Philly’s LGBT history: A primer on the city’s legacy of pride

From Quaker house parties to the black-and-brown-striped flag.

Last year the city unveiled a new Pride flag

Last year the city unveiled a new Pride flag

Zari Tarazona / Billy Penn
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Updated June 8

More than 25,000 people will descend on the city for the annual Philadelphia Dyke March and Philly PrideDay parade, turning the weekend into the region’s largest gathering during LGBT Pride Month.

The festivities are more than waving around a rainbow flag while covered in sequins, paint, glitter, or feathers. The celebrations represent a decades-long battle for equality, anti-discrimination, anti-violence and acceptance — a battle that still rages on today.

Philly has a rich history of LGBTQ rights advocacy and community-building. Here’s a primer.

1800s: A daring mention in the theater world

In a journal article written by Cornelia S. King and Don James McLaughlin, they posit that actress Charlotte Cushman, famed for her cross-dressing on and off the stage, was in a relationship with Rosalie Sully, the daughter of painter Thomas Sully while managing the Walnut Street Theatre from 1822 to 1844.

1920s and ’30s: Gay bars flourish

Tavern on Camac is one of the oldest — if not the oldest — gay bars in Philadelphia. During the ’20s and ’30s, the bar at 243 S. Camac St., was a Prohibition-era speakeasy and “gentleman’s club” called Maxine’s, where local gay men, soldiers and sailors would converge.

Maxine’s Matchbook
John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives

1940s and ’50s: Quaker house parties

In Stein’s book, several narrators noted that much of the socialization that transpired between mainly-closeted LGBT folks in the city during the 40s and 50s occurred in house parties organized by Quaker-affiliated groups, which would create mixers that brought straight people and LGBT people, white and Black people together, under one roof. These groups intended to diminish prejudice and enhance tolerance.

“Bitches Christmas” was, according to one narrator, a famous drag parade that took place annually on Halloween at Locust St. in the mid-to-late ’50s. One of the most popular local drag queens at the time was known only as “Sarah Vaughan.”

Rittenhouse Square, 1953
John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives

1960s: Dewey’s, the Stonewall predecessor

In 1962, the Janus Society was founded in Philadelphia, making it one of the first recorded and publically known “homophile” organizations in the city. Janus Society was co-lead by Clark Polak, who two years later, would create and edit LGBT news and erotica magazine, DRUM.

On Apr. 25, 1965, the nation’s eyes were drawn to a sit-in staged by three protestors at Dewey’s on 219 S. 17th St., widely considered to be a predecessor that set the tone for the Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village.

Dewey’s, a malted milk and ice cream vending chain, had two stores that remained on the Philly gaydar. A location on 208 S. 13th St. Dewey’s on 13th — conveniently located near Camac and Quince Streets — was a mecca for the LGBT community, and members often sought coffee or food to unwind after a long night at the late-hours joint.

Dewey’s Rittenhouse location, on the other hand, was denying service and being discriminatory, referring specifically to “homosexuals,” “masculine women,” “feminine men” and “persons wearing non-conformist clothing.”

It is estimated that around 150 protestors who “fit’ into that category were booted out the door of the shop that fateful April day. All but three decided to stay put at the Dewey’s (and sit-in) in protest, and as a result, were promptly arrested.

The Janus Society distributed 1,500 leaflets to rile up folks for another sit-in to take place on May 2, 1965. This time, protestors were successful. The management of Dewey’s at Rittenhouse agreed to halt their discriminatory practices.

From then on, every Fourth of July until 1969, organizations from Philly, New York and DC would congregate in front of Independence Hall for peaceful demonstrations. These were called “Reminder Days.” A historic marker to commemorate these pickets currently stands at 601 Chestnut St. One prominent pioneer and organizer of the “Reminder Days” was Austrian immigrant and Philly resident Barbara Gittings, was posthumously honored in 2012 with an intersection bearing her name on 13th and Locust.

In 1968, Police Commissioner Frank Lazarro Rizzo ordered raids on LGBT bars (and on anybody he deemed “undesirable”), leading many to be verbally and physically abused by officers, and for quintessential bars — like iconic lesbian hangout Rusty’s — to later get permanently shut down.

1970s: A community coalesces

The first gay pride demonstration in the city took place on Jun. 11, 1972, with over 10,000 people marching loudly and proudly from Center City to Old City.

The neighborhood that would eventually be monikered “the Gayborhood” by City Paper’s David Warner flourished immensely. The first and oldest LGBT bookstore in the United States, Giovanni’s Room, would open a year after the events at the Gay Pride Celebration.

Economic growth, beautification of the area and a decline in the crime-rate were propelled by Philadelphia’s first LGBT community center opening in 1976 (William Way) and the establishment of its first publically-distributed newspaper (Philadelphia Gay News), its first gay business group opening in 1977 (Community Alliance of Philadelphia) and its first LGBT health and wellbeing center in 1979 (the Mazzoni Center).

1980s and ’90s: AIDS awareness and rising activism

As early as 1981, the Philadelphia Physicians for Human Rights organization was meeting with the Philadelphia Health Dept. to discuss the creeping rise of “Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections” afflicting gay men, a disease that would later be termed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

In Aug. 1982, Philadelphia City Council passed Bill 1358 (Fair Practice’s Ordinance) with overwhelming support, amending the city’s anti-discrimination policy with a sexual orientation clause. The bill became law shortly after on Sep. 9, 1982.

Frustration with the allocation of local funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and with cases of AIDS discrimination prompted the formation of numerous organizations and centers dedicated to spreading awareness, eliminating stigma and finding a cure for those afflicted. Some of these included ActionAIDS (now Action Wellness), ACT UP Philadelphia, the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, Bebashi and Philadelphia FIGHT.

In 1988, after over five years of activists within the city and throughout the state calling for increased medical attention, education and humanization of the AIDS outbreak in the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Department of Health established an AIDS Unit.

Most Hispanic/Latinx and Black gays were disproportionately affected by AIDS/HIV due to the lack of support and resources from the community. LGBT movements, spaces, organizations and efforts in the city, up until then, had mainly been dominated by and catered to the needs of white homosexual men.

In 1989, GALAEI was established for and by LGBT Latinxs and in 1991, COLOURS Organization was established for and by Black LGBT persons. In 1999, Philadelphia Black Pride, Inc. was created and has hosted an annual Black Pride festival in April for the past 19 years.

Philadelphia HIV Diagnoses
Philadelphia Department of Public Health, AIDS Activities Coordinating Office

2000s to today: An official city post amid some racial tension

FDA approval of the first protease inhibitor for antiretroviral treatment (ART) in 1995 and the approval of rapid HIV testing in 2002 substantially decreased the rate of AIDS-related mortality, and it continues to decline nationwide today. However, per AIDS Fund Philly, Philadelphians are still being infected with HIV at a rate five times the national average. According to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, research conducted in 2015 found that almost 20,000 people in Philadelphia were currently living with a known HIV diagnosis.

A Philadelphia Trans Health Conference was first hosted by the Mazzoni Center in 2002 and has been convened annually ever since.

In 2008, Gloria Casarez, a Latina lesbian with a long history of activism under her belt, became the first LGBT Liasion to report directly to the Mayor’s Chief of Staff under Michael Nutter. Casarez pushed for the Office of LGBT Affairs to be formally implemented. She died after a strenuous battle with breast cancer in 2014 and was posthumously commemorated with a mural at 204 S. 12th St a year later.

For Pride 2017, the Office of LGBT Affairs, in collaboration with Tierney unveiled a new LGBTQ flag: the original rainbow pattern, with the inclusion of a brown stripe and a black stripe.

This May, Malcolm Kenyatta, a Black gay man from North Philadelphia, won the primary for the 181st District in Philadelphia.

Not all efforts to reduce prejudice within Philly’s gay community have been fruitful. Examples like the Sep. 2016 leak of a video of Darryl DePiano, owner of LGBT nightclub iCandy, saying the n-word and other racially insensitive proclamations, and the intense opposition to the more-inclusive LGBT flag, are evidence that much work is yet to be accomplished.

Still, in 2017, the Human Rights Campaign gave Philadelphia a 100-point score on its Municipal Equality Index.