Ada Bello, LGBTQ pioneer who made Philadelphia home, dies at 89

Ada Bello.

Living a life spanning nearly nine decades means you see many welcome and unwelcome changes that shape the life you know. Philadelphia resident, academic, and LGBTQ-activist Ada Bello, who passed away March 31 at Chestnut Hill Hospital after battling COVID and pneumonia, saw those changes firsthand.

Born on November 6, 1933 in Havana, Cuba, Bello understood her attraction to girls from an early age, but knew that it would be impossible to act on it. Initially, the Bautista and Castro movements, which became the communist regime in Cuba, didn’t much bother gay people, Bello told Al Dia in a 2014 interview. After all, gay people there were already deeply closeted due to being very Catholic and “machismo.” 

Ada Bello in Cuba. (Photo via OutWords)

“But then they started to persecute people they considered to be a threat to society,” Bello said. “That included homosexuals.”

In 1958, Bello left Cuba to study at Louisiana State University, located in Baton Rouge, about an hour from New Orleans. While she only knew a few other women she assumed were lesbian in conservative Cuba, there were many more venues where she met other gay men and women in the U.S.

However, living in the American South did not offer as much freedom as Bello would have liked.

“One thing that I found that surprised me is that the situation in Baton Rouge at the university was not particularly better than it was in Cuba,” Bello told OutWords in a 2018 interview. “The university had some outrageous laws and regulations that you could be disposed from the university if they found you in a small town, that’s outside, wearing pants. You couldn’t wear pants to the cafeteria. You can imagine any question having a gay life at all. You could go to New Orleans. It was only about 50 miles, and that’s what we did. Of course there they used to raid the bars.”

After she got her degree in chemistry from LSU, Bello moved to Philly in 1962. Within a few years she co-founded the Philadelphia chapters of Daughters of Bilitis and the Homophile Action League (HAL).

Her activism was perhaps the most significant part of her life’s work. However, it is also important to recognize Bello’s work as a chemist for the University of Pennsylvania and for the Food and Drug Administration. While more women were in the workforce at the time, her tenure there was also quite an accomplishment, doubly so when you consider this was at a time when people put their careers at risk for being openly or even privately LGBTQ. This was especially true for Bello, as she was not yet an American citizen at that point. If she were to be arrested during the Annual Reminder Day marches, which took place in front of Independence Hall from 1965 to 1969, she could be forced out of the United States. However, she did become a citizen in 1968, and in 1969, she did march at Independence Hall with people like John James, Frank Kameny, and Barbara Gittings. In addition to marching, Bello also covered the marches for the Homophile Action League newsletter.

John James and Ada Bello at the July 2015 ceremony celebrating the rainbow crosswalks at 13th and Locust.

Those early demonstrations were decidedly tame compared to the Stonewall Riots and the subsequent Pride parades we know today. Attire, as enforced by event organizer Frank Kameny, was specified along perceived gender norms. Gittings is famously pictured at one of the events carrying a protest sign while wearing a dress.

“I wouldn’t have been allowed to march otherwise,” Bello said in a 2015 interview with PGN where she recounted having to wear a skirt in those pre-Stonewall Riot days.

“Without the Reminders, there very well might not have been a Stonewall,” Bello said. “Stonewall definitely brought about a tremendous change, but that was a process that started years before.”

Bello told OutWords that though organizations such as HAL began to drop off after Stonewall, they were all part of the same push towards activism.

“Obviously something called homophile will not have lasted long after Stonewall, but we were very much in agreement with what the gay movement became after Stonewall, which is not to say that Stonewall marks the start of the gay movement because it didn’t. Stonewall, if anything, it was in a curve, a point in which the curve goes right up. Before we said we deserve, and after that we said we demand.”

Bello continued to be a fixture in LGBTQ activism and other community events. She was instrumental in the early days of the William Way Community Center, a member of the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, and a founder of the LGBT Elder Initiative. Galaei, Philly’s Latino social justice organization, named her as their 2015 David Acosta Revolutionary Leader award recipient. She also received the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of Elders’ Spirit of CARIE award in 2022

Long-time friend John Cunningham, who was with Bello when she passed, shared that a memorial program will be held at Cathedral Village’s Cathedral Hall (600 E. Cathedral Road), the senior community where Bello lived for many years, on Friday, April 14th at 10:00 a.m. Memorial gifts may be made to the WIlliam Way Center, the Morris Animal Shelter, or the charity of one’s choice.