Get your LGBTQ history ready: America 250 celebration wants to know | Frank Pizzoli

(Photo via Philadelphia Gay News)

You’ll want a front row seat at the nation’s 250th anniversary celebrations in 2026. If it works as planned, you’ll look around at events seeing people just like you no matter who you are or who you love.

Frank Pizzoli (Capital-Star file)

Pennsylvania recently became the first state to officially join the multi-year national celebration. The ambitious project involves all 50 states and 6 US territories.

Under the auspices of America 250 Foundation, the nonprofit partner of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission formed by Congress to plan for the country’s 250th birthday, officials told Capital-Star they’re revved to involve all segments of the citizenry.

A foundation news release calls the endeavor “a multiyear initiative to inspire the American spirit leading up to the largest and most inclusive commemoration in our nation’s history in 2026.” And that includes the LGBTQ community, as well as other minority communities not usually included in our nation’s history in ways they might tell their stories.

“Our partnership discussions are now concluding on an extremely high note. I am happy to report we’re working in a true spirit of partnership,” Tony Rucci, president and CEO of the America 250 Foundation, told Capital-Star.

When he was asked if the commitment was genuine, Rucci told Capital-Star that “my two youngest children, ages 27 and 24, are my social justice warriors. When I told them what I would be doing they wanted to make sure we celebrated more than a bunch of old white guys.” His goal is for “each individual to feel represented.”

With assistance from 150 national organizations, the foundation completed a survey of 5,500 individuals 18 years and older. Rucci reports that “without a doubt the single most important theme that surfaced is one of unity.”

For Pennsylvania’s part, Cassandra Coleman, executive director of America250PA, told the Capital-Star she hopes to plan events for all 67 counties.

“We want to know what’s important to all groups who have contributed to our nation’s 250 history so we can properly develop programs,” Coleman said.

Already involved in the effort is Philadelphian Jonathan Lovitz, who in 2020 co-created the PhillyVoting.org initiative to expand voter registration and civic confidence in the City of Brotherly Love.

Among numerous community involvements, he also serves on the board of the queer William Way Community Center.

“We all have ties to the LGBTQ+ community and its contributions to Pennsylvania’s success,” Lovitz told Capital-Star.

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“We can never forget that our community includes women, communities of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, veterans, and so many others who are not just trailblazers for their own communities, but demonstrate the importance of owning and celebrating all of who you are,” Lovitz said, stressing an intersectional view..

Visibility through public projects such as America 250 can also push the debate envelope for queer and/or Intersectional groups who are part of the state and the nation but still treated as other. Queer Pennsylvanians have no statewide civil rights protections.

As recently as Jan. 26, the state House voted against including anti-discrimination legislation in a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would limit the governor’s executive power during an emergency.

“Some of Pennsylvania’s largest cities and counties have non-discrimination protections that ensure LGBTQ+ people here cannot be fired from their jobs, denied bank loans, kicked out of their homes, bullied in schools, and much more, simply for being open about who they are or are perceived to be,” Lovitz points out.

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The question is will Pennsylvania’s queer community have basic civil rights protections by 2026?

As of January 2021, according to the PA Youth Congress website: At least 69 of Pennsylvania’s 2,562 municipalities have passed LGBTQ-inclusive local nondiscrimination ordinances.

The residents of these municipalities amount to over 35 percent of Pennsylvania’s overall population, based on 2018 U.S. Census estimates.

Pennsylvania has the highest number of LGBTQ-inclusive local nondiscrimination ordinances adopted of any state in the nation, according to the Movement Advancement Project, that have yet to adopt a comprehensive statewide law.

Todd Snovel, special assistant to the president, and director of Strategic Initiatives and Development, at the ‎Pennsylvania College of Art and Design in Lancaster, is a familiar face in the Keystone State’s queer community.

“Beyond nondiscrimination ordinances, I believe the greatest power and gift is in the art of storytelling,” Snovel told Capital-Star.

He remembers an art exhibit at the Governor’s Residence about two years ago that featured 100 women who helped shape Pennsylvania history.

“How amazing would it be to work collaboratively across the state to commission an exhibit of 100 LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who shaped history,” he said.

Aligning with Lovitz’s thinking, Snovel feels strongly that the celebration of Intersectionality is important in “how we tell stories of our Queer Transgender POC communities, our queer refugees and immigrants, queer active members of the military and veterans, our queer communities with varying levels of abilities, and our queer communities of faith.”

For those who want to get involved in telling Pennsylvania’s queer history, Barry Loveland is the guy. He’s coordinator of the PA LGBT History Network, and contributor to Out in Central Pennsylvania: The History of an LGBTQ Community, by William Burton with Barry Loveland.

“We look forward to having an opportunity to work with America 250 PA to ensure that the rich and diverse history of this Commonwealth and nation is represented inclusive of LGBTQ+ history,” he told Capital-Star.

The history network now numbers “more than 100 people from all over the state” Loveland says, reiterating he is ready to collaborate with America250 PA.

To date, the network has completed several collaborative projects, including two traveling and digital exhibits: The Long Road to LGBTQ+ Equality in Pennsylvania and With Open Heart and Open Arms: LGBTQ+ Cubans and the LGBTQ+ Community Response to the Mariel Boatlift.

The network is currently consulting with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on a future project for a digital trail of LGBTQ history sites, preparing three nominations for state historical markers for LGBTQ history sites and preparing a lesson plan for teachers as a companion for our first exhibit. All of this activity is a tight fit with America250PA goals.

“We started this month on our third traveling and digital exhibit tentatively titled, Out on Campus: A History of LGBTQ+ Activism at Pennsylvania Colleges and Universities, and on a training initiative/workshop in LGBTQ+ history for high school social studies and history teachers for creating lesson plans and curricula in LGBTQ+ history,” Loveland told the Capital-Star.

The network has a fourth traveling and digital exhibit in the works tentatively titled, In the Life: Black LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians.

Megan Springate, who is queer and began her duties Feb. 16, is engagement director for the America 250 Foundation. She grew up just outside Toronto, and moved to the US in 1999. She knows firsthand the immigrant experience, having become a US citizen in 2010.

Springate first learned of America 250 during her work with the National Park Service, where she was instrumental in developing the popular LGBTQ Theme Study for the Federal agency. She says that “All history is local and all history is political. That means we all need to be connected to our nation’s larger picture.”

Sounds like America 250 and America 250 PA is open for all demographic, political, and socio-economic groups to shape our nation’s coming anniversary celebrations and remembrances.

“Our goal is to have the most diverse celebration of our nation’s history,” Springate concluded.

Opinion contributor Frank Pizzoli is the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected]