William Way archives take center stage in ‘Speaking Out’

William Way archives take center stage in ‘Speaking Out’

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Before it even officially debuted last week, the National Constitution Center’s landmark LGBT exhibit, “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights and the Supreme Court” — which relies heavily on artifacts from William Way LGBT Community Center’s John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives — has been extended until January.

“The NCC walked through the exhibit last week when it opened and liked it so much they decided to extend it,” said archive curator Bob Skiba. “I’m elated. They were so complimentary.” 

Skiba has managed the center’s archives since 2006, and was responsible for helping plan and curate the new exhibit, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Annual Reminder LGBT protests at Independence Hall.

“We have been meeting every Friday morning for the past three years planning this,” Skiba said. “And now we finally get to share artifacts from the archives with the public.”

Skiba said one of the original motivations of organizers was to share and promote the diverse collection that exists in the John Wilcox Jr. Archives.

“Our artifacts really form the backbone of the exhibit — artifacts from the first Reminder Days like buttons, pamphlets, all the paperwork, photos,” Skiba said. “We also borrowed a few things from the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Philadelphia History Museum and Mütter Museum.”

While it may be hard to imagine such an exhibit taking place anywhere other than the NCC, Skiba said they initially approached the Philadelphia History Museum.

“We spoke with the Philadelphia History Museum first, but they had some good valid reasons to say no, so then we approached the NCC,” said Skiba. “We were a little surprised when they said yes. It also immediately put some limitations on what we could and could not do.”

As a non-partisan institution, the NCC does not take political sides in its programming — which presented some unique challenges when trying to tell the story of the history and evolution of the LGBT civil-rights movement.

“It was really challenging. We had to be careful about what we said,” Skiba said. “For instance, we could not talk about ‘progress,’ we had to say ‘change,’ because ‘progress’ was subjective.”

However, Skiba said those challenges helped them focus the exhibit while maximizing its appeal to a broader audience.

“It couldn’t just be a celebration of gay rights and progress. It’s a much more complex and nuanced exhibit because of it, though, and it’s a better exhibit for it,” he said. “If we had done it here at William Way, you would have been preaching to the choir. But when you realize you have to talk to people who may or may not agree with you or may have no idea at all what you’re talking about, it really makes you focus.”

For more information about the John Wilcox Jr. Archives, visit www.waygay.org. To purchase tickets for Speaking Out, visit www.constitutioncenter.org


Make sure to also check out a number of other local exhibits celebrating LGBT equality this summer:


National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East

“The Pursuit of Happiness: Jewish-American Voices for LGBT Rights”

June 23-September

This free artifact installation celebrates and explores the stories of Jewish marchers who participated in the Annual Reminders. The museum is also collecting stories of LGBT Jewish identities at http://nmajh-lgbt.tumblr.com/.


The African-American Museum, 701 Arch St.

“Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene”

June 12-Aug. 6

The premiere of the Philadelphia-based work of photographer Gerard Gaskin explores the culture of house balls of the African-American and Latino LGBT communities with photos of local and regional house-ball events; aampmuseum.org.


Liberty Bell Center, Sixth and Market streets

 “Protesting for Equal Rights: 50th Anniversary, Reminder Day”

Through July 26

The exhibit offers a retrospective on the Annual Reminder demonstrations held in almost that spot five decades ago.


Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.

“Barbara Gittings, LGBT Library Activism and the Stonewall Book Awards”

This ongoing exhibit traces the efforts of Gittings, an Annual Reminder participant, and others to promote access to LGBT books; freelibrary.org. 

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