Philadelphia’s role in LGBTQ+ history long predates the Stonewall uprising

PHILADELPHIA — As people across the country mark LGBTQ History Month this October, the stories of those who fought for LGBTQ+ rights in Philadelphia strike an even more powerful chord.

“I was impressed by the role Philadelphia played in the national LGBTQ rights movement,” said Bob Skiba, curator of collections at the John J. Wilcox Archives at the William Way Center in Center City.

Many stories long predate the well-known Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969. One such story happened in 1881 on Chestnut Street when a man and his friends were arrested for dressing in women’s clothing. The newspaper called the act “a crime against nature.”

“He was known as Lady Washington,” Skiba said of the man whose first name was Isaac Hall. “He and his friends were dressed in women’s clothing. He served eight years in Eastern State Penitentiary.”

Skiba said Philadelphia has many stories of history-makers who took action before the Stonewall uprising, including those who staged a sit-in at one of Philadelphia’s most popular coffee shops, Dewey’s. One of the places refused to serve gay customers.

“They had a sit-in over the course of a couple of days into next weekend,” Skiba said, noting that the protesters were inspired by sit-ins at the lunch counter organized by African-Americans across the country. Dewey’s sit-in made history.
“It was peaceful, it was successful, and it was the first LGBT sit-in of its kind in the country,” Skiba said.

Other stories of activism become evident in art when a mural dedicated to fighting for LBGTQ+ rights was painted on the side of the building that houses the William Way Center. Skiba says it’s the first LGBTQ+ mural in Philadelphia. Part of it details the picketing that was an annual event in Philadelphia.

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“The first regularly organized gay rights rally happened here in Philadelphia,” Skiba says of the picketing that took place every Fourth of July in front of Independence Hall from 1965 to 1969.

Ken Broshous is among the seemingly few tourists who realize the importance of the place to the LGBTQ+ community. He stood up to read about the pickets at a blue story marker that had a tour bus and an ice cream truck on either side.

“It’s so weird that it’s there and no one stops and reads it,” said Broshous, who was visiting Philadelphia from San Francisco with her husband. She doesn’t take for granted the fact that they can marry like two men wanted to be in a set of old black-and-white photos donated to the archives.
“They’re from 1957,” Skiba says of the photos taken at a wedding ceremony for two men. The photos show them taking vows, cutting a wedding cake, and posing with other guests. But it seems that none of the bride and groom were able to see the photos of her special day.

“It’s possible that the owner of the pharmacy, and that’s where they developed into a pharmacy, may not bring them back because of the issue,” Skiba said. “Anyone developing a movie could arbitrarily decide that this is not appropriate.”

Skiba hopes to find people who knew the couple and one day share their full story. It is one of many stories that shaped LGBTQ history in Philadelphia and beyond.

“Telling the stories of the past ensures that the stories of people in the future will also have a voice,” Skiba said.

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Reference material coordinated in conjunction with local LGBTQ+ archives and the ONE Archives Foundation.

The ONE Archives Foundation is the independent community partner that supports ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries, the largest repository of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) materials in the world. Founded in 1952 as ONE Inc., the publisher of ONE Magazine, the ONE Archives Foundation is the oldest active LGBTQ organization in the United States. In 2010, the ONE Archives Foundation deposited its vast collection of historical LGBTQ materials at the USC Libraries. Today, the organization is dedicated to promoting this important resource through various activities including educational initiatives, fundraising, and a variety of public programs.

ONE Archives Foundation’s flagship K-12 educational programs provide educators with the resources they need to teach accurate and authentic LGBTQ+ history, including professional development webinars and free LGBTQ+ lesson plans available for download on our website. Additionally, the ONE Archives Foundation mentors youth to become ambassadors of LGBTQ+ history through the Youth Ambassadors of Queer History program. Learn more here.

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