The annual Philadelphia Dyke March was started in 1998 by Daniel Laurison, then a student at Swarthmore College.
Early march organizer Gloria Casarez recalled that the flier for the first event was inclusive, which caught her eye.
“It said, ‘Hey you, do you want to have a march for us?’ and it had a laundry list of identities that were printed on the flier, which is still used on the Dyke March T-shirts until this day,” she said.
Casarez, who was working as executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative at the time, said the group began to meet in February for the march, which was to be held in June.
Early meetings were held at The Attic Youth Center, GALAEI and Women in Transition.
“We got a great mix of people,” Casarez said. “Our youngest organizers were 14 years old and the oldest that year was 55 years old. It was very diverse and there were just 20 of us at the first meeting and half were people of color.”
Casarez added that Philadelphia’s march was among the first to be trans-inclusive.
“At that time, there were a handful of other cities that had the marches and most, if not all of them, were explicitly for women and pretty much trans-exclusive but when we started, we wanted to be inclusive and we took heat for that,” she said.
Casarez, 26 at the time, didn’t know anyone at the first meeting but said all the original organizers are still friends today.
It was at the first Dyke March meeting where Casarez met Maura Kelly.
Kelly joined the Dyke March at the very beginning and stayed involved for the first three years. Kelly said she was looking for a way to connect with people.
“I didn’t have a history of social action at the time,” she said. “A friend told me about it and I decided to get involved.”
Kelly’s apartment quickly became the venue for some of the meetings.
The first march started at Filter Square and ended at Fifth and Market streets.
Casarez recalled the only issue being the march permits, which she said were originally denied because the city felt the LGBT community had enough “Pride” events.
“Our event is not a parade, it is a protest,” she said, noting the rest of the debut event went seamlessly. “We didn’t know what we would encounter but nothing negative happened. We had a couple police officers escort us throughout our route. We had a great crowd; it was a celebration. The greatest challenge that day was crossing Broad Street but we had Faeries block traffic.”
Kelly remembers people opening their windows and cheering the marchers on.
The march now starts at Kahn Park and participants march throughout the Gayborhood and down Broad Street.
The Dyke March will celebrate its 15-year history with a new retrospective exhibit, opening 6 p.m. May 8 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. The exhibit will feature early T-shirt designs, fliers, noisemakers, photos, videos, planning notes, budget sheets, press releases and PGN articles.
Many materials featured in the exhibit were collected by past and present organizers. Current organizers will be on hand selling T-shirts and recruiting more members.
Current organizer Samantha Giusti got involved in the Dyke March six years ago after moving to Philadelphia for graduate school and wanting to get more involved with the community.
Giusti said there are about 20 organizers involved this year, noting it’s important to keep relationships open with past organizers.
“We still have a lot of the early organizers in the city and so we keep in contact with those early organizers and build good relationships with them,” she said.
Casarez still attends the Dyke March every year and said the annual event just gets better.
“There is a great group of people who organize it and make it a true celebration,” she said. “It is less of a protest than it was back then but the visibility component is still very important.”
Another element that has changed over the years is the growing acceptance of the term the march is named after.
“[‘Dyke’] was and still is cringe-worthy for some now,” Casarez said. “It was a political term and term of personal identity and it is about reclaiming the word that has been used to hurt us.”
Giusti agreed, adding that the use of the term reflects the event’s overall mission.
“It is a part of a national grassroots movement of people who are creating a space for women in response to male- and corporate-dominated Pride events,” she said. “We view it in today’s world as a flexible word because we are not policing people. People can self-identify as dyke and whatever it means to them. Dyke is an umbrella term.”
The march has changed in its 15 years, but Giusti said it stays true to its ideals.
“Dyke March 15 years later still looks similar with the same core values and morals and what we are protesting is the same,” she said. “It continues to be a living and breathing group and a reflection of where the dyke community is, and I just hope it continues to grow and be a reflection of creativity on who we are and who we love.”
The Dyke March will take place from 3-6 p.m. June 7 starting at Kahn Park.