PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Hundreds of gay rights demonstrators marched through the streets of the city’s historic center on Sunday carrying rainbow-colored flags and signs calling for equal rights in marriage, in the workplace and in health care.

The National Equality Rally was billed as the first national demonstration since 2000 for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights and the first held outside Washington. The marchers displayed signs from dozens of organizations and photos of people they said had been killed because of their sexualities.

The march ended with a rally in front of Independence Hall, where rainbow-colored umbrellas came in handy in a steady drizzle. The crowd listened to music from a band and a chorale singing the national anthem, and a cheer rose at the sound of the bell from the spire of the building where the Constitution was drafted.

Speakers called for support for gay marriage, more money for AIDS research and an end to workplace discrimination and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibits gays in the military from being open about their sexual orientation. One participant wearing a fatigue jacket and pink slacks held a sign saying “Do ask, do tell.”

“We don’t wilt, and we don’t melt. We are here for equality now,” Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Forum local gay rights group, which sponsored the event, told the crowd.

Bryan Berchok, of Upper Bucks County, Pa., listened to the speeches as he held his 4-year-old adoptive son, Shawn, whose face was painted to resemble the black mask of Spider-Man’s evil alter ego. He and his partner of 15 years, John Ferraro, said it was difficult and expensive to try to get the same rights afforded to married couples.

“We worry how things would work out if one of us was not able to care for Shawn,” Berchok said. “It’s just a little scary.”

Allison Woolbert, who chairs the Interweave gay rights group of southern New Jersey, said she wanted more attention given to health care for transgender people, who she said often are refused care by medical personnel and whose medications are not covered in health plans.

A few counterdemonstrators held religious signs at the margins of the gathering, and one preached with a bullhorn as the marchers filed past.

At the time of the last national rally, nine years ago, Vermont had just passed the first civil union law in the country. Now, gay marriage is legal in Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa and Massachusetts, with bills pending in other states. California briefly allowed it last year, but a voter initiative repealed it.

Speakers on Sunday noted that Independence Hall was the site of the first Reminder Day picket for gay rights on July 4, 1965. That gathering attracted about 40 people, but about 150 attended the fifth one in 1969, just after the landmark Stonewall riots in New York, considered the birth of the U.S. gay rights movement.

Nurit Shein, executive director of the Mazzoni Center, a local health services office serving the gay community, told Sunday’s crowd that gays will be “seen” and “counted.”

“Equal means equal,” Shein said, “not separate, not less.”

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AP-ES-05-03-09 1921EDT

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