Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Dan Royles

Civil Rights (LGBT)

[caption id="attachment_22600" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Black and white photograph of three men picketing for gay rights in front of Independence Hall. Pickets march in front of Independence Hall on July 4, 1965. (New York Public Library)[/caption]

In the second half of the twentieth century, a growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans claimed political rights as people whose same-sex desire or gender presentation challenged prevailing social mores. As movements for African American, Latino American, and women’s rights gained traction and visibility, so too did movements for LGBT civil rights. In this context, LGBT activists in Greater Philadelphia pressed for the extension of the rights and protections that would signal their inclusion in American society. By the time the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, LGBT Philadelphians could point to victories at the local and state levels, achieved through a combination of theatrical protest and political advocacy. At the same time, however, Pennsylvania lagged behind New Jersey, Delaware, and other northeastern states in the civil rights afforded to LGBT residents.

Displays of homosexual affection and cross-dressing had been part of public life in cities like Philadelphia going back to the colonial period. However, it was not until the decades following World War II that such practices, and the sexual and gender identities associated with them, became explicitly politicized. During the 1950s and 1960s, the first gay and lesbian civil rights protests in Philadelphia reflected the growing political consciousness of homophile activists. These demonstrations also borrowed tactics from the much more widespread movement for black civil rights unfolding at the same time.

[caption id="attachment_22599" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and White photographs depicting Janus Society member distributing leaflets and police officers arriving at the Seventeenth Street Dewey's restaurant. The first documented public protest for LGBT civil rights in Philadelphia began on April 25, 1965, when protesters staged a sit-in at a Dewey’s restaurant in Center City, demanding access to public accommodations for LGBT people. (John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives, William Way Community Center)[/caption]

The first documented public protest for LGBT civil rights in the city began with a sit-in. On April 25, 1965, Dewey’s, a diner near Rittenhouse Square with a large clientele of gay youth, drag queens, and sex workers, began refusing to serve customers who appeared to be gay or lesbian, as well as those wearing clothing that did not match their gender. After more than 150 such customers had been denied service, three teenagers refused to leave and were arrested. Over the next five days, members of the Janus Society, a local gay and lesbian political group, protested outside of Dewey’s, and distributed their literature to passersby. On May 2, one week after the first sit-in, a group of teenagers staged a second protest. This time, no arrests were made, and the restaurant resumed serving LGBT customers.

Demonstrations at Independence Hall

Although the Dewey’s sit-ins showed that some gay and lesbian activists were willing to stand up for those who publicly dressed and acted in unconventional ways, most hewed to a politics of respectability. They described themselves as “homophiles” rather than “homosexuals” in order to distance themselves from sexual acts, a strategy that many saw as a necessary step toward inclusion in American society. The Annual Reminder demonstrations, held in front of Independence Hall every Fourth of July from 1965 to 1969, also reflected this concern. As they protested anti-sodomy laws, the firing of gay men and lesbians from federal employment, and their exclusion from military service, Annual Reminder marchers dressed professionally and in ways that conformed to gender expectations, with men in suits, jackets, and slacks, and women in dresses. The choice of time and place for the demonstrations underscored the marchers’ political claims. In contrast to the counterculture and anti-war movements, which criticized U.S. society as crassly commercial and militaristic, Annual Reminder marchers situated themselves squarely within American identity by marching on July Fourth in the place where the nation’s founding documents had been written and signed.

In the early 1970s, homophile activism gave way to gay liberation, although the more radical goals and tactics of gay liberation groups did not preclude their involvement in conventional politics. The Homophile Action League and the Gay Activists Alliance, which staked out more militant positions than their Annual Reminder predecessors, pressed local lawmakers to extend Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination protections to gay men and lesbians. In 1974 the City Council held hearings on a bill to add sexual orientation to the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, to outlaw anti-gay discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. However, with vocal opposition from both council members and religious leaders, including members of Philadelphia’s black clergy, the bill failed to make it out of committee. Opponents of the measure contended that race and sexual orientation were fundamentally different, and questioned gay and lesbian activists’ attempts to claim protections as an aggrieved minority alongside African Americans, Jews, and other historically persecuted groups.

Local and State Victories

[caption id="attachment_22609" align="alignright" width="245"]A black and white image showing people cheering and looking to the left of the viewer. The image was part of a newspaper story, and there is text over the image that reads Men and women celebrate the passage of a bill that added sexual orientation to the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, outlawing anti-gay discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Gay News.)[/caption]

In 1978, activists with the Christian Association, a philanthropic group at the University of Pennsylvania organized the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force (PLGTF) to advocate for sexual rights in the city. Under the leadership of Reverend James Littrell (b. 1943) and Rita Addessa (b. 1945), the group’s first two executive directors, PLGTF forged alliances with local African American political and religious leaders. When a second effort to amend the Fair Practices Ordinance went before city council in 1982, W. Wilson Goode (b. 1938), the city manager who later became Philadelphia’s first African American mayor, and members of the newly visible black gay community testified in support. With broadened support for gay and lesbian civil rights, the bill passed. Harrisburg, the state capital, revised its own City Code to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in 1983. Lancaster similarly added sexual orientation as a protected class to its Codified Ordinances in 1991. York added an anti-discrimination measure covering sexual orientation to its City Code in 1993, and a measure covering gender identity in 1998.

In the 1990s, LGBT activists, along with allies in local government, pressed for domestic partnership laws in the city. City council member Angel Ortiz (b. 1941) and Mayor Edward G. Rendell (b. 1944) introduced different bills providing for domestic partnership recognition and benefits in 1993. The bills failed as opponents, including City Council President John F. Street (b. 1943), argued that domestic partnerships would undermine traditional family structures. In June 1996, Rendell signed an executive order granting benefits to the domestic partners of some five hundred city employees, representing only a fraction of the almost 26,000 working in local government. Street vocally opposed the measure, and joined with Catholic Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua (1923-2012) and the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity to reverse the order. Rendell refused, and a trio of domestic partnership bills passed the council in 1998, granting health and pensions benefits to the “life partners” of city employees.

In 2013, the City Council expanded life partnership provisions to include hospital visitation with the passage of the LGBT Equality Bill, which also added gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance and offered tax credits to companies that expanded their employee benefits to include coverage of transgender-specific health care and health benefits for same-sex domestic partners. In May 2014, a federal district court judge ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. The following year, in June 2015, the United States Supreme Court invalidated similar state-level prohibitions clearing the way for same-sex marriage across the country.

The twenty-first century also brought a greater focus on the rights of transgender people. In 2009, Philadelphia activists formed Riders Against Gender Exclusion (RAGE) with the goal of eliminating gender identification stickers from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) TransPasses. RAGE members argued that the stickers opened a risk of embarrassment and harassment of people whose outward gender expression did not match the stickers on their cards. Over the course of a three-year campaign, the group collected stories of harassment from transgender and gender non-conforming SEPTA riders, staged a protest drag show inside a SEPTA station, and interrupted a public SEPTA hearing to present officials with a six-foot-long “RAGE Rider’s Bill of Rights” outlining their demands. On July 1, 2013, for the first time in thirty-two years, SEPTA riders were able to use TransPass cards without the gender identification stickers.

Hate Crime Legislation

Beginning in the late 1980s, Philadelphia LGBT activists and their allies also worked to add sexual orientation and gender identity to existing hate-crime laws. The Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force made anti-gay violence a political issue as early as 1986, and in 1990 state representative Babette Josephs (b. 1940) introduced an unsuccessful bill that would have extended the state’s hate-crime law to cover sexual orientation. The 1998 killing of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard (1976-98), which became a national news story, revived local interest in the issue. Weeks after Shepard’s death, the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force organized a protest at the Liberty Bell to call for a state-level hate-crime law covering sexual orientation. In 2002, after the brutal beating in Middleburg, Pennsylvania, of a man who was perceived to be gay, the state legislature finally passed a bill that expanded Pennsylvania’s Ethnic Intimidation Act to include sexuality and gender identity. However, the state supreme court struck down the 2002 expansion of the law in 2008.

Following a highly publicized attack on two gay men in Center City in September 2014, the Philadelphia City Council passed its own hate-crime bill. Pennsylvania lawmakers also introduced, but never voted on, hate-crime legislation covering sexual orientation and gender identity at the state level. In contrast, New Jersey added sexual orientation to its hate crime statute in 1990, and did the same for gender identity in 2008. Wilmington, Delaware, added a provision for hate crimes based on sexual orientation to its City Code in 1992. The state of Delaware added sexual identity to its own hate crime statute in 1998, followed by gender identity in 2013.

Pennsylvania similarly lagged behind its neighbors in guaranteeing LGBT civil rights. Although Pennsylvania became the first state to ban sexual orientation discrimination in state employment, under a 1975 executive order by Governor Milton Shapp (1912-94), as of March 2016, Pennsylvania had no law barring discrimination against LGBT people in housing, employment, and public accommodations. In contrast, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination included provisions for sexual orientation beginning in 1991 and for gender identity and expression beginning in 2006. Delaware passed legislation barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2009, and a similar law against discrimination based on gender identity and expression in 2013. In Pennsylvania, state legislators in 2015 continued to press for the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, which would update a 1995 state law against discrimination to include sexual orientation, as well as gender identity and expression.

The struggle for LGBT civil rights in Philadelphia after World War II yielded important gains for people who had been vulnerable to discrimination and harassment on account of their sexual and gender identities. Activists also won recognition for same-sex couples, first in Philadelphia, then in Pennsylvania, and, finally, nationwide. In so doing, they challenged prevailing ideas of sexual citizenship, and laid claim to both symbolic and material forms of belonging in American society. At the same time, the periodic failures and reversals suffered by activists exposed the extent to which LGBT Philadelphians were impacted by local, state, and federal policies—and the work that remained to be done.

Dan Royles is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Florida International University. His first book, To Make the Wounded Whole: African American Responses to HIV/AIDS, is under advance contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

(Editor's note:  Additional future essays will cover civil rights for African Americans, women, and persons with disabilities.)

Legionnaires’ Disease

The outbreak of a mysterious pneumonia-like disease in the Philadelphia region in the summer of 1976 puzzled doctors and public health officials. Many of the sick had attended an American Legion convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, giving the new illness the name “Legionnaires’ disease.” Months later, doctors discovered that bacteria in the hotel’s air conditioning system had caused the outbreak. By then, thirty-four of the 221 people who fell ill had died, and the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel had closed its doors for lack of business.

[caption id="attachment_20609" align="alignright" width="217"]a black and white photograph of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel as it appeared in 1976 The 1976 Legionnaire's disease outbreak centered on the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, where the disease's victims had gathered for an annual American Legion convention. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The outbreak occurred during the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. After returning home on July 24 from the three-day American Legion meeting in Philadelphia, several of the legionnaires began to fall ill with chest pains, high fevers, and lung congestion. By August 2, twelve had died. Doctors initially suspected that swine flu might be the culprit. If so, it was feared that Philadelphia could become the epicenter of an influenza pandemic, on the order of the 1918 “Spanish” flu that had killed as many as 100 million worldwide. In this light, Pennsylvania state health director Leonard Bachman (b. 1925) considered a quarantine of the city. Bachman held daily press conferences—sometimes twice a day—to update the public on the progress of the epidemic, while the city of Philadelphia set up a hotline to take reports of potential new cases.

Meanwhile, the numbers of sick continued to grow: by August 6, twenty-five had died, with 112 others hospitalized. However, tests for known viruses, bacteria, and fungi that might cause similar symptoms all came back negative. Moreover, the disease showed no evidence of secondary infection; that is, the sick did not seem to pass the illness to those with whom they came into contact. There would be no deadly pandemic, but the question remained: what was killing the legionnaires?

To find out, a team of local and state health officials distributed a survey to the ten thousand people—legionnaires and their families—who had attended the meeting. Through computer analysis of their responses, epidemiologists determined that the sick had all been inside the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, although some had stayed elsewhere. Moreover, several attendees of the International Eucharistic Conference, which took place at the hotel shortly after the American Legion Meeting, also became ill with the same mysterious pneumonia. On August 14, epidemiologists added presence at the Bellevue-Stratford to the case definition of the new disease.

[caption id="attachment_20621" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a man pointing to a graph about the Legionella outbreak Researchers scrambled to find a cause for the mysterious diseases for nearly six months. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the absence of a clear infectious agent, doctors turned their attention to chemical toxins. The symptoms of infection roughly matched those of nickel poisoning, and some speculated that the sick might have inhaled nickel carbonyl, perhaps through fumes from burning business papers. Researchers also tested the pesticides and cleaning products used in the hotel, looking for any clue as to what might have caused the mysterious outbreak. Although answers remained elusive, the number of new cases of “legion disease” dropped off. By the end of August, officials announced that the epidemic had ended. Nevertheless, business at the Bellevue-Stratford declined precipitously. The hotel’s rate of occupancy dropped from 80 percent to 3 percent at its lowest point, while the once-bustling restaurant, bar, and coffee shop were all nearly deserted. In November, the hotel’s owners announced that the Bellevue-Stratford would have to close its doors. (It reopened in 1979, after a major renovation, under new management.)

[caption id="attachment_20610" align="alignright" width="300"]an image of the legionella bacteria embedded in lung tissue as seen through a microscope Epidemiologists traced the mystery disease to a newly-discovered bacteria, dubbed Legionella, which was found in the air conditioning system in the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. (Centers for Disease Control)[/caption]

In January 1977, researchers finally pinpointed the source of the legionnaires’ pneumonia. It was not, after all, poisoning from nickel carbonyl or some other industrial poison, but a bacterium from a previously unknown genus, subsequently named Legionella after the first recognized outbreak. Researchers thereafter realized that Legionella bacteria thrive in large central air conditioning systems, such as that used by the Bellevue-Stratford. They also concluded that similar outbreaks had occurred going back to 1965 in hospitals and large office buildings but had escaped detection at the time. However, the names of both the disease and the bacteria remained linked to the initial outbreak in Philadelphia. A 2002 outbreak of the disease at a Jewish nursing home in suburban Horsham, Pennsylvania, killed two residents and sickened seven others, as well as an employee. In 2005, two attendees of the Pennsylvania American Legion convention in King of Prussia were sickened with Legionnaires’, reviving memories of the 1976 crisis, although both men survived. Since the discovery of the Legionella bacillus, doctors have been able to treat cases of the disease with antibiotics.

Dan Royles is Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University, in Miami. His first book, To Make the Wounded Whole: African American Responses to HIV/AIDS, is under advance contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

AIDS and AIDS Activism

Doctors in Philadelphia diagnosed the first local case of what would later become known as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in September 1981, just months after the Centers for Disease Control first reported mysterious outbreaks of pneumocystis pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma among gay men in New York and Los Angeles that marked the beginning of the recognized AIDS epidemic in the United States. Since pneumocystis pneumonia is rarely seen in healthy patients but common to those with weakened immune systems, and Kaposi’s sarcoma is a skin cancer otherwise seen among elderly Mediterranean men, the presence of these diseases in otherwise healthy young men signaled the potential for a serious public health crisis. Researchers  later discovered the cause of AIDS to be the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which replicates in the human body by killing cells that are vital to immune function, over time depressing the ability of the host body to fight off infections.

Although the number of new cases in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco multiplied quickly over the first two years of the epidemic, at first the number of people with AIDS in Philadelphia rose slowly. Within the first year, only seven cases were reported locally, but by early 1983 trends in Philadelphia seemed to be catching up to the rapidly growing epidemic witnessed in New York and California. The disease also appeared in New Jersey, particularly in the urban corridors between Philadelphia and New York and between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and in Delaware.

[caption id="attachment_3594" align="alignright" width="225"] Philadelphians joined in the global movement to call attention to the AIDS crisis. (John J. Wilcox LGBT Archives of Philadelphia)[/caption]

As gay men watched their friends and lovers die in increasing numbers, they organized in response. Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives (PCHA, later known as the Mazzoni Center), a health clinic founded in 1979 to serve the local lesbian and gay community, formed the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force to provide social services to those affected and offer information about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases through a local hotline. Meanwhile, social clubs like the Gay Men’s Chorus and Girlfriends Motorcycle Club joined forces to raise funds for PCHA’s education and prevention efforts.

Spread of AIDS

By the middle 1980s public health authorities recognized that the AIDS epidemic had grown beyond the communities of gay men in which doctors first identified the disease. Researchers in the United States and France had identified HIV as the cause of AIDS in 1983, and thus definitively determined that the disease could be transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, including needle-sharing among intravenous drug users, blood transfusions, and from an infected mother to her unborn child. At the same time, in cities around the country, reports showed the growing incidence of HIV and AIDS among African Americans and Latinos, particularly within networks of intravenous drug users and among their sexual partners and young children. Although those in this “second wave” of new cases had likely been infected for some time, their low access to medical care combined with the long latency period of HIV, during which time the virus spreads throughout a patient’s system but does not produce symptoms, to initially mask the prevalence of AIDS within communities of color.

In Philadelphia, by 1985 African Americans made up almost half of all reported AIDS cases, and the majority of cases among people under twenty five years old. David Fair, a longtime local gay activist and secretary-treasurer of a local predominantly black health care workers’ union, and Rashidah Hassan, a nurse who had worked with PCHA and its AIDS Task Force, became dissatisfied with the groups’ failure to effectively reach out to African Americans at risk of contracting HIV. To stem the rising tide of new infections in Philadelphia’s black community, in 1986 they founded Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues (BEBASHI), one of the nation’s first black AIDS service organizations. Perceiving that the AIDS Task Force’s efforts to reach out to the black community had been undercut by its reputation as an all-white organization, BEBASHI representatives worked through existing social institutions like African American churches so that their education and prevention messages that would resonate with black audiences.  In New Jersey, Project IMPACT (Intensive Mobilization to Promote AIDS Awareness through Community-based Technologies) also reached out to African American leaders in urban areas.

[caption id="attachment_3595" align="alignright" width="300"] Demonstrators on the City Avenue boundary between Philadelphia and the western suburbs, 1988. (John J. Wilcox LGBT Archives of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In 1987, as the AIDS community nationwide became frustrated with the dearth of effective treatments and President Ronald Reagan’s reticence on the epidemic, grassroots AIDS politics took a radical turn. In March, a group of New York activists founded the inaugural chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an organization whose protest actions became the public face of AIDS advocacy in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The group quickly spawned a network of chapters in cities across the country and abroad, including Philadelphia, South Jersey, and Delaware.

Dramatic Demonstrations

Members of the Philadelphia branch of ACT UP began staging theatrical “die-ins” and other dramatic demonstrations to highlight the human cost of high prescription drug prices and inadequate public health policy. To protest the Catholic Church’s opposition to condom use, in May 1991 around one hundred ACT UP Philadelphia members interrupted a prayer service for people with AIDS conducted by  Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua and tried to place wrapped condoms near his hands and feet, shouting, “These will save lives–your morals won’t.” In addition to public protests, ACT UP became well known for creating memorable visual messages to both educate people about AIDS and mobilize those affected by the epidemic. In this vein, during one holiday season the Philadelphia chapter circulated stickers featuring an HIV-positive Santa Claus with the tagline, “If only Reagan and Bush had told the truth, Santa wouldn’t have to die from AIDS.”

During the mid-1990s, ACT UP declined in national prominence as the white gay men who filled much of the organization’s ranks passed away, grew tired of activism, or gained access to the highly effective (but expensive) class of new antiretroviral drugs that became available due to advances in HIV treatment research. The Philadelphia chapter, however, remained vital due to the recruiting efforts of a core group of members, who reached out to lower-income people of color, among whom the nationwide AIDS epidemic continued to grow fastest. The changing membership in turn shaped the direction of the group’s activism, as it increasingly focused on affordable housing, HIV prevention in prisons, and access to medications for impoverished people in the United States and throughout the developing world. Working with Health GAP (Global Access Project), a coalition of AIDS activists and allied organizations, Philadelphia ACT UP members pressured the White House to move forward with a coordinated response to the worldwide AIDS pandemic.  This effort, supported by numerous AIDS action groups in Philadelphia and the Cooper Early Intervention Program in Camden, culminated in 2003 with President George W. Bush’s announcement of the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a five-year, $15 billion commitment funding HIV prevention and drug access programs in Africa. In 2008, Congress reauthorized the program through 2013, and expanded its funding to almost $48 billion.

Four Decades

As the epidemic entered its fourth decade, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health estimated that 1.3% of the city’s population was living with HIV or AIDS, about three times the national average. Center City and the surrounding area had the greatest prevalence of cases in Philadelphia County, with additional areas of high concentration in the Northeast, West Philadelphia, and around Germantown. Despite the city’s relatively large percentage of people living with HIV and AIDS, local trends reflected patterns of infection for the United States as a whole, inasmuch as the epidemic in Philadelphia disproportionately affected African Americans, and in particular men who had sex with men and women, among whom the disease was growing fastest.

Regionally, statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control from the beginning of the epidemic through 2008 showed New Jersey ranking fifth-highest in number AIDS diagnoses among the fifty states; Pennsylvania ranking seventh; and Delaware ranking thirty-third (although in rate of cases per thousand population, Delaware ranked eighth-highest in the nation). By 2010 Philadelphia accounted for the highest proportion of AIDS cases in Pennsylvania, surpassing other counties by far (20,411 diagnosed cases from 1980 to 2010, compared with 1,098 in Montgomery County, 1,743 in Delaware County, 802 in Bucks County, and 603 in Chester County).  In South Jersey, by 2010 the disease was most prevalent in Atlantic County.

In light of these realities, activists reignited the search for an AIDS cure. In 2009 a group of veteran Philadelphia activists, many of whom had been part of ACT UP chapters around the country during the organization’s heyday, founded the AIDS Policy Project to advocate for funding and scientific research on treatments to not only slow the spread of HIV within a patient’s system, but eliminate it altogether.  In this way, Philadelphians sought to lead the way to the end of the AIDS epidemic once and for all.

Dan Royles is a Ph.D. Candidate at Temple University.  This essay is derived from his dissertation research on the political culture of African American AIDS activism.

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