This Sunday marks the 56th anniversary of the Dewey Lunch Counter Sit-Ins. An infamous moment in queer history when gender-diverse youth challenged their exclusion from an American Diner. Four years before Stonewall and the formal Gay Rights Movement broke into mainstream consciousness, queer revolutionaries were already preparing for battle. From the formation of the Janus Society to the distribution of Drum Magazine, queer culture thrived in Philadelphia. Today we’re heading to the “City of Brotherly Love'', to discuss a place rich in all history, but especially LGBTQ+ history.
The state of Pennsylvania has always been a battleground between radicals and conservatives. This dates back to the early days of colonization when William Penn bought some land in 1683 from the Indigenous Lenape Tribe, also known as the Delaware people. Penn’s relationship with the surrounding natives was amicable and even friendly and fair as the two groups traded their assets with one another. But when the elder leader’s health began to fail, his sons quickly moved to cheat the Natives of their land. Penn’s death in 1718 opened the Lenape people to two centuries of broken treaties, withering violence, and several kidnappings and forced removals. Though the tribe held their own for some time, and valiantly fought back, as more colonizers arrived in the supposed “New World'' eventually the Lenape were outnumbered and removed from their land permanently.
Still, for nearly 50 years, the people of Pennsylvania had established a foundation of reform. Penn’s colony defied the laws and traditions of other groups, allowing for religious tolerance and fair trade with the Natives. It even boasts today of having the first formal declaration against slavery in America, though nothing ever came of the 1688 petition to end slavery. Yet it was this spirit of resistance and tolerance that infused itself into the area’s core and gave birth to the city of Philadelphia. Philly became a beacon on a frontier that was hundreds of miles from any other major city. Libraries, schools, and businesses sprang up, and when a young inventor named Ben Franklin showed up in 1723, he helped raise money to start the first hospital in the colonies. Science and religion seemed to work together, hand in hand in this odd city that was so different than her siblings.
Throughout the centuries, Philly continued to a bastion of hope in dark times. It was in this city that the flames of the American revolution were fanned. And later, it was here that the abolition movement took root and gave a platform to Black leaders within the movement’s ranks. By 1890, Philadelphia would hold the largest Black population of any Northern U.S. city and more than 25% of the city was comprised of immigrants. Poor, working-class people flocked to what they still saw as a haven of liberty and tolerance, even as conditions in the city deteriorated due to capitalist greed. As is often the case, in these communities queer culture thrives. Like immigrants and people of color, LGBTQ+ folks have found comfort in spaces where they don’t suffer under harsh, individual scrutiny. They band together to survive and to fight back against their oppressors. Unfortunately, their lives are difficult and resources are often cut off from these areas because of the populations that inhabit them. Yet still, our communities find a way to fight another day.
DEVELOPING THE GAYBORHOOD
By the 1930s, Philly was a hotbed of queer activity with a thriving underground. In “Center City”, LGBTQ+ folks were drawn to the art, fashion, and the entire subculture of the larger downtown area. So many queer men settled in the apartment complex’s on Spruce Street that the term “Spruce Street Boy” became a Philadelphian euphemism for gay. During this time, “Dewey’s Restaurant” opened its first diner about 60 miles outside of the city. Within a few years, the restaurant had expanded into a chain and two Dewey’s Restaurants were established in Philadelphia. One sat on 217 Seventeenth street, and one sat at 208 Thirteenth street in the heart of Center City. The popular diner, along with several other coffee shops and jazz joints in Rittenhouse square became favorites of the Philadelphia queers.
One reason many LGBTQ+ folks preferred coffee houses and diners to the bars and clubs, was due to the latter’s increased mob dominance and continuous police raids. The more Center City became known for its queer sub-culture, the more police searched for targets for their violence. And just like it was in New York and other cities, in order to gain protection, LGBTQ+ business owners were forced to make deals with the mob, who were only slightly less aggressive than the police. By 1960, most of downtown was caught in a war between organized crime and law enforcement, with plenty of corruption and overlap between the two parties. Bearing the brunt of the violence were queer folks and people of color. City Commissioner Frank Rizzo made a coordinated strike against drug dealers, sex workers, and homosexuals. A trifecta he simply deemed “the undesirables”. Over the next 20 years, raids on gay bars and queer spaces would reach their peak in police harassment.
In response to the increased violence, some LGBTQ+ people came together in 1961 with the original intention of forming a chapter of the Mattachine Society. Mattachine was the second gay rights group formed in the United States and had been around for a decade by this point. Unfortunately, the group was heading into a downward spiral due to internal conflicts and increased pressure from state and federal authorities. When the Philadelphia chapter submitted to become members, their application was rejected based on liability issues. All across the U.S. chapters were shutting down or fracturing off into their own organizations. So the queer Philadelphians decided to move forward on their own and formed The Janus Society of Delaware, later renamed The Janus Society of America. *Not to be confused with the Society of Janus, an early BDSM organization founded in the U.S.* The LGBTQ+ group took their name from the Roman god Janus who was known as the god of transitions, reigning over both the beginning and the end of conflicts and changes. His image is two faces back to back, like bookends, with one representing the past and the other the future.
THE JANUS SOCIETY
Having their name confirmed, the Janus Society worked to improve conditions in their city as best as possible. They received a boost of awareness from the popular magazine Greater Philadelphia in 1962 when the outlet ran a piece on the legal disparities gay Philadelphians faced. That same year, the Janus Society joined the ECHO coalition (East Coast Homophile Organizations), and in 1963 they hosted the first ECHO conference. The conference drew members from LGBTQ groups across the States including the New York and Washington chapters of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Frank Kameny, possibly the most well-known gay man in America at this time, spoke at the convention and would return to Philadelphia regularly to give lectures and help the struggling organization.
Kameny, like most of the groups in the ECHO coalition, ran things on a platform of respectability. This strategy was presented as a way of appealing to white, straight, middle, and upper-class Americans. Women were encouraged to dress in feminine attire and men were instructed to embrace a masculine persona. In some groups, such as the Daughters of Bilitis, members were even asked to leave an event or meeting if their attire or mannerisms did not fit their assigned, binary, gender role. This form of uplift suasion has been used in minority groups forever, the belief that marginalized people should prove their worthiness rather than simply claiming it. Unfortunately, this excluded many in the queer community while imposing racist restrictions and completely erasing anyone who didn’t fit into the binary system.
It is exactly this type of thinking that separates the Gay Rights Movement from Queer Liberation and it dates all the way back to the earliest groups and gatherings. The Janus Society was no exception to this rule; however, they would eventually become one of the first formal organizations to break away from the pattern of conformity and assimilation. One of the first steps in their own transformation was the introduction of a new leader, Clark Polak. Polak was a gay Jew and unabashed about his sexuality, a direct contrast to Kameny and other leaders of the day. In 1964, Clark took the small Janus newsletter and turned it into a national magazine. Drum magazine was named after a line in a Walden, the famous book by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears the beat of a different drummer.”
The magazine was an instant success, partly because it shed the shame being shrouded around the queer community while also addressing real, and relevant issues of the day. Polak talked openly about sex, published male frontal nudity, and printed the first gay comic strip “Harry Chess: The Man from A.U.N.T.I.E.” a spoof on the popular spy television show called “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”. Within two years the magazine would become the most popular LGBTQ periodical in the States. The publication gained a regular stream of revenue for Janus and put the organization on the national stage. While we cannot be certain of how the following events would have unfolded had Polak not been the leader of Janus, it is doubtful that the resistance at Dewey’s Restaurant would have birthed a new age of protest in Philadelphia.
DEWEY'S SIT IN
Just like the gay and lesbian leaders of the time, Dewey’s Restaurant also believed in upholding a level of respectability in its establishment. And like the gay leaders, this also meant excluding trans and gender-diverse individuals from their space. For many years the diner had continued to welcome queer folks into their establishment, even as other local eateries posted signs in their windows banning LGBTQ folks from entering. But in early 1965 this began to change as the restaurant management instructed staff to deny service to unruly bans of gender diverse teenagers. Staff then took the ban to further lengths and began denying service to anyone they deemed as queer Their standards included; “homosexuals,” “masculine women,” “feminine men,” nor “persons wearing non-conformist clothing.” Frustrated at this sudden change, a few teens reached out to the Janus Society for support.
On April 25th, more than 150 LGBTQ people and their allies descended on Deweys to demand service. What was unique about the protest was the deliberate refusal to conform to so-called respectable standards. Once again, the Janus Society shrugged off their imposed roles and embraced their true identities. The reformers showed up and presented themselves to the restaurant in their truest form. They were denied service. Clark and a few others were arrested for disorderly conduct. Dewey’s thought they had won but the next day protesters showed up again. And the next day, and the day following that; for 7 days people continued to show up, demanding service. During this time, the Janus Society printed more than 1,500 flyers and circulated them in the area. On May 2nd another group marched to the diner and demanded to be seated. This time there were no arrests and shortly after, Dewey’s ended its ban on queer customers.
Blogger Alex Frye writes of the incident, “It [the sit-in] was a stark rejection of the prior stance of other homophile organizations, such as Mattachine, that had built up its reputation on appearing “presentable” and “employable." The support of the Janus Society for those who dressed in a non-conformist manner, such as masculine women and feminine men, preempted this division that would continue throughout the homophile movement.” Frye’s words sum up the importance of the sit-ins. From that point on, The Janus Society was seen as a rebel by the mainstream Gay Rights Movement. But the victory was a large win for LGBTQ+ people as a whole and sparked a wave of open activism in Philadelphia. That summer, the first annual July 4th, Reminder protests began and ran for the next five years. Like other marginalized groups, such as Black civil rights protesters, July 4th served as a reminder that all Americans were not in fact equal.
However, the Society itself did not have much longer to live. In 1967, Clark Polak’s home was raided and he was arrested on obscenity charges for having books on gay issues and pictures of naked men. The judge threw out the case because of an improper warrant. Yet 23 months later, Clark was again arrested for publishing obscene materials and running a peep show. He was sentenced to 2 years in prison but was paroled after 2 months. Feeling the heat of Philadelphia was too great, Polak closed down the magazine and headed to the west coast. He would die by suicide a decade later at the age of 43. In his absence, The Janus Society folded and ended its reign just a few months before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. But the queer revolution was not dead in the City nor has it yet been extinguished since the first flames of resistance in the early 1960s.
Today, Dewey’s is no longer there, but you can visit Philly’s beautiful Gayborhood in the heart of Center City. It’s easy to find as the street signs and crosswalks bear rainbow markers. There’s even an LGBTQ+ History tour available for those interested in exploring the cities rich queer roots. And the HRC has awarded Philadelphia 100 out of 100 points for inclusion and diversity in laws, policies, and services”. Your recommended resources are “Out in Central Pennsylvania (The History of an LGBTQ Community)” by William Burton and Barry Loveland. Or check out the podcast “Category Is..” hosted by two Black, queer Philadelphians.
- The Deviants War: The Homosexual vs The United States of America by Eric Cervini
- The Roots of the Gayborhood by Bob Skiba
- Philadelphia Encyclopedia
- Janus Society on encyclopedia.org
- Unspeakable; The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America by Roger Streitmatter
- Dewey’s Protest - Out Magazine
- Dewey’s Protest - Alex Frye