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The First Gay Sit-in happened 40 years ago

Forty years ago, three teen-agers in Philadelphia took an extraordinary step by refusing to take a step. Their sit-in began on Sunday, April 25, 1965, at Dewey's restaurant near Rittenhouse Square in Center City. According to an account provided several months later by Clark Polak, a gay-rights leader in Philadelphia, "the action was a result of Dewey's refusal to serve a large number of homosexuals and persons wearing non-conformist clothing."

On the day of the sit-in, more than 150 people were reportedly denied service. When the teen-agers, one female and two male, refused to leave, the police were called, and the three were taken into custody and arrested. Polak, who rushed to the scene and offered to help the three protesters obtain a lawyer, was also arrested. All four were soon found guilty of disorderly conduct.

Over the next week, gay-rights activists affiliated with the Janus Society of America distributed 1,500 leaflets outside of Dewey's, while gay movement leaders negotiated with representatives of the restaurant and local authorities. According to a report published in 1965 in the Janus Society newsletter, "No one was further denied service on the basis of appearance or suspected affiliations."

On May, 2, 1965, one week after the original action, three people conducted a second sit-in at Dewey's. When they refused to leave, Dewey's contacted the police, who spoke with the protesters, declined to take further action, and departed.

Polak's 1965 account indicates that the police told him that "we could stay in there as long as we wanted as the police had no authority to ask us to leave."

One hour later, the protesters declared victory, and left the restaurant.

The Janus Society took pride in what it had accomplished. Drum magazine, which was published by Janus, noted that "to our knowledge, this is the first sit-in of its kind in the history of the United States."

The Janus newsletter reported success in its four objectives: "(1) to bring about an immediate cessation to all indiscriminate denials of service, (2) to prevent additional arrests, (3) to assure the homosexual community that (a) we were concerned with the day-to-day problems and (b) we were prepared to intercede in helping to solve these problems, (4) to create publicity for the organization and our objectives."

The newsletter also offered revealing comments about the gender and sexual politics of the protest: "All too often, there is a tendency to be concerned with the rights of homosexuals as long as they somehow appear to be heterosexual, whatever that is. The masculine woman and the feminine man often are looked down upon by the official policy of homophile organizations, but the Janus Society is concerned with the worth of an individual and the manner in which she or he comports himself. What is offensive today we have seen become the style of tomorrow, and even if what is offensive today remains offensive tomorrow to some persons, there is no reason to penalize such non-conformist behavior unless there is direct anti-social behavior connected with it."

Historical Context

Not much more is known about the Dewey's sit-in. When I was researching the incident for my book City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves, I found the Janus newsletter and Drum magazine accounts discussed above, a subsequent letter to the editor published in Drum, a letter about the protest written by a Philadelphia lesbian activist to a New York gay leader, and the flier distributed outside of Dewey's. I also spoke with two Philadelphians who remember the Dewey's sit-in and who corroborated some of the information contained within the Janus and Drum accounts. Apparently a local television channel reported on the protest on a news program on April 30, but I was not able to identify the station or find a tape of the broadcast. I never learned the names of the original three teen-age protesters, and Polak, the other person who probably knew the most about what happened at Dewey's, died in the 1980s.

The Dewey's sit-in can be placed within several significant historical contexts. First, there's the larger context of political protest in the 1960s, and especially the black freedom struggle, New Left student and youth rebellion, and anti-war mobilization. The anti-racist sit-in movement that began in 1960 at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., may have been a particularly inspirational example for the Dewey's protesters.

Second, there's the larger context of what was known at the time as the "homophile" movement, which was founded in the early 1950s in California and which began to embrace militant, direct action tactics in the mid-1960s. In September 1964, the Homosexual League of New York and the League for Sexual Freedom organized a demonstration in New York to protest anti- gay military policies. Just days before the Dewey's sit-in, homophile activists organized gay rights demonstrations at the White House and the United Nations.

And about two months after the Dewey's sit-in, a few dozen activists staged Independence Day gay rights demonstration at Independence Hall. Repeated on the Fourth of July over the next four years, these five "Annual Reminders" are being remembered at fortieth anniversary celebrations during this year's Equality Forum. The fact that the U.S. homophile movement was much smaller in the 1960s than it would later become does not mean that the early movement did not deal with some of the same internal conflicts that we continue to see today. For example, while the Dewey's protesters focused on the needs of what they called "masculine women," "feminine men" and "non-conformists," the leaders of the Annual Reminders insisted that male picketers wear jackets and ties and that female picketers wear dresses or skirts.

Another example: While the Janus Society and Drum magazine enthusiastically promoted the sexual revolution, Frank Kameny, one of the organizers of the Annual Reminder, declared at a national homophile conference in 1966, "This is the homophile movement - we are not fighting for sexual freedom."

Third, there's the larger context of urban geography and the politics of space. Like many other U.S. cities, Philadelphia at mid-century was experiencing anxieties and tensions associated with urban redevelopment and urban gentrification projects. Competing visions of urban downtown cores - encompassing who should live, work, and play there; what businesses should be encouraged and discouraged; and how the built and natural environments should be developed - clashed when police in the 1950s and 1960s raided local establishments and harassed users of public space.

In this sense, denials of service at Dewey's in 1965 can be linked with police raids on nearby Philadelphia coffeehouses in 1959 and the harassment of gender and sexual nonconformists in Rittenhouse Square through the 1950s and 1960s. And protests against these denials of service can be linked to the long history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender efforts to resist oppression by fighting for physical and cultural space.

Fourth and finally, there's the larger context of capitalism, consumerism, and the economy. Historians of the black freedom struggle have encouraged us to think about the symbolic significance of some of the primary targets of their movement, which in the 1950s and early 1960s included public schools, public busses, and lunch counters. In the case of the latter, they have urged us to consider why the right to purchase hamburgers and sodas (and, more generally, the rights of consumers) took on such political significance at that moment in time. We can ask similar questions about the symbolic significance of Dewey's restaurant and how it differed from the symbolic significance of other targets of protest, including the White House, the United Nations, and Independence Hall.

Politics of Memory

Now that Equality Forum has asked us to recognize the Independence Hall demonstrations as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement, there's another context to consider: the politics of memory.

In the last several weeks, Equality Forum has been criticized by various commentators for failing to recognize earlier gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights protests and for ignoring the longer history of the U.S. homophile movement. There is much at stake in these debates, and it is far more than the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of Equality Forum's claims.

Debates about the past are always debates about the present. The effort to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Independence Hall demonstrations reflects an impulse to remember the protests of the past, but also to promote local gay tourism in the present. The anniversary celebrations are proud efforts to recognize Philadelphia's historical significance, but also defensive moves on the part of civic boosters who expose their insecurities when they challenge their better-known counterparts in New York City and California.

The desire to present the Fourth of July protests as the birthplace of the modern gay movement reflects commendable interest in history, but also troubling disinterest in the links between sexual protest and gender nonconformity that were more evident in incidents such as the Dewey's sit- in. The focus on patriotic protests at the birthplace of the nation reflects the politics of those who believe in fundamental U.S. values, but not the politics of those who see the United States as fundamentally unequal, undemocratic and unfree.

Finally, the selection of the Annual Reminder demonstrations as worthy of remembering reflects the tenacious activism of homophile leaders such as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, who 40 years later, continue to educate us about their importance, but contributes to historical amnesia about the evanescent actions of three teen-agers who initiated a sit-in at Dewey's more than two months before the first homophile pickets at Independence Hall.


This article was first published by the Philadelphia Gay News and is reprinted with permission of the author.