Leona Thomas - Board Member and longtime friend

People sometimes ask me why I give so much time and energy to William Way – and I often answer that I’m paying it forward and I understand how important it is to have community center focusing on supporting the local GLBTQ community.  I’ve lived elsewhere without community centers – and it’s amazing how hard it is to find community and how much is missing there.  But that’s the short answer.  It’s that first part about giving back that I’ve rarely have the time to fully explain.  My early experiences with William Way/Penguin Place/Philadelphia LGBTQ Community Center are really examples of how what seems like a small acts – creating safe space, education, and bringing community together can have this huge ripple effect much broader than just those of us who connected with the community center directly.

I first connected with William Way in the late 80’s – probably ’86 or ’87 when it was still Penguin Place – and the first location I walked into was one few probably remember –the one on Quince Street over by the bike stop – and was still around a few years later when it moved over to Camac St. by what was the 2-4, now Voyeur.  I was in a different place than a lot of people my age back then.  I came out at 18 – actually a few would say I never went in.  I came out into the UPenn/West Philadelphia/Philadelphia Rugby women’s communities so I had instant access to a large lesbian community – and with parents and family who, with a few exceptions, accepted me for who I am.  And besides I supported myself, so if they didn’t like it, they could get over it.  In many ways, I didn’t technically need the community center – and yet, it profoundly changed my life and the life of many others by providing critical services to the community.

The first was a legal seminar that Penguin Place (William Way) put on with Lambda Legal on how to create legal protections for ourselves and our partners – legally recognized same sex marriage wasn’t even a pipe dream then – and there were many horror stories of people being denied access to hospitals, losing their houses, etc. even after many years of being with their partners because families came in and took over or institutions refused to recognize their relationships.  But Lambda Legal gave us some options – create legal contracts, put major assets in joint names, set up legal and medical powers of attorney’s, and wills with explicit instructions on where your assets would go and who would make decisions for you after passed away.  Back in the 80’s there was one book that explained how to do these things – I got the name of the book at the seminar and immediately walked over and bought the book at Giovanni’s Room.  I used the book, my friends used the book, their friends used my book, and when I went through a joining ceremony with my now ex-wife, we had as many legal protections in place as available to us under the laws at that time.   

Unfortunately our relationship didn’t last, but the knowledge did – and when my next serious relationship involved raising a child before two parent adoption existed in most states, we leveraged that knowledge to help make sure my relationship as his parent was as iron clad as possible – and believe me, you didn’t want to be the hospital worker trying to stop me from seeing my son trying to tell me I wasn’t allowed in or the teacher telling me I wasn’t allowed to pick my son up from school because “I wasn’t his mother”…. as I walked in armed with legal guardianship and medical power of attorney papers and the knowledge of how to sue anyone who tried to deny me my legal rights based on those documents.

24+ years later, my relationship with my son has outlasted my relationship with his biological mother and the damn legal system who wouldn’t officially recognize me as a parent for years.  He was then, is now, and will forever be my son – and we finally gained legal recognition of our relationship over 22 years after I started raising him.  I’m still getting used to being a grandmother – and I couldn’t be prouder of my son who grew up as one of the first kids with openly gay and lesbian parents – but I couldn’t have done it without the knowledge I gained from that first Lambda Legal Seminar and the community that surrounded Penguin Place back in the late ‘80s.

That experience helped us safely live our lives – but it also taught me something.  It taught me how important it was to learn the law and leverage it to mimic the legal structures and benefits provided to straight married couples as much as possible – so in the mid-90s when I needed medical coverage for my partner and my son, I reached out to some of those same people for help – and learned from them what companies needed to do to provide domestic partnership benefits.  It wasn’t as easy as it is today.  Not only did a company have to agree to offer the benefits, they actually had to petition their insurance provider for special riders allowing them to offer same sex benefits AND the same sex couples had to meet certain criteria, including things like joint bank accounts and legal agreements, to qualify for the benefits.  Armed with this knowledge, I started to petition my employer at the time to offer domestic partnership benefits.  Unfortunately the main division of the company was too engrained in military contracts at the time and it would be almost 20 years later before that particular company would offer domestic partnership benefits.  So I decided to leave – and in leaving, I was able to get at least 3 other companies, including SEI Investments, to start offering domestic partnership benefits in trying to hire me. 

This was the mid-90’s and none of the companies knew it was even possible until I provided them the information and walked them through the process.  And then armed with this same knowledge, several of my friends were able to do similar things with their companies – and I know we weren’t the only ones.  While I can’t prove it, I’m willing to bet that collectively Philadelphia businesses were some of the early providers of domestic partnership benefits because this information was available throughout the community.

The second was the role Penguin Place had in bringing the local universities, students, and several fledgling student organizations together.  Sometime in the early 80’s Penn started a program for Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals, including a full time staff person, a vibrant student organization and dedicated space on campus.  But they were one of the very few campuses who did.  Most of the local campuses were not as supportive of the LGBTQ student community – and even at Penn there were many challenges, including physical threats and harassments, issues with frats, and even ROTC students who came out being forced out of ROTC and being sued to for the return of their scholarships.  The Penn program already existed when I started at Penn in ’84 – before I came out but I had several friends who were gay so I knew about the programs and was very comfortable going to the events.  Unfortunately even Penn’s culture couldn’t protect my first girlfriend, who was in ROTC at the time, from being harassed and removed from ROTC when our relationship became public – she was physically attacked by a fellow ROTC member and yet she was the one having to defend her “actions” for being in love with another woman.

Eventually I transferred to Drexel for their evening school and decided to join, and eventually lead, Drexel’s Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals at Drexel (GLBD).  I remember Penguin Place sponsoring several meetings for the local student community to get together to socialize, get to know each other, and share strategies on dealing with administration and other issues we faced.  One of the things we did at Drexel was student lead diversity sessions initially with only a few other student activity organizations and a few classes where the professors invited us in to speak.  However, somewhere around 1992, two things happened that would change Drexel – one, the Drexel security force started making threatening phone calls to the GLBD office – and were dumb enough to call from within Drexel’s phone system and there was an incident of several Drexel frat members harassing people coming out of a GLBD dance on campus -  I remember at the time just inherently knowing what we needed to do – these events allowed us to force Drexel to change their non-discrimination policy – and the policy I wrote adding in sexual identity and sexual orientation as protect classes still exists in Drexel’s student handbook today.  The other thing we did was force Drexel into expanding the student lead diversity trainings into the security teams and fraternal organizations.  Many years later, I learned through a story on NPR that potentially hundreds of colleges modeled their student lead diversity programs off of Drexel’s - one which we loosely modeled off of Penn’s.  One thing I’m sure is, we wouldn’t have been able to act as quickly and effectively in responding to the attacks if we hadn’t been involved with the other student communities – because while GLBD was < 15 actively open members when these attacks occurred, we knew there were resources and support just a phone calls away.

The LGBTQ movement doesn’t have a “MLK” or even a Malcom leading the nation – the LGBTQ movement was built on many of us being willing to stand up and take on the battles within our own communities.  For 40 years, we’ve had the benefit of doing this armed with knowledge, community and support provided directly and indirectly to all of us from the Philadelphia LGBTQ community center.  Whether it was Penguin place, a “center without walls”, or William Way; having those resources have helped shaped Philadelphia into one of the most LGBTQ friendly communities there is – and helped shaped the LGBTQ movement beyond even the regions of Philadelphia.  It’s not a surprise that many of the leaders from national organizations such as HRC have some from Philly and it’s definitely not a surprise that Philly is one of the leading LGBTQA communities anywhere.  Today there are countless examples of Philadelphia having some of the biggest, oldest and best programs and policies anywhere as well as William Way providing critical services to the community including:

·         Philadelphia being one of the first cities who included sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies in the US.

·         Having our own “gayborhood” officially recognized by the city.

·         Having a Mayor’s office of Mayor’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Affairs

·         Community events such as the current Reminder Days celebrations and the  and the opening of the NCC exhibit

·         Having a safe space for events like the 20th Anniversary of the Annual Alternative Prom for LGBTQ Youth

·         Providing a safe space and resources for anyone to learn about and plug into the LGBTQ community – where all they need to do is ask

·         Providing affordable office and meeting space for many of the LGBTQ organizations across the region – including Action Aids.

·         Philadelphia has one of the oldest and largest National Coming Out Day celebrations anywhere.

·         William Way hosts one of the Largest LGBTQ archives anywhere

·         William Way place host for one of the first and largest trans conference anywhere

·         William Way produced the first LGBTQ jazz festival ever

·         William Way provides one of the oldest and most successful Peer counselling programs anywhere  that helps save and improve countless of lives over the years – a program that would have been lost if William Way hadn’t stepped up to take it over from Penn.

And many, many more examples… how many of these do you think would even exist if we didn’t have a community center acting as the heart and hub of our community.   And those my dear friends, are just a few of the reasons I decide to give back to William Way every opportunity I get.