The Publick Universal Friend

Jemima_WilkinsonJemima Wilkinson — also known simply as “the Friend” (short for “the Publick Universal Friend” — was a preacher who declared independence from gender in the same year that America declared independence from Britain, and advocated for equality for all in the early years of the United States’ existence. (And since Jemima is not around to ask what pronouns to use, I’m going to be using “they/them” for the rest of this.)

Jemima Wilkinson was born on November 29, 1758 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Their parents were Quakers. Their early life appears to have been fairly uneventful until they became ill with a fever in 1776. Although they came close to death, they did recover — and declared that Jemima had died, and they had been reborn as the genderless Publick Universal Friend. The Friend not only did not identify with any gender, but was also quite openly asexual and promoted abstinence.

On October 13, less than a week after recovering from the fever, the Friend gave their first public sermon. Although the Friend’s teachings included a lot of Quaker values like pacificism, abolitionism, et cetera — they were still labeled a heretic by the Quakers. The Friend’s teachings also included sexual abstinence, being friendly to everyone, and gender equality (that’s the heretical part, if you weren’t sure). During the American Revolution, the Friend provided medical attention to soldiers on both sides of the war. Despite preaching about dressing plainly, the Friend’s outfits were a big part of what brought people out to listen to their sermons — the Friend wore the traditional black robes of the clergy, over petticoats, as well as a broad-brimmed black man’s hat and brightly colored women’s scarves.

The Friend preached throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before heading to Pennsylvania. By this time, there were a number of followers calling themselves “Universal Friends” and in 1783 the Friend organized the Society of the Universal Friends. Although the Friend only claimed to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the Universal Friends made claims that they were “the Messiah Reborn” and “Christ in female form”.

These claims — as well as the Friend’s flagrant challenge to the patriarchy — made the Friend a target. They were publicly slandered time and time again, especially in Philadelphia — an area rife with Quakers. In 1788, the Society of Universal Friends pooled their resources and purchased land near the northern end of Keuka Lake in New York. In March of 1790, they actually began journeying to the land they had purchased and on April 13, 1790 they officially declared the settlement of Jerusalem at that location. (Although Jerusalem is still a town, this particular part of it where they settled is now the village of “Penn Yan”. Which stands for “Pennsylvania Yankee”. Apparently.)

In 1800, was taken to court for blasphemy but — in what would be a landmark decision — it was ruled that American courts could not try people for blasphemy due to the separation of church and state. This would go on to influence the laws around the First Amendment as the United States developed.

The trouble with having a community where one of the central tenets is sexual abstinence is that the population tends to dwindle. Because like, you if you can’t have babies, you don’t replace the adults when they kick the bucket. Or, should I say, when they “leave time” — that’s how the Friend’s death was described by the Universal Friends when it happened on July 1, 1819. They were 61 years old — and in those years, they had challenged virtually every institution in this country, at it’s very beginning. I also want to note that, despite not identifying as a woman, the Friend is considered the first American-born woman to begin a religious movement (and is definitely, and more accurately, the first American-born non-binary person to begin a religious movement.)

Dewey’s Lunch Counter Sit-Ins

DeweysSit-inpic3I want to tell you all about the Dewey’s Lunch Counter Sit-Ins. This protest was the first known LGBT protest in Philadelphia (though only by a few months, as the Annual Reminders would start soon after).

Dewey’s was a chain of hamburger restaurants  that, in 1965, had two locations in Philadelphia. (I don’t think there’s any locations anymore — couldn’t compete with the Big Mac, I guess.) One of these was at 219 South Seventeenth St (which, I just checked Google, and there doesn’t seem to be anything there right now — except maybea parking garage?). That’s where this story unfolds.

Responding to a crowd of teenagers whose outfits were, let’s say, outside of typical gender norms and who were apparently behaving disruptively, Dewey’s management instructed their employees to deny them service. This order was interpreted broadly, and service was denied to anyone who appeared to be LGBT in any respect — but this was a local LGBTQ+ hangout, so that policy ended up leading to roughly 150 people being denied service in one day (April 25, 1965). Three of those people refused to leave — and thus the sit-in began. The Janus Society joined the teenagers with their sit-in at Dewey’s. The police arrived and arrested the three teenagers and Janus Society president Clarke Polak.

1965-deweys-leafletThese arrests, if anything, further incensed the Janus Society. They proceeded to demonstrate outside of the restaurant, and handed out over 1,500 leaflets throughout the next five days. They staged a second sit-in on May 2, and although the police were called no one was arrested this time. Following this, Dewey’s put an end to it’s discriminatory policy.

The Dewey’s sit-in is particularly significant for what is, otherwise, a pretty small protest. First, it was successful in a pretty short amount of time. Especially as an early LGBT protest, that’s remarkable.

But this was also one of, if not the, first protest for LGBT equality in the United States. Earlier rallies, riots, and protests were mostly about police harassment and seeking access to legal protection. This was a new kind of protest, asking for something more than just safety, and it signaled the beginning of a new kind of LGBT activism led by the teenagers of the day. A much more radical, liberal philosophy emerged that demanded society change to accept people no matter how they defied gender norms. It’s still a struggle we’re having with society to this day, but the next time you’re sneaking a Baconator from Wendy’s just remember how far we’ve actually come. (And then when you’ve finished eating, remember how far we have left to go!)

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Annual Reminders

I want to talk a bit about the Annual Reminders — partially because they were born out of a protest in Washington DC in 1965 and partially because, without them, we would almost assuredly not have Pride happening each June.

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On April 17 and 18 of that year, a multitude of gay rights organizations (or “homophile organizations” as they were called) from across the East Coast gathered in Washington D.C. to protest the US and Cuba’s policies on homosexuality. Cuba, at the time, was forcing homosexual men into labor camps. This protest was the combined effort of the DC and NYC chapters of the Mattachine Society, Philadelphia’s Janus Society, and the NYC chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis. These groups decided to band together, forming the East Coast Homophile Organizations (or ECHO). Only 40 activists were present, but it was — at the time — the largest demonstration for LGBT+ rights in world history.

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Following the protest in DC, Craig Rodwell decided that there was enough issues facing LGBT+ people in the US that they shouldn’t disappear into the woodwork when there wasn’t a crisis. Other members of ECHO, including pioneers of the gay rights movement such as Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and Kay Tobin agreed. And so, the Annual Reminders were born.

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On July 4 from 1965 to 1969, ECHO gathered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia to protest. Independence Hall was chosen very specifically, not only because it was where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were written but because in 1965, it was the home of the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell had been a powerful symbol for women’s suffrage and for the abolition of slavery. ECHO was making a concerted effort to tie the struggle of LGBT+ Americans to civil rights efforts of the past.

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Frank Kameny had insisted on a very strict dress code for the Annual Reminders. Men were to wear suit jackets and ties, women were to wear dresses. The Annual Reminder ran from 3:30 pm to 5 pm. The press mostly ignored them, although they were described in an article entitled “Homos on the March” published in Confidential magazine’s October 1965 issue.

Screen-Shot-2014-07-01-at-8.22.58-AM.pngThe final Annual Reminder occurred less than a week after the Stonewall Riots. The organizers received death threats, but Frank Kameny arranged for police protection and chartered a bus from New York City to Philadelphia to help activists arrive safely. There were 150 participants in the final Annual Reminder — more than triple the number of participants in the “world’s largest LGBT+ rights demonstration” of just a few years prior.

The Stonewall Riots changed everything for ECHO, which reorganized itself as the Eastern Regional Conference of Homphile Organizations (ERCHO), and decided that instead of having an Annual Reminder in 1970, they should have a non-political parade to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. They named this the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade but it was, in fact, the first Pride Parade. The proposal for this change was drafted by a number of leader in the gay rights movement, including Craig Rodwell — the man who had originally conceived of the Annual Reminders.

picket-plaqueIn 2005, a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker was placed at Chestnut and 6th Streets in Philadelphia to commemorate the Annual Reminders. The city also held a 50th Anniversary celebration in 2015, which included a recreation of the first reminder on July 4th.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)