Music floats through the air: hyperpop remixes of Charli XCX, bubbly EDM, Beyoncé, Lizzo, pumping club beats. Around thirty people have just started an extremely energetic Cupid Shuffle, and even more are dancing around them. Pride flags, most of them in trans colors, swing through the air. Every so often, a chant ripples through the crowd: “Philly is a trans city! Philly is a Black city!” This is not your average rave.
From Thursday, June 29 to Sunday, July 2, the intersection at 12th and Filbert in front of the Philadelphia Marriott transformed into a protest—the biggest dance party in the city.
Back in early May, it had been announced that right–wing “parent's rights” group Moms for Liberty (M4L) had decided to hold their annual conference at the downtown Philadelphia Marriott, with their opening reception to take place at the Museum of the American Revolution in the heart of Old City. Backlash was immediate: around 40% of staff at the Museum called for the event to be canceled. Moms for Liberty—which was recently classified as an “antigovernment extremist organization” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks extremist groups—was founded in Florida in 2021. Over the past two years, they have spread across the country, with 195 chapters in 37 states advocating for what members term “parental rights” in education. However, the organization is best known in mainstream media for their anti–LGBTQ positions and hard support for banning books and classroom curricula that focus on race and gender. Despite petitions protesting the event, walkouts from museum staff—many of whom identify as LGBTQ—and growing outrage from local advocacy groups, the leadership at the Marriott and the Museum didn’t budge.
Tensions peaked when Moms for Liberty announced that their keynote speaker would be none other than former President Donald Trump, and that he would be joined by Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis. Once this news reached the public, ACT UP Philadelphia, the local chapter of direct action group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), immediately mobilized with many other community groups. Beginning on May 12, ACT UP Philly, the Young Communist League (YCL), PENNSYLVANIA STOP Moms for Liberty, Defense of Democracy, and others began holding rallies outside of the Marriott multiple times a week. ACT UP Philly spent weeks giving speeches and holding protests, trying to convince the hotel to cancel the conference. The Mariott responded by calling security.
ACT UP Philly organizer Max Ray–Riek believes that the struggle against Moms for Liberty is bigger than most people think.
“Moms for Liberty are engaged in a mean–spirited project to use trans lives as a wedge issue to introduce a whole host of dangerous viewpoints: erasing Black history, anti–Semitic and Islamaphobic messages, and violently targeting trans kids and LGBTQ+ families," Ray–Riek says.
Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement condemning M4L’s attempts to “disregard history, ban books, and silence conversations about race, gender, and sexuality.” Celena Morrison, the executive director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, called Moms for Liberty a direct threat to the wellbeing of Black and LGBTQ communities. However, despite growing opposition from local politicians, planning for the conference continued.
So ACT UP Philly escalated. The evening of July 29, the night of the M4L reception, was the beginning of a four–day–long protest that brought thousands of people to the streets to demand dignity and affirm community. Supported by a heavy–duty sound system and a very lengthy playlist, protestors circled the Museum of the American Revolution in a vibrant, nearly four–hour dance party while M4L attendees slunk out the back door. “We lit out here. We not boring like these fucking people!” one protester yells as the sound of hip–hop blasts through the streets.
However, some demonstrators took a more grim view of their situation. “What [Moms for Liberty] is pushing for … These things have real material effects on how people are able to live day–to–day beyond the legislation," says one protestor who goes by the name Lea, holding back tears.
Moms for Liberty advocates have been successful in helping pass anti–trans legislation in Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, and North Dakota. Most recently, after helping a conservative majority take power over the school board in the Philadelphia suburb of Central Bucks County, the suburb successfully banned books with “sexualized content” from school libraries. M4L's influence is growing close to home for Philadelphians. One protestor carried a sign ranking states by the number of books bans introduced: the top three were Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
"[Moms for Liberty] claims they want to protect children, but whose children?” shouts activist Jazmyn Henderson on Thursday night. The crowd screams back in rage.
The dance protest continued into Friday, June 30, as participants decamped bright and early to the Marriott, where they faced an endless stream of Philadelphia police. Not a problem. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., organizers cranked up music, led chants, dance numbers, sing–alongs, and made speeches to an unusually joyful crowd. Despite the police fencing them in and the smoky air from Canadian wildfires, the group carried an irrepressible energy. Many of the attendees were teenagers, scrawling chalk drawings and messages all over the street and dancing with their friends as if they were alone in their bedroom—no cops, no cars; just the music.
There is a moment of rage when Trump’s car pulls into the Marriott garage, accompanied by endless security and police officers.
“It’s very jarring how quick they are to protect these people. It’s our tax dollars that pay police officers’ checks, not theirs!” Dom Shannon, an organizer with YCL, says. “It's pretty clear that they've got us fenced in,” their partner chimes in. “They have their backs to M4L and [their] faces towards us. We’re just dancing, and we’re supposed to be a threat?”
But organizers remained adamant that the dance party should stay peaceful—after all, the driving idea behind the party itself was to emphasize joy and community, not to meet M4L on its own level. Whenever tensions rose, particularly between protestors and the police, an organizer would grab a mic and calm the crowd. “Showing joy in the face of hate provides a very stark contrast," Shannon says. "What is there to provoke us about? We’re out here dancing!"
Philly has a history with dancing across the protest lines. In 2017, protestors held a dance party outside of a GOP retreat. When twenty Philadelphians were arrested for demonstrating at Trump’s inauguration, their advocates protested by holding a dance break on the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. More recently, videos of Philadelphians dancing in the streets while election workers tallied up the ballots for the 2020 presidential election went viral.
But the history that protesters were pulling from is much bigger than Philadelphia, and much more specific in its mission of queer solidarity.
“Joy is crucial to the struggle for liberation,” says YCL organizer Glaive on July 2, as the final day of dancing comes to an end. “It might have been in bars in the ’70s and clubs in the ’90s, but spaces of dance have been a safe haven for queer people, trans people, and people of color for so long. I think we’re tapping into a tradition of struggle through joy.”
“When you dance in rhythm with other people, it feels so good and builds solidarity,” Ray–Riek says.
Many attendees and organizers told me that they felt motivated to join the dance protest because of recent legislative attacks on the trans community. “If you think about the trans kids, the kids out here dancing today, M4L wants them legislated out of existence,” says Wren, another protest organizer.
Groups like ACT UP and YCL were keen to encourage queer youth participation during the weekend of protests, featuring plenty of kid–friendly events and songs. “I think it reflects the kind of world we want to build,” Wren notes about the dance protest's large portion of teenage participants. While the average attendee was on the younger side, there were also many parents who had come in support of their children, even if they weren't present in Philadelphia. One mother was coming in place of her son, who was in Singapore. “He would want me to be here,” she says firmly.
A good part of the crowd were Philly natives, but a sizeable number of protestors had driven hours to attend. Schoolteachers Taylor and Nicole had driven four hours from Baltimore to protest book banning in their classrooms.
“Schools are supposed to prepare kids to enter the real world, and you’re not going to agree with everything in the real world. What kind of school board could say that banning opinions and voices you don’t agree with is okay? I can’t tell my students that with a good conscience,” Nicole declares.
A surprising number of scrubs populated the crowd as well. Some were doctors and nurses on break from a nearby hospital, but others had taken specific vacation days from work to come to the protests, like Zeke Taylor, who sported a white doctor’s coat and a sign reading, “White Coats Against White Supremacy.” Taylor and other medical professionals reiterated the same message that hundreds of other doctors have made in the press about proposed bans of gender affirming healthcare: that it would worsen the quality of life for young patients—the very young people out protesting in the streets.
While the fight against Moms for Liberty was rallied to combat transphobia and homophobia, organizers also constantly acknowledged the threat that M4L’s proposed book bans present to Philadelphia’s Black community.
“We have to wake up and remember that celebrating Black and brown futures demands a reckoning with Black and brown legacies,” Samantha Rise, a musician and organizer with ACT UP, says. “Our histories must be taught, and must be celebrated, must be shared. What M4L wants to do is make sure that that history never even existed.”
As the procession of cars carrying Trump through the side door of the Marriott passes by, the crowds chants, “Philly is a Black city! We will not go back!”
During the final day of dance protests on the afternoon of July 2, more police gathered around the barricades and streets. But two performers and organizers started a call–and–response chant with the crowd. “I went to take back what they stole from me / I went to take back my dignity," sang the old and young, parents and children, friends and partners. Others began to dance to "We Are Family," even as organizers began to wrap up equipment. Through the protests against Moms for Liberty, for four days, queer culture was on display for all to see and enjoy—a powerful response to the far–right rhetoric that LGBTQ people ought to remain hidden. During those four days, nothing could have extinguished the energy in the streets.
“When you sing with other people, you cannot be afraid," Rise says.