Philly LGBTQ history: An overview of the city’s legacy of pride

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

In 2017, the city unveiled a new Pride flag

In 2017, the city unveiled a new Pride flag

Zari Tarazona / Billy Penn

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After a year off for COVID, Philly Pride 2021 will be held Labor Day weekend, three months later than usual.

The event, which usually takes place during Pride Month in June, welcomes at least 25,000 attendees and is considered the largest of its kind in the region.

More than waving rainbow flag and showing off sequined costumes (which is plenty fun), the celebrations represent a decades-long battle for equality, anti-discrimination, anti-violence and acceptance — a fight that continues today.

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

1800s: Out in the theatre world

In the early 19th century, Charlotte Cushman was a Philadelphia-based actor who gained international fame playing Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet.” She was known to wear men’s clothes off-stage as well, to challenge gender assumptions as well as to help keep herself safe while traveling to Europe as a single woman.

Cushman became manager of the Walnut Street Theatre, and maintained a relationship with Rosalie Sully, the daughter of painter Thomas Sully.  According to a 2016 journal article in Pennsylvania Legacies, Cushman wrote that the pair had exchanged rings and considered themselves married.

1920s and 30s: Gay bars surface

Tavern on Camac is one of the oldest gay bars in Philadelphia, if not the oldest.

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

A lot of socializing among the city’s queer residents during the ’40s and ’50s happened at house parties organized by Quaker-affiliated groups, according to author Marc Stein, who covered the era in his book “City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia.” The religion preaches acceptance, and leaders hold mixers that brought people together under one roof without discrimination.

“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

1950s: Gayborhood = Rittenhouse Square

During the middle of the century Rittenhouse Square was the city’s gay moment.

“Saturday night is the gayest night of the week,” read a story on the Rittenhouse queer scene in Greater Philadelphia Magazine. “They come from all parts of the city, from the suburbs, from as far away as Reading and Atlantic City.”

Under Mayor Frank Rizzo, the city put up signage around the Square to discourage gay people from cruising. The signs prohibited left turns from 21st onto Delancey Street between midnight and 5 a.m. Then-Deputy Streets Commissioner John Scruggs told the Inquirer he thought it was an overreach: “It’s kind of stretching it to think you can regulate human behavior with a traffic sign.”

But the sign never came down — it’s still there today.

1960s: Dewey’s, the Stonewall predecessor

In 1962, the Janus Society was founded in Philadelphia, making it one of the first recorded and publicly 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. At 208 S. 13th St., the shop known as “Dewey’s on 13th” — conveniently located near Camac and Quince Streets — was a mecca for the queer 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, would deny service, discriminating against “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 spring day. All but three decided to stay put in protest. They were arrested.

In response, the Janus Society distributed 1,500 leaflets advertising another sit-in to take place on May 2 of that year. 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, who was posthumously honored in 2012 with an intersection bearing her name on 13th and Locust.

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

1970s: A community coalesces

The first gay pride demonstration in Philadelphia took place 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 LGBTQ 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 publicly-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 August 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.

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.

Queer people of color were disproportionately affected by AIDS/HIV due to the lack of support and resources from the community. LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ Latinxs and in 1991, COLOURS Organization was established for and by Black queer people. In 1999, Philadelphia Black Pride, Inc. was created and began hosting an annual Black Pride festival in April.

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. 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 almost 20,000 people in Philadelphia were living with a known HIV diagnosis.

2000s and 10s: An official city post and inclusive flag

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. (The Gayborhood mural commemorating Casarez was whitewashed by developers last year.)

Over the next few years, incidents of racism and discrimination surfaced at several Gayborhood bars. People of color were repeatedly denied entry to Woody’s based on vague dress codes.

Those incidents and others led to action among several community groups, including The Black and Brown Workers Collective. In 2016, the collective’s work led to a video being released, showing the white owner of iCandy using the n-word.

Alongside Philly R.E.A.L. Justice and other activists, the Black and Brown Workers Collective continued protests, organizing boycotts and demanding the new city office pay attention to the issue. Demonstrations drew large crowds, and the head of the Office of LGBT Affairs resigned.

In 2017, under the leadership of Amber Hikes, the Office of LGBT Affairs unveiled the new flag: the original rainbow pattern with the inclusion of a brown stripe and a black stripe. It caused some controversy, but is now generally accepted as being ahead of its time.