LGBT Philly in the early 1960s

LGBT Philadelphia around the time of the first Annual Reminder Day in 1965 was a far cry from the rainbow crosswalks, Pride parades and general outness of the community today.

William Way LGBT Community Center archives curator Bob Skiba helped give PGN an idea of what life was like in the early ’60s and a timeline of important events that led up to the first demonstration in front of Independence Hall.

1960

The Philadelphia chapter of the national Mattachine Society is formed. The organization pulishes a newsletter and holds forums and social events.

“There was really no political community then. The Mattachine Society was the very first LGBT political organization in the city,” Skiba said.

Roughly a year later, the national Mattachine Society dissolved, and the Philadelphia chapter soon became The Janus Society of Delaware Valley.

“The Janus Society here in Philly was mixed, men and women. It was unique because there was a lot more lesbian leadership, and the men and women worked together,” Skiba said.

1962

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo instructs bar owners not to serve drag queens under penalty of losing their liquor license.

The Gayborhood as we know it today was dubbed the “gay ghetto,” Skiba said, with most bars hidden on the smaller side streets in that area.

“A lot of the bars were mob-owned. But regardless, they were raided all of the time. Rizzo was trying to clean up the area; even straight bars were raided too,” Skiba said. “There was an after-hours bars on the third floor of what is currently The Bike Stop. The bartender would have a switch he would flick if the cops came and the lights would flash, then people dancing would scramble to find a dance partner of the opposite sex.”

Skiba said “Rizzo’s Raiders” were especially hard on lesbians at the time.

“They were really hard on them. It was so unwarranted. They would just pick up anyone that they thought looked LGBT,” he said. “Then they would take them to the station, harass them, threaten to out them and release them the next day.”

1963

The first East Coast Homophile Organization (ECHO) conference is held at the Drake Hotel Aug. 3-Sept. 1.

“ECHO helped gather activists from New York, Philadelphia and D.C.,” Skiba said. “Now, we had a few political groups really beginning to get things going — Janus, ECHO and Daughters of Bilitis.”

Despite political action beginning to take place, gay life was still very much kept hidden in Philadelphia.

“People I spoke to who were around then said they compartmentalized their lives,” Skiba said. “They would say, ‘I worked 9-5 and I was straight, but I was damn gay on weekends.’”

Rittenhouse Square Park was a popular hang out.

“Gay men and lesbians hung out there. It was a ‘hidden but in plain sight’ type of thing,” Skiba said. “People managed to find spaces and make them their own and make a sense of community.”

1965

First Annual Reminder Day demonstration is held July 4 outside Philadelphia Independence Hall.

“Things are really heating up now. We had the Dewey sit-in and ECHO demonstrations in D.C. in April,” Skiba said. “Everyone at ECHO thought it went well in D.C., so they decided Independence Hall would be the perfect place to do it next, to talk about gays and the government.”

Reminder Day demonstrations were held every year at Independence Hall until 1969.