Philadelphia needs greater queer representation in our public art and monuments.

Last year I curated an exhibition, Queer in Public, that called attention to the lack of LGBTQ artists and representation in Philly’s public art. This week, I announced a petition created with Whitman at 200, a yearlong project to reassess Walt Whitman’s contributions to American life organized by the Penn Libraries Kislak Center as we approach his 200th birthday this May. Together, we’re calling on the Delaware River Port Authority to paint (or light) the Walt Whitman Bridge the colors of the Philly pride flag.

When searching for LGBTQ monuments and memorials around the world, you’ll find that there are dishearteningly few. Wikipedia’s list, for example, shows only 14 total in the entire United States. The Delaware Valley’s Walt Whitman Bridge, whose namesake famously and controversially wrote about his same-sex attractions and relationships, is not listed as one of those monuments. But if we were to paint the Walt Whitman Bridge the colors of the Philly pride flag, we could make the Philadelphia region home to one of our country’s largest monuments and symbols of LGBTQ pride.

The art and monuments in our public spaces can reflect our values, histories, hopes, and struggles. Yet, in Philadelphia, the few works of public art and monuments we do have that represent the LGBTQ communities’ contributions are collected together in the Gayborhood. Our contributions to this city and this region, of course, extend far beyond a few square blocks in Center City.

If every building in this city can turn green when the Eagles have a game (go, Birds!), I don’t think it’s a stretch to take the bridge that’s named after a queer American and paint it (or light it) the colors of the Philly pride flag.

What makes the Philly pride flag special is the addition of black and brown stripes that represent LGBTQ people of color. Since its launch in 2017, the Philly pride flag has been adopted all over the world, most recently in Manchester, England.

Philadelphia’s inclusive version of the pride flag at City Hall.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Philadelphia’s inclusive version of the pride flag at City Hall.

There are a number of ways that we could paint the Walt Whitman Bridge rainbow. The first is to use corporate and/or grant funding. Another is to wait until the bridge’s next routine round of painting, even if that’s many years away. Other alternatives include adding light and/or light projection elements so that the bridge would light up rainbow at night. All of these options and more are feasible.

The goal of our petition is to understand if there is enough support for this idea. If there is, we’d then look at working with the Delaware River Port Authority and community partners in exploring the best options.

This is about more than changing the color of a bridge. LGBTQ Americans deserve more representation in public art and monuments. Over the last decade, greater representation of same-sex love and relationships in TV and movies has had a tremendous effect in opening people’s hearts and minds on the issue of marriage equality in the U.S. When we’re seen, our humanity becomes hard to ignore. And that’s a powerful thing.

Conrad Benner is a Fishtown-born and -raised photographer, podcaster, curator, and founder of StreetsDept.com, a photo blog that discovers art on the streets of Philadelphia. Search for the petition at Change.org.