Few people in Philadelphia know more about LGBT history in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection than William Way LGBT Community Center archives curator Bob Skiba.
The center has collected archival materials since its inception 40 years ago. Skiba has helmed the John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives since 2006 and has become the go-to man for all things gay history — and a frequent interview source for many a PGN article.
The self-described local history buff writes several history blogs: “Gayborhood Guru” on the history of Philly’s Gayborhood, a dance history blog and another on the history of drag traditions in Mummers organizations. He has also co-authored two books on Philadelphia history: “Lost Philadelphia” and “Philadelphia Then and Now.”
Skiba is also president of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, teaches ballroom dance, runs a dance company called the Mixed Pickles (American social dance from the Colonial period to the 1930s) and is regularly invited to speak about LGBT history at organizations throughout the city.
When Skiba took over as supervisor of the center’s archives, the collection was in better shape than he expected.
“It actually wasn’t one big mess,” he said. “The center has been collecting materials since the beginning but there have been volunteers doing their best to manage it the whole time, even though the center has moved a few times over the years.”
However, there were many boxes that were completely uncatalogued.
“There were a lot of unlabeled ‘surprise boxes’ of stuff that people just dropped off at the front door,” said Skiba. “Most of it was random stuff — utility bills, a copy of “Brokeback Mountain” — but every once in a while I find something that tells a story, that’s worth keeping.”
Skiba said he also had to catalogue and chronologically order thousands of periodicals, including newspapers and magazines.
“It took me two years to do that. It would not have taken so long if I hadn’t flipped through every one just to look at the old photos. That was the problem,” he joked.
Skiba admitted that he has the right type of personality for what many would consider a tedious, if not boring, job.
“I’m an anal-retentive person,” he said. “I’d rather come here where that type of craziness is appreciated than drive a boyfriend crazy because the spices are not in alphabetical order.”
Among his first objectives with the archives when he took over was making their existence better known throughout the LGBT community.
“A lot of people didn’t know they were here,” Skiba said. “The first thing was to get it known in the community and encourage individuals and organizations to give their artifacts and histories to us.”
Now Skiba is working to promote the archives to the city at large.
“We have joined organizations throughout the city like the Delaware Valley Activists Group and work with the Historical Society to make sure mainstream organizations know about us as a resource,” he said.
Evidence of his progress is visible, as more and more students use the archives as part of projects for efforts like National History Day.
“School kids, sixth grade through high school, have to do a history project and present it, either an exhibit, film or anything,” Skiba said. “I wanted to make sure we were listed as a resource. And more and more, kids are coming in and making use of it each year.”
Three years ago, Skiba participated in a Historical Society small-repositories initiative, which aided immensely in his continued effort to better organize the materials in the archives.
“They came in and they surveyed everything we had and kind of graded it according to usefulness for researchers and helped us get some of our catalogue online,” Skiba said.
The Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts also came in and surveyed everything for conservation needs.
Both evaluations were instrumental in the center receiving a $300,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation last year for its archives.
Among other things, the grant enabled the center to pay Skiba for the work he was doing (he had been volunteering until that point) and hire a part-time archivist, John Anderies, to help him.
The two are now working to rehouse materials in archival-grade storage and to finish what remains to be catalogued.
“About 80 percent of what we have here is catalogued,” Skiba said. “Which is very high for a volunteer-based community archive. We are doing great.”
Skiba said the next step is to organize the materials in a way that will make them accessible to researchers and the general public alike.
“That’s a very high priority,” Skiba said. “Once we get those things done, and create a policies and procedures manual, we can apply for another round of funding, including for specific projects like digitization.”
But what exactly do the archives contain?
On the day of my visit, Skiba showed me around to get a better idea. What follows is some of what I saw, and by no means a complete list: newspapers, periodicals, buttons, clothes, playbills, performance-art packets, movies, commercial catalogues, pornography, matchbooks from gay bars and clubs, membership cards to private clubs, travel guides, a database of LGBT spaces in the city, photographs, gay pulp novels, audio recordings — and much more.
With such a plethora of material, Skiba said that, looking ahead, he would like to focus more on collecting materials of local interest to the Philadelphia area.
“We don’t need another copy of ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ There is so much gay stuff out there now, it would be impossible to save everything,” said Skiba. “More and more, I like to think we are concentrating on local stuff that no one else will have — to document LGBT history here in this area.”
As much as he knows about Philadelphia and its LGBT history, Skiba didn’t actually move to the city until the late ’90s. Before that, the Bayonne, N.J., native bounced around the country for about 20 years.
“I moved to Vermont after college for love for eight years, then Minnesota for love and again to Philly for love and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
All the while, he was able to continue to pursue one of his passions — dance — which he said he first explored as an undergrad at Boston College.
“I was involved in theater and senior year someone came through and gave a dance class. There was no dance at BC at that time and the theater-department head wanted all the actors to take it,” Skiba said. “The dance instructor said I moved well and should take more classes. So I did.”
Skiba danced in a tap-dance company, a modern-dance company and was in the student group at the Boston Ballet. He also played renaissance and baroque music.
“I have always done six different things at once. It’s my modus operandi,” he said. “I initially thought I was going to teach linguistics, which is what my degree is in, but somehow I got sidetracked.”
Skiba also came out as gay while living in Boston, shortly after graduating, though he was married to a woman for a year before doing so.
“I was married to a woman for a year. Then realized I was gay,” Skiba said. “In the ’70s everyone thought they were bi. I didn’t have a problem with being gay. I was smart enough to say to myself, ‘I’m a decent person and if I am gay, then it must be OK.’ I never went through the tortured thing that so many people did.”
However, coming out to his family was a somewhat different story.
“I never came out to my parents. I tried to bring it up and they always edged away from it and made it obvious they didn’t want to talk about it,” Skiba said. “My divorce was a big-enough scandal for them. I told my two brothers and the rest of my family, though.”
Despite not coming out to his parents, Skiba said he was grateful for the opportunity they gave him to attend a private high school in Manhattan.
“Bayonne is right across from New York City. It’s very blue-collar. My father worked in a steel plant. But they put me in a private Jesuit school in the Upper East Side, and it was an eye-opening experience,” Skiba said.
In 1979, Skiba began working on the Boston Area Lesbian and Gay History Project before moving to Vermont.
“I have always had an interest in local history, and I kind of got my start in Boston before I moved,” said Skiba. “I do not have an archival degree, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I am doing here.”
Skiba said he and his partner in crime, Anderies, are working on taking the archives to the next professional level. Both work part-time at the archives, but between the two, they manage to have someone there at all times.
“I’m here about 16 hours a week, sometimes a little more. It just depends,” Skiba said. “But it’s great having a flexible schedule because it allows me to do other things like give tours, teach dance and work on my blogs.”
The majority of his time of late was occupied with preparing the National Constitution Center’s LGBT exhibit, “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights and the Supreme Court.”
“We have been meeting every Friday morning for three years. What am I going to do with my Fridays now?” Skiba joked.
Between ongoing projects at the archives, his keynote speeches around town and a new book in the works on Gayborhood history, Skiba will have plenty to do in the months ahead.
“I know this stuff. I want to get it out there,” he said. “I can’t do nothing now that the exhibit is open. I just can’t. As a historian, I like to think that, unless you understand where you came from and why and how you got where you are today, you are not going to know how to move towards the future.”