Held at: John J. Wilcox, Jr. LGBT Archives, William Way LGBT Community Center [Contact Us]1315 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the John J. Wilcox, Jr. LGBT Archives, William Way LGBT Community Center. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
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Formed in 1976 as the Gay Democratic Caucus, the Walt Whitman Democratic Club was a political organization of gay Democrats based in Philadelphia, PA. Founded and led by president Jeff Britton, the Club was active from 1976 to 1982, and according to Britton, was inspired by similar groups active in Washington, DC and on the West Coast. Its mission was "to research issues, to question candidates on legislation affecting the civil rights of gay people and to endorse local, state and federal candidates who support efforts to end discrimination against gay people." It met regularly at the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia (GCCP) as well as in the homes of Britton and other Club members. Membership dues were $5 per year.
Britton has said that when he founded the Club, "there was no gay rights organization in Philadelphia, the Gay Activists Alliance having been torn asunder by a few egomaniacs." The organization's first newsletter in the summer of 1977 described what Britton hoped to accomplish and saw the discouraging headlines of Anita Bryant's anti-gay "Save Our Children" campaign as an opportunity to harness the unity being felt by Philadelphia's gay community.
Many of us are disturbed and temporarily discouraged by Anita Bryant's success in Dade County. That feeling is understandable and the logical question many of us ask is "Now What?" Bryant has united us in a dramatic way and we as gays need to be preactive instead of reactive. This is, to take the initiative in educating the general public about our cause, form new alliances with other minority groups and strengthening existing friendships, endorse and support candidates for public office, get our community registered as voters and create the habit of voting twice a year. In this last area, particularly in Philadelphia, lies a great deal of untapped strength for gay people--that is the ability to influence, sometimes decisively, who wins an election. Another area in which we are lacking is political education within the gay community. The WWDC plans to play an important role in this area through open forums, guest speakers, and teach-ins.
The 1977 campaigns for Philadelphia District Attorney and Controller were successful victories for the Club. Ed Rendell, who until that time had had no political experience, became the first major city candidate to tour gay bars for support. He was endorsed by the Club for District Attorney and won both the primary election and the general election that year. Bill Klenk was endorsed for Controller and was reelected to his position. Both men attended a Candidates Night sponsored by the Club and held at the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia. Five openly gay committeepersons were elected to the Democratic City Committee.
In 1978, the Walt Whitman Democratic Club put much of its energy into researching, engaging with, and endorsing candidates for the 1978 Gubernatorial election. Questionnaires were sent to all eight of the Democrats and Republicans running for governor, and those who would engage with the organization were invited to speak before the group. The questions asked each candidate whether he would 1) reissue the 1975 executive order barring discrimination against state employees on the basis of sexual orientation; 2) retain the Governor's Council for Sexual Minorities; 3) work for legislation barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in areas; 4) work to expand the mandate of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to protect citizens against discrimination based on sexual orientation; 5) work for the revision of the penal code to eliminate laws regulating private sexual acts between consenting adults; 6) direct state agencies to fund organizations, facilities, and programs which serve gray clientele; 7) direct state agencies to not discriminate against their clients on the basis of sexual orientation; 8) work for legislation to prohibit consideration of sexual or affectional preferences as a factor in any judicial determination of child custody or visiting rights.
The answers to these questions led the Club to rank the candidates rather than endorsing just one: Robert Butera (R) - acceptable; Robert Casey (D) - unacceptable; Pete Flaherty (D) - acceptable; Henry Hager (R) - acceptable; Ernest Kline (D) - preferred; David Marston (R) - unacceptable; Arlen Specter (R) - unacceptable; Richard Thornburgh (R) - acceptable. For the general election, the Club endorsed Peter Flaherty but Richard Thornburgh prevailed. However, the Club also opposed a proposed change to the City Charter that would have allowed Mayor Frank Rizzo (R) to serve a third term. This motion was defeated and the Club also helped to elect a total of 10 openly gay committeepeople to the Democratic City Committee.
In 1979, long simmering disagreements between the Club's president, Jeff Britton, and the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, Mark Segal, became public, and the controversy would haunt the Club to its final days. In the Club's June 1979 newsletter, in an opinion piece called "Don't Play Us Cheap," Britton criticized the Philadelphia Gay News and its publisher for "lack of political courage" in the matter of endorsing candidates, and for failing to "support the Walt Whitman Democratic Club, the only gay political organization in the city!" In the fall of 1979, disagreements over the endorsement for Philadelphia Mayor, also caused friction. Club vice president Scott Wilds promoted Lucien Blackwell in the pages of the August 1979 newsletter, while President Jeff Britton went on the record in the September 1979 newsletter as a supporter of Bill Green -- all before the Club voted on endorsements later in the month, ultimately picking Green. This controversy led Wilds to resign from the Club and file a complaint with the City Commissioners over alleged violations of the 1979 Campaign Finance Act. In June 1980, the new vice president Leslie Phillips called for unity in the community: "Separatism within our community is perhaps our most self-defeating problem. It is time for all of the various segments that make up our community to realize that the struggle is one that we will win only by being together" and "I am equally troubled to see our community so split that what began seemingly as a personal feud over a mayoral endorsement last fall has become a vendetta and a cause celebre in the gay media. I am addressing, of course, the split in our Club last October between supporters of William Green and Lucien Blackwell which resulted in the resignation of one of the club's officers and ultimately the formation of a rival gay political organization."
The Walt Whitman Democratic Club did have some successes in 1979 and 1980. In 1979, the Club sponsored a National Gay Conference in Philadelphia, whose primary purpose was the planning of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The Club also signed on to an amicus brief filed by the National Abortion Rights Action League in the matter of Roe v. Casey, which sought to determine whether welfare recipients could be reimbursed for medically necessary abortions. And with more Club-endorsed Democratic wins in local government, they solicited resumes and applications from gay Philadelphians who were willing to serve on advisory boards and commissions in city government, submitting these names to the Deputy Mayor. In 1980, the Club helped to elect 31 openly gay committeepersons to the Democratic City Committee.
With the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s the group concerned itself with growing threats of new national legislation against gays and lesbians, such as the Family Protection Act of 1981. They also pushed for a gay rights ordinance from Philadelphia City Council. What they received was a policy statement from Philadelphia Managing Director W. Wilson Goode that sexual orientation would not be used against city employees in hiring or promotion. Seeking a position on a larger stage, Jeff Britton launched his own campaign for the position of State Representative of the 182nd District, going up against incumbent Samuel Rappaport and the feminist attorney Babbette Josephs. However, a stirring of both old controversies and new--again played out in the pages of the Philadelphia Gay News--made Britton's already long-shot position even more untenable. After Rappaport was re-elected, the Committee to Elect Jeff Britton declared bankruptcy. The activities of the Walt Whitman Democratic Club petered out by 1983.
Jeffrey H. Britton (1947-2012) was the founder, president, and driving force behind the Walt Whitman Democratic Club. Born in Pennsylvania, Britton grew up in Washington, DC, and received a B.A. from the School of Government and Public Administration at American University in 1968. He received his M.Ed. degree from the College of Education at Temple University in 1971. Employed as a history teacher at the Philadelphia High School for Engineering, he was a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers. Britton was briefly a staff member for U.S. Senator Joseph S. Clark (D - Pennsylvania). He served on the Committee on Community Tensions of the Fellowship Commission (the nation's oldest private metropolitan human rights organization), founded the 9th Police District Town Watch as well as the Center City South Neighborhood Association, and was Vice President of the Central Philadelphia Reform Democrats. He was a Democratic Committeeman, for Ward 30, Div. 21 in Philadelphia. In 1982, Britton ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries for Pennsylvania State Representative from the 182nd district. He was a member of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and wrote on Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics for the national gay news magazine, the Advocate. Following his time in Philadelphia, Britton lived in Palm Springs, CA, where he worked as a cultural writer and critic at the Desert Sun. He was working as a freelance journalist in San Diego at the time of his death.
Others who held leadership positions within the Club include Michael Graham, Allen W. Kratz (b. 1947), Leslie Phillips (b. 1945), Rick Rosen (b. 1949), Ken Ruisi (b. 1942), Louis Sacco, Craig van Baal (b. 1950), and Scott Wilds (b. 1951). Those whose name appear in the records with some frequency, but who were not known to have positions within the Club, include Robert F. Eimers (1946-1998), David R. Fair (b. 1952), Walter J. Lear (1923-2010), Mark Segal (b. 1951), and Anthony J. Silvestre (b. 1946).
The collection is divided into three series: I. Business records; II. Subject files; and III. Printed materials. The business records are comprised of correspondence sent and received from 1976 to 1983. There are very few materials from 1980. In addition to covering local and state elections and ballot initiatives, topics include civil rights concerns for gays and lesbians, adding a gay rights plank to the Democratic National Committee platform, potential violations at local gay bars for fire code and serving minors, police brutality and entrapment of homosexuals by the National Park Services, outreach to other political organizations, Club fundraising activities, and controversies surrounding Jeff Britton and Philadelphia Gay News. Also in this series are Club newsletters, press releases and other materials distributed to members, as well as stationary and member mailing lists.
The subject files series includes materials on organizations affiliated with the Walt Whitman Democratic Club or of interest to Jeff Britton specifically. These include the Center City South Neighborhood Association, the Gay Rights National Lobby, the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs, the National Conference on Gay and Lesbian Concerns, the Pennsylvania Gay Conference, the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee, and the Philadelphia Convention for a March on Washington. Also, here are filed materials on abortion rights, Britton's campaign for State Representative, civil rights court cases filed in Pennsylvania, petitions and miscellaneous materials concerning gay rights in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, Rep. Samuel Rappaport's attendance record, and the establishment of a prison rape support group.
The final series of printed materials includes newspaper clippings, magazine and journal articles, and full issues of newspapers, on topics of interest to the Club. Also found here are a range of pamphlets which were periodically distributed by the Club in its mailings, as well as political brochures of candidates supported by the Club.
- Democratic National Committee (U.S.)
- National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights
- Walt Whitman Democratic Club.
- John J. Wilcox, Jr. LGBT Archives, William Way LGBT Community Center
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