As many of you know, I think I’m one of the many unofficial mayors of Philadelphia. I love this city and enjoy sharing it with visitors and friends. I also enjoy learning about LGBT history, so I was excited when this week’s Portrait, Joey Leroux, and I met at a virtual IBA coffee hour. Leroux and Rebecca Cole are the co-owners and founders of Beyond the Bell, a tour company that gives you the many untold stories of queer and feminist history. Even though we’re all sequestered indoors, this dynamic duo has found several ways to make history come alive right in our homes.
I understand you’re originally from Maine, tell me a little about growing up there.
I’m from York, Maine. It is a beautiful town, with a coastal beach town vibe. But it was a really small town where the church was very important to the community. I grew up in a big Catholic family, so it was a very stifling environment for a young, queer person. I think I spent most of my childhood planning my exit!
That’s funny. How many siblings?
Four. All younger than me.
You must have had a lot of responsibilities. But at the same time, you were probably thinking, “Don’t count on me too much ’cause I won’t be here long.”
Totally! Recently, I’ve been trying to do a lot of mending of my relationships with my siblings.
What kinds of things were you into?
Lots! I was in band; I was in the choir. I started the debate club at my high school, and I was a big nerd, so I did a lot of studying. I took all of the highest level classes I could take.
I was just watching a kids’ show, and they gave the fun fact that the term “nerd” came from a Dr. Seuss book. I’m jealous of the debate club. I think I would have been good at it.
Cool fact! Yeah, I was always interested in argument and logic, especially learning how to win an argument! The conversations that happen during a debate are always intriguing. You never know which side you’ll be arguing, so you have to be ready to defend both viewpoints.
I think the world would be a better place if everyone knew how to consider both sides of any argument.
For sure, and you learn how rhetoric can be weaponized for a cause or for gain. It’s a huge lesson and moment of realization.
What do your folks do?
When I was a child, they both worked in finance. After my brother was born, my mother decided to become a stay-at-home mom. My dad was a mortgage broker. When the 2008 bubble burst, he lost his job, and things changed a lot for us. He was never able to fully recover.
You’ve done a lot in your relatively short life.
I knew in high school that I was going to be a generalist. I went to Haverford College, which is a Quaker School. It’s always been committed to social justice, and they had a center for peace and global citizenship. They funded internships abroad, so I went to Indonesia. They paired us with nonprofits doing justice work to learn their models: how people are fighting for their rights or how they were making things better. It was amazing to see how rich the history of Indonesia was — the religious history, the cultural history. Walking the ancient sites was wild to see how people living at the same time as me still related to things from so long ago. We think we have history here, but there, you’d walk by things daily that dated back eons.
Had you left the U.S. before?
I’d been to Italy, which also has an incredible history, but that was my first time living abroad. I was in Indonesia for 10 weeks. My student partner was openly gay, and I was not out yet, so it was serendipitous. I didn’t feel like I contributed much in Indonesia in those 10 weeks, so I moved to China for a year. I worked for a Haverford alum, who started a leather company in China. It was a cool model. He believed that he needed to give back to each area he took resources from, so he started a foundation and gave back to families and communities all over. They embodied the Kaizen method of continual improvement, which is based on the idea that small, ongoing positive changes can reap significant improvements. I learned that all the choices that I make are an expression of my values. It was a turning point for me. When I got back to Haverford, I chose my classes differently and became close to Rebecca, who is my business partner for Beyond the Bell. I was studying impact investing, and we took a social entrepreneurship class together. We started thinking of a business model for social good and started an edible insect company, but that was a dud. Rebecca was also writing her thesis about tourism in Italy, and I became obsessed with one idea that she ran across — the thought that the identity of a city comes from the stories people are telling about it. And who tells those stories? Often it’s the tour guides who introduce people to the city. Her thesis was about whose stories were not being told. We decided to apply that to Philly, a place that has an official Gayborhood listed on city maps! That’s crazy! And wonderful! There are so many stories just here in the community that don’t usually get told, and that brought us to Beyond the Bell tours. Rebecca started with a Women’s History Tour. She was a former tour guide, and this felt like what we needed to do. We got a grant from Haverford and launched the company in 2018…. We were going to be doing a Drag history tour before the pandemic shut us down.
I want to know more.
We’re a walking tour company. Our cornerstone is the Badass Women’s History tour. The tour of the Gayborhood is also popular. Before COVID, we were looking forward to a new collaboration for Pride this summer. We were teaming up with a trolley company and Eric Jaffe, who is a drag performer, to do a Drag Me Along history tour.
Thankfully, you all have been able to find fun ways to do tourism online.
Yes, we have an LGBT History Hour and a Women’s History Hour on Tap through Zoom. On June 25, we’re doing Queer Trivia, delving into queer movies, music and history. All the proceeds from that will go to the Morris Home, which is a residential recovery program for trans- and gender-nonconforming individuals. But the thing I’m most excited about is our Pride-in-a-Box! We’ve curated a collection of Pride care boxes with items from local businesses, each designed to go with an online performance. For instance, our Club Queer box on June 6 comes with a “Make Woody’s Gay Again” T-shirt, a rainbow koozie, blacklight body paint and more, and a performance by Eric Jaffe on Zoom at 9 p.m. Since we can’t go out, we’re bringing the club to you! The next week, we go in the other direction with our Quiet Queer box. You get a candle, a book of poems from Giovanni’s Room, etc. and the chance to watch a drag show from the comfort of your favorite chair. We’ll have a Dyke Box on June 15, showcasing Sinnamon’s Spice Rack, which is a burlesque performance! And we wrap Pride month up with a Horny Queer box on June 27. It will contain something sexy from Danny’s Midnight Confessions. We love that we’re able to help support small LGBT businesses. It’s going to be a lot of fun and truly Beyond the Bell!
Who is your normal audience and how has it changed?
Philly gets a lot of domestic tourism, which is about 60% of our business. We also do a lot of teaching, so we get a ton of teachers who bring students for the Women’s and Queer History tours, or bring us to them. We do a lot of Zoom tours with corporate and nonprofit groups. People can even do virtual birthday parties, and we’ll facilitate a trivia game. For our History on Tap tours, we would normally stop for drinks, but now we’re teaming up with bars that are offering take-away or delivered cocktails. We’re finding ways to adapt!
Give me a favorite queer fun fact.
Barbara Gittings was an incredible woman. In 1972, she staged a panel at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. At the time, homosexuality was still in the books as a mental disorder. She’s arranged for John Fryer, a psychiatrist from Temple, to speak at the meeting. Because he could have been stripped of his license for admitting that he was gay, he wore a mask to remain anonymous. His speech caused a real paradigm shift in people’s thinking. But the funny part was that John Fryer was like the tallest psychiatrist in the country. He was a towering 6’3″ 300 pounds, so everyone knew it was him!
What was the first place you went when you came out?
Giovanni’s room. I was taking a poetry class and sociology of deviance class, so I went there to get some books for sociology, and, while there, I found some queer poetry books. The first bar I went to was Woody’s. I think it’s mandatory.
How did it go with the family?
It wasn’t bad. They were accepting but uncomfortable. They didn’t threaten to disown me or anything dramatic, but there were definitely some blindspots. They’d hear things in the news, like club shootings, and they’d worry about me.
I think a lot of our families worry about us. You had an edible insects company, what’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten?
Well, I’ve had crickets, but they don’t really taste that good, which is probably why our business failed! I’ve also had chicken feet in China and alligator in Indonesia.
Do you think your time doing spoken word and poetry helps you as a tour guide?
Definitely. To be a good guide, you can’t just recite facts. There has to be a flow of energy in both directions so that everyone is engaged and having a good time.
OK, years from now, when we do the Joey Leroux story, who should play you?
Oh wow! Well, it should be some queer. Maybe one of the Fab 5? Their new season is tied to Philadelphia. So maybe Jonathan could play me.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Bradley Cooper. He was on that show “Alias” with Jennifer Garner, and I thought he was so hot!
If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?
Hmm, I love people watching. Since we’re in quarantine, I’ve become obsessed with the people who come to my house, like the mail carrier or the neighbor across the street who I’ve synced up my morning ritual with so that we’re standing on our porches across from each other each day. If I were invisible, I’d love to find out more about them!
What’s a historical moment you wish you could have witnessed?
I wish I could have been at the Annual Reminder Marches, with Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen and Kiyoshi Kuromiya. I’m curious to know more about them, who influenced them, etc. I would like to have gone on a date with Kiyoshi!
What’s something funny that happened in your travels abroad?
In China, people would say that I looked like Justin Bieber because I had the haircut, and they would take pictures with me on the street.
Did you run into any anti-American sentiment or was it the opposite?
Well, I was there right before Trump got elected, and it was all people were talking about. They were like, “Who is this buffoon running for president? Silly Americans. Are they really going to elect that monster!” I didn’t really find any anti-American rhetoric, but I was traveling with a guy from India, and he got a lot of flack. There was some anti-India discrimination, especially at the borders.
What are you looking forward to as we enter this crazy summer?
I’m hoping we get to get back out on the streets again, but in the meantime, I’m excited about our virtual Pride events — all the performances, all the boxes going out. It’s going to be cool all throughout June! Make sure to check our website and Facebook pages for more information!
Visit https://www.facebook.com/beyondthebelltours/ for more information.