Philly Gets Its Gay On at OutFest

by David Perry

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 5, 2013

Over 40,000 visitors attended this year's 23rd annual Philadelphia OutFest in October, making it the largest National Coming Out Day celebration in the world.

"It's a huge networking day," said Fran Price, executive director of Philly Pride Presents, the umbrella organization responsible for not only the June spectacle of the city's PrideDay events, but also the autumnal follow-through that is OutFest.

"And it's a tradition now; we don't really have to go out and recruit," she added. "People come to us - they want to participate because they know it's a huge opportunity to connect."

Spiced up by the gleeful irreverence of Philadelphia's drag queens and go-go boys braving the cool October weather in their Speedos, OutFest commandeers the streets and cobblestoned Colonial Era alleyways of the aptly-named Gayborhood, a three block-section of the city's Washington Square West neighborhood. This year saw a record 157 stalls and kiosks set up shop on the sidewalks, demonstrating a quantifiable show of force of, to, and for the LGBTQ community from all over Philadelphia and the region.

Good Ol’ Fashioned Block Party

While giving the appearance of a good ol’ fashioned block party, with beer wagons and vendors selling the mandatory Philly cheesesteaks, OutFest is nevertheless strictly done through a lavender lens - as evidenced by the chaotically contested penis-shaped bagel-eating competitions (this year’s winners got a free night’s stay in Atlantic City). Music boomed out of Philadelphia’s vibrant LGBTQ nightlife hubs, gay clubs and bars such as Tavern on Camac, ICandy, and the iconic Woody’s, while Giovanni’s Room, the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the country, did brisk business. The Mummers, whose glittering Carnival-esque New Year’s Day parade is the pinnacle of Philadelphia’s traditions and incorporates several drag performances, took pride of place. But scattered among LGBTQ groups like the Philadelphia Gryphons (the local gay rugby team) and the historic William Way LGBT Center; and amid the stalls selling rainbow rings and t-shirts emblazoned with homoerotic double entendres, were allies one might not expect, making OutFest far more thought-provoking.

"We’ve been very supportive of the LGBTQA community," says Michelle Ottey of the Fairfax Cryobank sperm bank. "Around 30 percent of our donor sperm clients identify as lesbian or bi-sexual, and we appreciate being a part of these important celebrations of Pride and OutFest. We are so happy to serve the community and help them build healthy, happy families."

Major corporations including Campbell’s Soup, US Airways, Wells Fargo, and the Miller Beverage Company lined up to make their presence and support known, as did several of Philadelphia’s religious establishments. Faith-driven social equality gained an early foothold in the City of Brotherly Love thanks to the presence of the Quakers, a Christian denomination formally known as the Religious Society of Friends (and represented at the OutFest at the Friends Central kiosk). Closely tied with Philadelphia’s colonial identity, a main tenant of the faith is that God’s presence is in all people in an equal amount, mandating every human be on an equal standing with each other. This dogma put followers on the forefront of several egalitarian movements, from abolitionism and feminism on to LGBTQ issues. Indeed, Philadelphia’s gay-rights movement preceded that of New York’s by four years, starting in 1964.

Following the Quaker lead, other churches and even the local LGBTQ Hindu community jostled for space at OutFest, greeting the curious and giving brief introductions to their work. But one did not so much work as work out.

"I was blessing rosaries for four solid hours!" chuckles the Rev. Canon W. Gordon Reid, Rector of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, who surmises a majority, or "at least a very large minority" of his parishioners are openly gay. "I was astonished at how many people where there. It was a marvelous crowd, from drag queens to leather boys!

"The rosaries were just plastic little things, but they were a sign of goodwill," Reid continues, recalling how many visitors came to him for blessings for those ill with HIV. "I wanted to make sure that people knew there were Christians and even whole churches that make gay people welcome in their congregations."

Giving Credit

Organizers of Philly Pride Presents also use OutFest, more intimate than PrideDay, to recognize local LGBTQ heroes.

"I ran away when I was nine years old and started prostituting," admitted transwoman Jaci Adams to the crowd, and who received an award named after her for her work with transgender issues. "Fifty-five years later, I’m standing here, getting an award. When I first started out helping the girls, or anybody, I didn’t do it for an award. I did it so people could walk in their truth, so people could live their truth. And not just transgender individuals, all individuals."

Awarded the Gilbert Baker National OutProud Award, Brian Sims, a native son and the first openly gay member of the Pennsylvania State Assembly (D-Philadelphia), whipped up support for House Bill 1686, his measure that would allow same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, a state with hardly any legal protections for gays or lesbians. Sims was joined, and supported, by Pennsylvania state treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rob McCord, a staunch LGBTQ ally who took time to greet voters and to resoundingly condemn current governor Tom Corbett who earlier in October notoriously equated same-sex marriage with sibling incest.

"Coming Out Day is a self-realization and it’s an event," said Fran Price. "It’s a little different from Gay Pride; OutFest is about being out and proud but also about coming out, and the realization about being out. With us, it just grew into a big National Coming Out Day ’happening,’ celebrating being out of the closet and encouraging people to come out and be true to themselves."

David Perry is a freelance travel and news journalist. In addition to EDGE, his work has appeared on ChinaTopix, Thrillist, and in Next Magazine and Steele Luxury Travel among others. Follow him on Twitter at @GhastEald.