Welcome to the Gayborhood
Or, Why We Should Save The Lesbian Bar
Stand at the intersection of 13th and Locust in Center City Philadelphia. All four crosswalks are painted rainbow, signifying that this is the heart of the Gayborhood. From Pine up through Chestnut in between Broad and 11th, the street signs have rainbows on them. Many businesses display rainbow flags outside, or have proudly stuck a rainbow sticker on their door. Woody’s and iCandy, two of the city’s biggest gay bars, hang several rainbow and American flags along their fronts. The Gayborhood branch of the Mazzoni Center has a rhinestoned sign in the window that says “HIV TEST” in front of a faded rainbow flag. The bright red doors of the William Way LGBT Community Center swing open.
This is the Gayborhood today.
While LGBT people in Philadelphia don’t live in gay paradise by any means, the city is one of the most gay friendly places in the country. Nerd Wallet created a ranking of the most gay friendly cities in America. Their analysis included factors such as the percentage of the population that identifies as LGBT, LGBT-related hate crimes per 10,000 LGBT residents, and the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, which evaluates a city’s non-discrimination laws, practices as employer, law enforcement, etc. - Philadelphia received a score of 100 out of 100 in 2016. Nerd Wallet ranked Philadelphia number 6 (behind San Francisco, Portland, Austin, Providence, and Baltimore, in order).
Considering the fact that this is a great city to be gay in, it should come as a shock to hear that there are no lesbian bars in the city. Philly is just one place that’s been hit in the nationwide epidemic, as it were, of lesbian bar closures. Across the country, even in cities like Portland and San Francisco, the last lesbian bars are shutting their doors. Too many people dismiss this problem, citing the fact that it’s easier to be gay in straight spaces nowadays and that bars aren’t necessary for the gay community. While the former is true in some places, the latter is inherently flawed. And here’s why: gay bars have always been crucial to the survival of the gay community, and with the passage of laws that granted the community our freedom, we can’t kiss goodbye the spaces that were imperative during the fight for that freedom.
But let’s go back in time just a bit, to the Stonewall Inn, in 1969.
At the time, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Almost all mainstream religions condemned being gay. Sex between two men or two women was punishable by law and could sometimes carry a lifetime sentence.
New York’s police held tightly to the anti-sodomy laws. There were vice squads whose job it was to raid gay bars and set up traps to catch homosexuals. According to PBS, by 1966 “over 10 men a week were arrested as a result of this effort.” During a raid, police would come in, turn on the lights, and line everyone up. They would check identification and if you were found without ID or were dressed in drag, you were arrested.
There were lots of gay bars in cities across the country at this time. They were usually dark and dingy, and, in the case of New York City, run by the mob. The mafia capitalized on the fact that gay bars were illegal establishments leaving their patrons with nowhere else to turn. They watered down the drinks, ran prostitution rings, and paid cops to look the other way. The Mafia ran the Stonewall Inn.
The bar was opened in 1967 by the Genovese crime family. It was a hellhole - there were no fire exits, the toilets were constantly overflowing, dirty glasses were washed in a rubber tub of dirty water (which may have caused a 1968 outbreak of hepatitis). It was declared by the New York Hymnal, a gay journal, to be the “tackiest joint in town.” And even with Mafia protection, it was still subject to raids.
Another important aspect of the Stonewall Inn: many of the regulars were what Dick Leitsch, the executive director of the Mattachine Society of New York, an early gay rights group, described as “The ‘drags’ and the ‘queens’, two groups which would find a chilly reception of barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs… To a large extent, the club was for them.” He continued by saying, “Another group was even more dependent on the Stonewall: the very young homosexuals and those with no other homes. You’ve got to be 18 to buy a drink in a bar, and gay life revolved around bars.”
So why go? Why subject yourself to a dirty, dark bar where the alcohol was watered down and the police could barge in and arrest you at any minute?
Because there were no good options. The choices were stark and simple: live a lie and spend time at ‘regular’ bars or restaurants dating people you didn’t love, or brave the adverse conditions and be yourself. It would certainly have been safer to simply avoid these bars altogether - and no doubt countless gay people did just that. Activist Ada Bello, who came to the US from Cuba in the 1950s, lived in Philadelphia during the 50s and 60s. “We considered ourselves good citizens,” she told Philadelphia Magazine. “But when it came time to socialize, we had to go to these places that were dark and down alleys… In so many cases, homosexuals had internalized the societal picture of them and were almost apologetic - almost saying, ‘We’re lucky we’re not in jail. We’re lucky we actually have places where we can get together and drink.’” The fact that getting together and drinking came at such a risk, and so many decided to do it anyway, shows the importance of the gay bar as a space of freedom, in contrast with the oppression of greater society.
For many of the young people who had been kicked out of their homes and had traveled to New York to be a part of the community, the Stonewall was like a home. For the $3 entry fee, they could spend the night inside, safe from the cold, dangerous streets.
“The Stonewall became ‘home’ to these kids,” Leitsch explained. “When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why the Stonewall riots were begun, led and spearheaded by ‘queens’.”
Approximately 200 people were in the bar at 1:20 in the morning on July 28th, 1969 when 8 police officers burst through the doors. A group of 13 people were arrested and taken outside to wait for the patrol wagons. A crowd of about 150 people gathered outside with those arrested. When the first wagon got there, a woman in handcuffs fought with the police as they dragged her toward it. She was hit in the head with a billy club, and reportedly shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something!” This sparked an idea - We don’t have to take it.
Thanks in part to the Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights Movement, the spark grew into a flame, and the people gathered started to fight back. They were mostly transgender patrons who forced the police into the bar, where they barricaded themselves. Pause here to appreciate the irony - you have gays and lesbians and transgender folk outside the bar and police cowering inside a “filthy” gay bar. This was a perfectly poetic, chaotic, dangerous, and exciting start of the movement. A group of people pushed over a police car, someone set it on fire. Riot police showed up, started beating people with batons. The patrons of Stonewall fought back. It was the start of a several-day war with police, growing every night as word spread. And that word didn’t stop in the Village - it spread throughout the country, where the seeds of the gay rights movement had already been sown.
There’s a reason Stonewall happened where it did. That night was the perfect storm of conditions, set in a place where people who were oppressed under the law had dared to be themselves. The timing was right, and the bravery was already there. But Stonewall - a gay bar, raids, even riots - weren’t new. Gay spaces have existed for a long time, and right here in Philadelphia.
In 1908, Xavier Mayne wrote about the use of “vapor-bath establishments” in his book The Intersexes: A History of Simlisexualism as a Problem in Social Life. “New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Philadelphia are ‘homosexual capitals.’” Gay men used to use public baths to have sex with each other because of their relatively private nature, and so they were a gathering and cruising place - which was of course a concern to many heterosexuals. Others, though, had no idea what was going on. Humorously, in 1914, Magnus Hirschfeld wrote, “During a visit to Philadelphia and Boston I noticed almost nothing of homosexuality, but visitors from those cities later assured me that there was ‘an awful lot going on’ within private circles in these centers of Quakerism and Puritanism.” While some choose to see homosexuality as a “new fad” sweeping our nation in the past few decades because of its increased visibility, most people know that homosexuality has always been around and always will be around. And even in the Quaker streets of Philadelphia, there have always been places - be they baths, parks, bars, or all of the above - for gay people to gather.
Because of the guesswork involved, it can be difficult to trace gay history. Much of it involves guess work until the 20th century. Often, the “proof” that we have that any one person was gay is from a conviction such as sodomy. Other pieces of proof include letters written to same-sex friends, but of course, many scholars dispute this as proof out of consideration of the fact that people used to use flowery language to describe just about anything. So no, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t confirmed bisexual just because he wrote the following to John Laurens:
“Cold in my professions, warm in my friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it might be in my power, by action rather than words to convince you that I love you.”
So it wasn’t until after World War II that gay spaces became more than vaporous mysteries and started to take form.
In 1945, Philadelphia was the third largest city in the United States at 2 million residents. It was referred to as the “City of Homes” because of its many residential neighborhoods and apartment buildings. Center City Philadelphia offered apartments and rental rooms for people who wished to remain anonymous and have their privacy, something that wasn’t always possible in more rural places. Gay life in the cities experienced a rapid growth during the post-WWII era because so many people were moving to the city for precisely that anonymity that they offered, and for Philadelphia’s gay community, they were finding a home in the city of homes. This was west of Broad Street, mostly on Spruce Street. Tom Malim, who lived in Philadelphia at the time, remembers, “There was a saying: ‘Do you live on Spruce Street or are you straight?’”
Notably, Rittenhouse Square was a gay center of its own in the 40s and 50s, with the park being a common place for cruising.
In the 40s and 50s, in addition to the park, gay people gathered in bars. Raids were common in Philadelphia, and around the time of Stonewall - in 1968 - Frank Rizzo was elected police commissioner. Rizzo was known for his racism, authoritarianism, and upfront attitude. (No parallels to be drawn here, folks…) He promised to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot,” and between 1968 and 1980, when he served as police commissioner and then mayor, he cracked down on the black community especially. The police knew him as “The General.” He led raids on anywhere that housed what he considered to be “undesirables” which included drug dealers, prostitutes, and homosexuals. Gay bars were commonly raided into the 1980s.
The Venture Inn is one of Philadelphia’s oldest gay bars, becoming mostly gay in the 1940s, as confirmed in a 1962 Philadelphia Magazine article about “The Furtive Fraternity,” or Philadelphia’s gay subculture. The Venture Inn closed in 2016.
The Allegro was another gay bar. It was a 3 story building with one floor for dancing and another for a quieter piano bar. There was a dress code for male patrons (a jacket and a tie) until the late 60s. One patron recalls that at the time, “The Allegro was really the happening place… I can remember guys with tambourines on the dance floor, and the excitement - we kind of knew that the future was wide open, and there was this kind of pride and pleasure in being gay.” Another patron remembers feeling safe on the third floor, because if a raid happened, “you could jump out the third-floor window.”
Rusty’s was one of the city’s first important lesbian bars. It preceded several more that popped up in the 70s and 80s. It was on the second floor of Barone’s Variety Room on the corner of Walnut and Quince, and the only way to gain access was to go around to a side door, climb some stairs, and be appraised by Rusty herself. Only women who looked like lesbians were let in. On March 8, 1968, it was raided and the women present were subject to verbal abuse by police officers.
Many organizations were formed during this time to oppose gay rights legislation. One such group was the Neighborhood Crusades, a Christian fundamentalist group. In 1975, the city held a hearing for Bill 1275, which would have added “sexual orientation” to the Human Rights Code. It would have outlawed anti-gay discrimination. The bill was debated for a year, and at one such hearing, Reverend Melvin Floyd of Neighborhood Crusades gave a strange speech: “Suppose you call a policeman and the policeman who shows up is a homosexual. There is a man beating you up. You are half-dead on the floor. And the policeman comes in. And the man beating you up turns around and winks at him. They go together and you’re half-dead on the floor. You wouldn’t like it a bit.” No, sir, I would not like it at all. Speaking of being on the floor - six women were beaten by officers at a protest that occurred just after the bill was struck down.
It wasn’t just hate groups that formed - the few years after Stonewall ushered in a wave of publications and activism groups. Newspapers like Gay Alternative, Weekly Philadelphia Gayzette, and New Gay Life, and groups like Radical Lesbians, Radical Queens, and the Dyketactics were started. In contrast with the Reminder Marches, the goal for many of these groups seemed to now be to be loud and proud.
Philadelphia’s first gay pride march was held on June 11, 1972. At least half of the march’s planners were women, and the reason it was so successful was because of collaboration between gay men and lesbians, who didn’t always mesh well during the gay liberation movement. The advertisements for the march featured two intersecting female symbols, two intersecting male symbols, and in the middle, intersecting male and female symbols. That caused a lot of controversy for both gay men and lesbians, both of whom didn’t necessarily want to be associated with one another. A newspaper columnist at the time, the Drummer’s Greg Lee, wrote, “[this issue] raised the ugly spectre of gay separatism. ...gay women and men MUST work together to effect their liberation.”
And the success of the march, where they did work together, just highlights that fact further. Reports differ as far as how many people were there, but most agree that it was at least a thousand - with one estimate as high as ten thousand.
The purpose of the march, according to the Gay Pride Committee, was “to celebrate the growing sense of pride and unity among gay people and to signal our determination to end the discrimination we face.” Ironically - and perhaps a little darkly - Frank Rizzo was praised by the News for allowing the marchers a permit.
The week following the march, other groups planned events such as a film festival, a Gay Pride Festival at Temple, and a picnic at Belmont Plateau.
The Gay Pride March indicates a turning away from the secretive ways of the past, even as public opinion continued to look down on homosexuality. Activist and San Francisco’s first gay elected official Harvey Milk urged gay people to come out.
The tide was certainly turning, and especially in Philadelphia, whose business district was so close to the “gay ghetto,” coming out was an important and difficult political act. Jeff Escoffier wrote in Gay Alternative, that the “specific social patterns” of Philadelphia “may have kept and still may keep others from joining the movement.” This explained why so many activists in Philadelphia weren’t native to the area, but rather, had moved there to be involved in the city’s gay scene. “Coming out [in Philadelphia] is more difficult than in other, more developed gay communities, [but] the gay movement has taken effect here...evident when thousands of Philly Gays marched down Chestnut Street.” He later said that the 1972 Gay Pride march was one of the most “exhilarating things” he’s ever done, because of how difficult it was to be anonymous in Philadelphia in comparison to New York.
Walking down the street hand in hand as a same-sex couple was still dangerous, and kissing or dancing together at a regular bar was out of the question. There was safety in numbers, like at the Pride march, but coming out remained an uncomfortable, scary act. In this climate, gay spaces were unequivocally still important.
In 1973, Giovanni’s Room, an LGBT bookstore, opened on South Street. It would become the supplier of most of the AIDS information that Philadelphians received during the AIDS epidemic. In 1976, the William Way LGBT Community Center was founded. In 1979, the Mazzoni Center was founded by the Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives (PCHA). It was primarily intended to provide healthcare for the LGBT community. In the 70s and 80s, businesses started to advertise themselves as “gay owned” and “gay friendly.” In 1983, the Philadelphia City Council passed the Gay Rights Bill with barely any opposition.
In 1990, Philly Pride’s first OutFest block party was held. OutFest would become an annual event that’s now in its 17th year. In 1992, David Warner of the City Paper accidentally coined the nickname the Gayborhood by writing, “It’s a beautiful day in the gayborhood!” In 1995, the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Festival was held and was the largest LGBT Film Festival on the East Coast.
In 1996, Sisters Nightclub, a lesbian bar, opened on Chancellor St.
And in 2013, it closed.
There have been huge leaps made in the march for equality, and Philly is a relatively open and accepting place. For the first time in America’s history, same-sex couples can hold hands in public and not face serious consequences.
Thanks to the increased public safety for gay people, some suggest that the reason lesbian bars are fading out is because they aren’t needed anymore. These people suggest that there are countless apps and websites for women seeking women, and anyway, queer women can go to regular bars now and not be scrutinized.
We can poke a lot of holes in this theory, and all of them can be seen in the case of Boulder, Colorado.
So queer spaces are still important for building a community, which is vital for LGBT people. How do we do it? And how do we save - or perhaps, revive - lesbian bars without alienating people? The subject is surrounded by controversy, and everyone has a theory as to why lesbian bars are closing but gay bars aren’t. A lot of these theories have to do with economic differences and the idea that lesbians like to settle down more than gay men. After being heavily involved in the Gay Liberation Movement, though, it seems unfair that lesbians should get the short end of the stick now when it comes to their own spaces.
In our interview, Caitlin touched on feeling unwelcome as a lesbian at gay bars. In fact, many queer women are turned off by these spaces, and this just further indicates that the separatism experienced in the community during the Gay Liberation movement still exists today. Perhaps queer men and women need to fuse their spaces together for the sake of saving them - but this is just one possible solution to a multifaceted problem.
Valerie Papaya Mann, founder of a group called Sapphire Sapphos, warns, “If we do not create spaces where we can get together and talk and feel like community, then I believe that we will all suffer.” Sapphire Sapphos was an organization for African-American lesbians that focused on arts and activism. It faded away when members became more focused on their own areas of interest, rather than towards the group. Papaya Mann, who knows the importance of lesbian spaces and feels the loss of one personally, continues, “I believe that we’re already suffering as a result of it, quite frankly. As we age, it’s not just losing an opportunity to have somewhere to dance. It’s also losing community.”
The experiences of the gay community are in many ways fundamentally different from our heterosexual counterparts, and we deserve, even now, that feeling of belonging. As our rights may be challenged in the coming years - and they will be challenged - we need to remember the successes of the past and learn from those who fought for the future we’ve been given. Change doesn’t come free, and it isn’t made in the dark. Now that we’ve burst through the closet door, where do we go from here? Is there a space for us in this world, or do we have to make it?
Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 by Marc Stein
Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia by Thom Nickels