Looking Back at 50 Years of LGBTQ History

WHYY has produced the documentary The Pursuit: 50 Years in the Fight for LGBT Rights, which will air on June 23.

Just shy of the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing the right to marry to same-sex couples, the LGBTQ community is mourning the massacre in Orlando rather than celebrating the landmark court decision.
But some choose to look toward the future and see how times have changed in the last 50 years.
WHYY has produced the documentary The Pursuit: 50 Years in the Fight for LGBT Rights, which will air on June 23.
However, on June 21, Congregation Rodeph Shalom will host a pre-screening of the film, as well as an interfaith panel afterward with Ark of Refuge Tabernacle of Philadelphia, Unity Fellowship of Christ Church and Metropolitan Community Church.
“I thought it would be great to hold a pre-screening at Rodeph Shalom,” said Heshie Zinman, chair of the synagogue’s social activism group, pRiSm, “and, at the same time, to do a panel discussion following the screening to talk about exactly how do we go about building an inclusive faith community of multiple faiths and to work towards building towards social justice.
“How has faith and faith institutions served us in the past 50 years — or how has faith and faith institutions served us well or not so well in the last 50 years, what have we learned from that, what have institutions learned from that and then how do we move forward to build this community?”
Zinman was one of many interviewed in the film. When Naomi Levine, associate producer for WHYY for the film, approached him about hosting the pre-screening, he saw it as an opportunity to open the door for a greater conversation with the panel.
“We hope that will be the start of many conversations with multiple LGBTQ faith groups,” he said.
Zinman has a deep personal connection to the film’s subject matter as a longtime social activist.
A bartender at a gay bar in Philadelphia in the early ’80s, he was trying to figure out his own career path, but suddenly began seeing his clientele disappear.
“They were dying because the AIDS epidemic had struck,” he remembered. “So people were starting to drop out of sight, and I happened to be right there in the epicenter of it. I had an opportunity to see what was going on, the sense of urgency around creating services, creating organizations, what were we going to do to help these young men. It was a really tough period in my life and in the life of the community.”
He also discussed his personal life, including the time before he came out when he was married and living a “heteronormative life in the suburbs.” When he knew he was gay, it affected his decision not to have children, a big difference from the life same-sex couples face today.
“What I say is that one of my biggest regrets in my life is that I did not have children, and that is speaking as an older gay man. Clearly, if I was a younger gay man that certainly is an option now, but it wasn’t then,” said Zinman, now again happily married. “So I hope people also understand that I didn’t have children because I was a product of my times, but life is good and we’ve come really a long way.”
But while this is a progressive and monumental shift, it’s hardly the end of the road.
And while there has been plenty of negative rapport surrounding the upcoming presidential election, it has also showed how progressive society could — and has started to — become. See: Bernie Sanders.
So perhaps asking “why now?” for the need for this documentary is not the right question.
“Now is the time to work toward equity and social justice,” Zinman said. “And so, if we have different parts of society banding together, I think we saw recently that more people felt like they had more in common than less in common and so I think if we can all come together, think of what’s possible.”
“So I think why now, why not now?”
The documentary addresses national aspects of the LGBTQ movement — Stonewall Riots, marriage equality laws — but also focuses on Philadelphia.
“We talk about the John C. Anderson Apartments — one of the first LGBT-friendly senior housing units in the country — we talk about the issue of LGBT youth and homelessness and that as a Philadelphia problem,” Zinman said. “It’s just a great film that really looks at how far we’ve come but also how much further we need to go.”
One facet of the movement the documentary did not address was faith, which was an important one for Zinman.
“There’s still faith institutions that are not welcoming,” said Zinman, who grew up attending a conservative synagogue and did not find the welcoming community he was seeking after coming out before he found Rodeph Shalom, “so we want to talk about that — we want to talk about some of what we as LGBT people of faith went through during the last 30 years and really look at how that’s changing.”
The pre-screening is open to the public, and Zinman hopes many come out to see it for its educational value — particularly for the younger generation.
“It’s important to watch the documentary because younger people don’t know the history — younger LGBT people and younger people,” he said. “We don’t know the history of the LGBT movement and that’s a very important history, like all history — how did we get here? You’ve got to look at how we got here to appreciate all the work and all the struggle that people put into creating equality for all. If you don’t have justice for some, we don’t have justice for anyone.”
Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740
Note: This interview took place prior to the Orlando shootings.


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