was equally at home capturing his friend Keith Haring drawing on the walls of the New York subways, snapping pictures at underground New York parties in the 1970s and 80s, and creating giant, ironic self-portraits against the background of U.S. landmarks such as the World Trade Center, Monument Valley, and Disneyland. The exhibit closed May 5, but if you have an opportunity to see Tseng's work in person, online, or in print, don't miss it.
That night was the National Role Model Award presentation at Philadelphia's brand-new Kimmel Arts Center, which is a must-visit whether you have an event to attend or not. My limited architectural vocabulary prevents me from giving the awestruck description the center deserves. Suffice it to say it's a study in sweeping glass, soaring spaces, and a combination of geometric forms and diverse colors and textures that all come together to take the breath away. And the role model ceremony was pretty cool too, honoring MTV for its countless images of gay and lesbian lives that have brought us unparallelled visibility to young viewers across the world. A few hundred people enjoyed the ceremony, but hundreds more showed up for the dance party afterward at the popular club Shampoo.
Speaking of the arts (weren't we?), Philadelphia has, in addition to the boutique Art Alliance, a number of world-class museums, several of which I had visited on my previous visit to the city. The largest and most impressive, of course, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at one end of the wide green boulevard dubbed the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. And yes, this massive structure atop a hill marks the spot where Rocky Balboa runs up the steps and dances around with his arms in the air at dawn. Feel free to do the same, but also check out the collections on the inside. You can leave your boxing gloves at coat-check. Nearby on the parkway is the Rodin Museum, with the largest collection of the French sculptor's work outside of France.
My focus this trip, however, was not on art but on history, and I decided to take in as much of the Revolutionary War sites as possible on a limited schedule. (If this stuff bores you silly, skip the next two paragraphs.) The Liberty Bell should be on the itinerary for any first-time visitor: Yes, it's cheesy, but once you're standing next to it, its significance—its "realness," if you will—is overwhelming even for a jaded Member of the Loyal Opposition such as myself. The Bell is in a special glass-and-steel structure in front of Independence Hall, where you can get a guided tour of the building in which the Declaration of Independence was conceived, ratified, and signed. Also nearby is the Franklin Court, where Benjamin Franklin's home once stood, the Betsy Ross House, where the first U.S. flag was sewn, and Elfreth's Alley, a narrow residential street that's been unchanged for more than 200 years. All are free and informative (although the small Alley museum charges a nominal fee for going inside the one home that's available for touring—people still live in all the others).
I even went so far as to take in the Lights of Liberty, a 45-minute evening walking tour of the historic district that begins at 6th Street and Chestnut and passes by many of the structures I've just mentioned, as well as the massive Second Bank of the U.S. and the historical Carpenters Hall. The trick is, you wear radio headphones during the tour and each location is lit up with projected images, animation, and colorful lighting as actors' voices, music, and sound effects recreate the events leading up to the Revolutionary War.
OK, so enough with the Benjamin Franklin lecture—where's the gay stuff? you ask. Well, virtually everywhere (particularly in the vicinity of 11th or 12th streets and, say, Locust or Pine streets, the heart of the "gayborhood"). Philadelphia has a thriving gay community, with bookstores, restaurants, bars, clubs, gyms—the whole kit and caboodle—and it's one of the most welcoming big-city gay communities I've visited. The bars—Woody's is ground zero—are teeming with every sort of gay folk, apparently without the fascist body segregation those of us in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami have to endure on a nightly basis. I loved Woody's, with its upstairs hard-core dance club and video bar and downstairs Cheers-like atmosphere (only with 100 times the number of people in the average Cheers episode), but I won't pretend to be an expert on the rest of Philly's offerings. Shampoo was quite impressive the night of the MTV party, and locals spoke highly of the club as one of the favorites for dancing. Other gay travel guides will certainly tell you more about places like Globar and Sisters.
What I can tell you is that in every place I visited I felt comfortable and relaxed (and I'm just an ordinary 42-year-old guy with a husband back home and no abs to speak of). Take, for example, the labyrinthian 12th Street Gym, where I did a little cardio one afternoon, which was both massive and homey—not to mention spotlessly clean. Or the 12th Annual Abe Awards breakfast that I crashed. The local chapter of Log Cabin Republicans, headed by president John Partain, were more than welcoming to me at their annual awards event, which this year honored Patrick Guerriero and local activist Donald F. Carter. Their affection for George W. Bush notwithstanding (OK, OK, so he hasn't rolled us back into the 1950s, but he still makes me cringe as our selected leader on a world stage), they're a good bunch of guys who care about all the same gay rights issues that I care about. We simply avoided talking about, say, capital gains taxes or social entitlements, and we all felt like old friends. And no, I'm not being sarcastic. They were, to a man (and one woman), intelligent, well-informed, and genuinely likeable.
Similarly, the impromptu street festival hosted on the Saturday of PrideFest by local dance radio station Q-102 was both well-attended and low-key. And the "Sunday OUT" celebration that marked the end of PrideFest—and the end of my visit—on Sunday was as festive as street festivals get. And when Malcolm Lazan's voice came over the loudspeakers to announce a moment of silence for the gay and lesbian heroes of Sept. 11, people actually got quiet and contemplative for several minutes on a sunny, bustling afternoon. It was a touching, unifying moment.
True to Philly's big-city/small-town spirit, I ran into Benjie and Mikey, the Young Gay America boys, on the street the day after I saw them speak eloquently at PrideFest's Jim Wheeler National Youth Panel (named after a talented gay Pennsylvania teen who committed suicide). And as I was headed back to the Westin to pick up my luggage and a cab to the airport, of course I crossed paths one more time with Malcolm Lazan, who by then seemed to be not only my host, but a one-man host committee welcoming the entire world to Philadelphia. He was smiling and proud, as always, as we said our goodbyes. He urged me to return next year for the 11th PrideFest America (that is, the real 10th Anniversary), and I will have to do just that.