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Philly leads the nation in LGBTQ+ civil rights

Photo courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives

This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, New York.  On June 28, 1969, police raided the well-known gay club, The Stonewall Inn. The raid caused a riot that spilled out into the neighborhood of Christopher Park, and lasted six days resulting in numerous arrests and injuries. The Stonewall Riots are often referred to as the event that ignited the gay rights movement around the world. But did you know that before there was Stonewall, there was Dewey’s?

Dewey’s was a local chain of hamburger joints located in the Philadelphia area in the 1960s. Originating in Atlantic City in the 1930s, Dewey’s had 15 locations and it was the restaurants on 13th Street and 17th Street in Rittenhouse Square that became popular hang outs for the local LGBTQ+ community.

Open all night, Dewey’s was the perfect spot to grab a bite after the bars closed and remained packed with queers from every walk of life until late into the night. In 1965, according to Dewey’s, after a loud group of teenagers became disruptive, Dewey’s began to refuse service to anyone that they perceived as gay or lesbian. This led to a civil uprising the city did not expect and a turning point in LGBTQ+ activism.

Local organizations like The Janus Society united with the young patrons of Dewey’s and protested the establishment’s policy. On April 25, 1965, four years before the Stonewall Riots, Center City staged a sit-in. 150 gay and lesbian protesters took over Dewey’s on 17th Street and refused to order or leave. Three teenagers and the President of the Janus Society, Clark Polak, were arrested and found guilty of disorderly conduct, but that did not deter the mission of the protesters. Over the next five days, activists remained in front of Dewey’s and distributed over 1,500 leaflets and flyers protesting Dewey’s policy. After staging a smaller and peaceful sit-in 10 days later, Dewey’s rescinded their discriminatory policy and resumed services to all patrons, regardless of sexual orientation.

Did you know that before there was Stonewall, there was Dewey’s?

LGBTQ+ activism has deep roots in Pennsylvania. Dewey’s may have not received the same national coverage as Stonewall because it was relatively non-violent and considered less newsworthy by the media, but historians now consider it one of the biggest moments in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement.

The Dewey’s Sit-In and summer of protests started a trend toward more civil defiance with a new message that challenged society’s gender roles and cultural norms. Now seen on an international stage through live images on television and front-page articles in widespread publications, the grassroots campaign spread to the mainstream and quickly grew. On Independence Day of 1965, protestors and activists from the entire Mid-Atlantic region congregated in front of the Liberty Bell demanding social reform.

These protesters, later labeled “Annual Reminders,” continued their protests every Fourth of July until 1969. Unlike the Hippie counterculture and anti-war protesters concerned with capitalism and a military state, Annual Reminder protesters dressed professionally in suits and dresses, while illustrating their inclusion in the American identity in front of Independence Hall.

Today, Philadelphia’s Pride Week is one of the largest LGBTQ+ events in the nation, attracting thousands of participants every year. But Dewey’s is no more. In late 2014, Dewey’s was demolished to make way for a new generation of commerce, but after several years of appeal by the community, Dewey’s was finally recognized for its significance by a historical marker. On Oct. 1, 2018, the first day of national LGBTQ+ month, Dewey’s received its own marker located at the site of the 17th and St. James street establishment. Dewey’s marker represents only eight government-approved LGBTQ+ historical markers in the nation. According to Malcom Lazin, Executive Director of Equality Forum, “The LGBTQ+ community is the only minority worldwide that is not taught its history at home, in public school, or via religious institutions. The dedication of the eighth nationally significant LGBTQ+ historic marker makes the statement that not only is Philadelphia the birthplace of the nation, but the city is also the foundation of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement.” Without the courage of those young people at Dewey’s in 1965, it is very possible that the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community would have had a much longer journey toward Marriage Equality and the Stonewall Uprising may have never occurred.

April Strunk is a first-year student at West Chester University. AS938710@wcupa.edu

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