When PGN first began publishing in 1976, there were few openly LGBT writers. The community was still growing just as the newspaper was still growing. In its infancy, the paper had a staff who believed in the mission that a gay newspaper could be a source of information and an agent of change. Most of the staff were members of the community themselves. They covered civil rights, entertainment (which often took the form of books, since we were rarely in TV and movies), politics and pride events. They were part of a team that had to figure out what a gay community newspaper could and should be.

Those familiar purple vending boxes dotting the streets of Center City weren’t always there. In the first nine months of its existence, the Philadelphia Gay News was limited to a few local distributors and a subscription service. It was difficult to inadvertently stumble upon the paper as so many people do today. In 1976, like a lot of things in the gay community, one had to know where to find the PGN to get it.

 

In the March 1976 issue of PGN, M. David Stein wrote about Andy Lippincott, the first openly gay character in a comic strip. A mild-mannered, respectful law school student, Lippincott debuted on Jan. 27, 1976, in “Doonesbury,” the iconic series created by American artist Gary Trudeau. His first appearances in the comic follow his introduction to fellow student Joanie Caucas, a 30-year-old feminist who immediately grows smitten with him. The two chat about legal cases and eventually meet for a dinner during which Joanie is flirtatious and Andy apprehensive. A few weeks later, Andy comes clean and tells Joanie that he is gay.

 

Whether one intends it or not, being an openly LGBTQ person is a political act. It was true in 1969, and it is true 50 years later. We are continually fighting for our right to exist and our right to equality. Similarly, a gay newspaper is more than just a newspaper. It’s a community service, an agent of change, and its responsibilities to readers go beyond merely reporting news. In the 1970s, many people were too scared even to pick up the newspaper in public. The paper had a public duty to not just report on the latest political or entertainment news but to show people that it was OK to be themselves. One of the goals of the paper, especially in the early days, was to provide people with information and advice they would find nowhere else.

In the 1970s, issues of PGN had two stories that appeared almost every week: Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade (and the resistance efforts launched against her), and someone being fired from their job because of their sexuality. Congresswoman Bella Abzug spearheaded the first national effort to prevent employment discrimination in 1974. It happened with such regularity and continues to occur across the country that Congress has introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) almost every session since 1994. Each time, unfortunately, has been unsuccessful.

Before Wikipedia, some of the best all-in-one sources of information were local and national almanacs. Released annually, almanacs compile facts ranging from the winners of elections and championships, significant changes in public policy, population growth around the world and a listing of national organizations. Forty years ago, these almanacs, like most other media in the early 1970s, barely included LGBT people. The staff of PGN took note of this omission and began the push to have the community included.

 

For the first year of the AIDS crisis, 1981, nobody knew what to call the disease. “Gay cancer” was a commonly used term, but medical professionals didn’t name it Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome until over a year after the first media reports surfaced. The playwright Eve Ensler once said, “Naming things, breaking through taboos and denial is the most dangerous, terrifying, and crucial work.” While AIDS remained nameless, the government denied research funds and the homophobic Moral Majority spouted falsehoods, resources including PGN tried to find the truth and share it with those affected. Here is a timeline of the AIDS articles published in PGN during the first year of the outbreak.

In the Jan. 3, 1976 issue of PGN, Harry Langhorne wrote an article about Bill 1275, which was introduced in City Council in the spring of 1974. The bill sought to amend the city’s Fair Practices Act to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment.

This new column, which we’re titling Our History, Our Future, will focus on one story from GN archives and explore how the issues in the article are relevant to the community today. We believe that remembering our history and the people who shaped it is vitally important to preserve and strengthen our future. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sometimes we have to look back in order to look forward.

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