BEING GAY used to be a hush-hush thing.

Meeting someone at a gay bar one night, you might not speak if you happened to see one another on the street the next day, for fear of being outed. That's the way it was when the Equality Forum began in Philadelphia as PrideFest, back in 1993.

Fast-forward to the 21st annual forum, which will be held Thursday through Sunday, and it's safe to say that the forum has come of age right along with the gay-rights movement.

At those early PrideFest gatherings, the biggest issues on the Philadelphia-based gay-advocacy mission's radar were workplace and housing discrimination, along with AIDS research. No one even thought to bring up something like same-sex marriage.

"You didn't even put the two words together, and now you have the president talking about it," recalled Stuart Alter, an early organizer and former Equality Forum board co-chair.

Things have changed all right. Come Saturday, the forum will host several family-oriented workshops, including one to help male couples find birth mothers and another dealing with parenting issues in same-sex homes. Sunday's Cinco de Mayo party at the Piazza at Schimdts in Northern Liberties will have a children's play area.

Kids. Families. Openness. It's a huge shift for a lifestyle once largely associated with the party scene - and secrecy.

"When we got started, it was like the Ice Age from the viewpoint of being gay," said Malcolm Lazin, a former developer and federal prosecutor who helped create the event and is its executive director. "There have been unbelievable changes in those 21 years."

The annual gathering grew out of a desire to mobilize the LGBT community into doing something more substantive than gay-pride parades. Originally called PrideFest, over time the event morphed from being local in scope into an international affair.

Along with advocacy for and celebration of gay rights, the Equality Forum also works to create bridges to straight communities.

Growing up in a socially conservative African-American home, homosexuality was something that my family almost never talked about. Teachers at the Catholic schools I attended didn't cover that topic much either, other than to tell us it was a sin.

All I knew was what I saw on TV - and that would have been largely stereotypical had it not been for former talk-show host Phil Donahue. Donahue, who was honored by the forum in 1998, was one of the first to feature openly gay people on his show. Since then, America has gone from all but zilch to shows with major gay characters and themes, such as "Brothers & Sisters" and "Modern Family" on ABC, and "The New Normal" on NBC.

"It's a remarkable tidal change," Lazin noted.

That's an understatement.

Last Thursday, City Council approved a groundbreaking bill that provides tax incentives to businesses that expand health coverage for LGBT employees. The bill, which the mayor is expected to sign, also would require newly constructed or renovated city-owned buildings to have gender-neutral bathrooms. Under the new legislation, the city's health plan would pay for gender-reassignment surgeries, too.

Although the Keystone State still doesn't recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, nine other states and the District of Columbia do. Delaware has a bill making its way through the Legislature.

Gay activists are cautiously optimistic about upcoming U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8, which restricts same-sex marriages.

'Boas and convertibles'

It was a lazy summer morning in 1992 at Lazin's three-bedroom house in Cape May Point. Alter was there, as was Craig Hamilton, now vice president for global initiatives and government relations at the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The men were talking over brunch about how the push for gay rights was on the verge of becoming a full-fledged civil-rights movement. Someone broached the idea of holding some sort of conference.

The men hoped it would be an alternative to gay-pride parades, during which TV cameras typically zeroed in on the most stereotypically flamboyant participants.

"Every time you would see a TV clip of a gay event, there was nothing but boas and convertibles," recalled Alter. "It was, like, 'God, that was awful. We really need to show that we are a lot more.' "

The first PrideFest was held the next year at the Penguin Place community center, a precursor to the William Way Community Center.

"It was actually on a back alley of Camac Street where people could enter and exit safely without being seen," Lazin recalled. "Gay bars, most of them, were tucked away on backstreets. . . . Now, you have Woody's at 13th and Walnut. It's open windows. . . . All of that is a reflection of how people feel about their personal safety and being out."

A couple of hundred people turned up at that first PrideFest. Upward of 20,000 are expected this time around.

Talk about coming a long way.

"Maybe these things become obsolete in 10 years because we've gotten there," Alter said.

One can only hope.