For LGBT people of color, equality has been a multi-layered fight

Cherri Gregg
June 19, 2019 - 1:01 pm
1972 Philadelphia Gay Pride march

John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — While the Stonewall riots represented a shift in the gay liberation movement, people of color within the community also had to battle racism. Their LGBT identity, oftentimes, had to take a back seat.

Blackness vs. gayness

"Here in Philadelphia, we had our own things going on," says Tyrone Smith, 76. "We had our own clubs and stuff that we could go to, and drag queens would come, and you could dress in women's clothing and be respected. But it was in the Black neighborhoods. Remember, segregation was running rampant here in Philadelphia at the time."

In the '60s in Philadelphia, a movement was gaining steam. Every year from 1965 to 1969, the annual Reminder Day marches, drew more and more people demonstrating for fair treatment of gays and lesbians. But not everyone felt part of it.

Tyrone Smith
Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

Smith says he didn't call himself "gay" at the time. 

"We were people that were 'in the life.' ... That's how African-Americans identified themselves. And then through the years came the gay and lesbian movement. And that was real hard for me to struggle with, to get on board with that," he says.

The Stonewall riots in 1969 began to push activists into a more offensive posture.

"We thought that there might be a place at the table for us. We forgot that racism is in every fabric of America. Even in our gay and lesbian community," says Smith. "The gayness doesn't separate the racism. They talk about coming out the closet. Let's come out the closet with our segregation from one another."

Smith delicately avoids using a harsher term when he says, "We [were> Black and were being intercoursed over. But I have never separated my blackness from by gayness. It's just who I am."

He was born in North Carolina and moved to Philadelphia as a young child. Raised by his mother, he credits her love and that of her 11 sisters for instilling in him the courage to live life as a proud, gay man.

"They did not understand who I was, but they knew I was theirs," he says, "and I just had to be free. I just had to be me."

That freedom included dressing in both men's and women's clothing in public during the 1960s.

Tyrone Smith is shown wearing a wedding dress on the day he spoke vows to the love of his life.
Courtesy of Tyrone Smith

In fact, Smith got married wearing a white dress one of his aunts made for him, complete with full make-up.

"Yes, I had a veil," he says, looking at old photos. "I was hitting it!"

During their symbolic wedding, Smith recited vows to the love of his life, Frederick Vince Thompson. The couple stayed together for more than a decade.

"He loved me, and I loved him," he says of the late Thompson. "But he would have preferred that I was in the closet walking down the street, but that was not who I was."

Even though Smith says homophobia was part of the Black community, he chose his race over his gayness, many times- chosing to stay within his own North Philadelphia neighborhoods for years instead of mixing and mingling with the broader gay community.  He says the Stonewall riots had minimum impact on Black gay Philadelphia.

In the 1980s, he founded Unity, Inc., a group for and run by Black gay men.

"We wanted something of our own," says Smith.

He says it wasn't until later, during the AIDS epidemic, that the Black gay and white gay communities came together.

"We worked through our differences because there was a cause," he says. "I think a lot of us joined forces because we saw people who did not look like us going through the same thing we went through."

Gay liberation or Black Panthers

Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Brenda Clarke also says she didn't feel compelled to join the broader gay and lesbian liberation movement.

She says she never doubted that she loved women.

Although she says she felt safe being "out" in Philadelphia, she says her parents knew but seemed to be in denial. So in 1967 Clarke went to New York City for a weekend and did not return. She ended up moving to Harlem and was living there the day the Stonewall riots broke out.

"Rumor has it two drag queens started it," she says. "The cops kept harrassing them and what not, and they just got tired of it."

Clarke says the impact in Harlem, which was majority Black at the time, was minimal. 

At the time, she was passing as a man, working the street corners.

"I hustled in the streets. You know," she says, without adding specifics.

While the men's clothing was part of her gender identity, it also provided protection.

"You look like a dude, and you hanging out with dudes and what not," she says. "Some of us felt safer, like people were less likely to mess with us."

But rather than join the gay liberation movement, Clarke joined the Black Panthers. She says learning about her history was the most meaningful thing about the experience.

"You're Black first. Who you sleep with is who you sleep with," she says. "Who wants to be called a n-----?"

Clarke refused to date white women and stayed within Black communities. She says, like many other African-American people within the LGBT community at the time, they believed joining forces with the broader gay movement would end with Black folks being exploited and left in a worse position.

As time passed, Clarke missed home. She returned to Philadelphia where she gave birth to a son. Today she's a grandmother of three.

"I found out who I was in New York," says Clarke who is now in her 70s and is an expert in geneology. "And it had nothing to do with my sexuality."

Exclusion from the movement

Philadelphia writer and artist Cei Bell has also feared exploitation in an environment of mostly white, mostly gay activists.

"It was very difficult being a Black trangender person in the movement," she says.

She was only 14 years old when the Stonewall riots happened.

"I don't specifically remember hearing about it," she says.

Cei, as she prefers to be called, grew up in Center City until she was 11 and spent her adolescence living in West Oak Lane. From the very beginning, she says, it was impossible to deny her gender identiy.

"If you're extremely effeminate, everybody can see you are effeminate, it's not like you have a closet," she says.

Harassed and bullied during childhood and forced to visit a psychiatrist, Cei was seeking out opportunities to make change by age 16. She joined the Gay Activists Alliance in Philadelphia, one of the few options available for activism at the time.

"It was mostly male," she recalls. "There were some lesbians, but they were not encourged to be there. And they definitely did not want transgender people, drag queens or transsexuals."

Cei says she soon realized: "I'm a minority, within a minority, within a minority."

Searching for community and seeking to advocate for transgender people, she co-founded Radical Queens in 1973. The group was formed specifically to explore the intersection of sexual orientation and gender identity that left effeminate gay men and transgender women vulnerable to violence. Cei says the issue was largely ignored by the broader gay movement.

"They actively worked to keep transgender people out of groups, out of legislation," she says.

Detail of a scan of an article by Cei Bell in the Philadelphia Tribune.
Courtesy of Cei Bell

"You know something? A lot of people started this movement, and we are all part of it. ... And we all have a right to be part of this movement and to have a history in this movement."

So Cei worked to bring her cause to mainstream media, pushing news organizations including the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Tribune and the Inquirer to publish articles she wrote about violence against transgender women of color, homophobia, and the abuse of LGBT youth in foster care. Beginning in the early 1990s, she also publicly called out the broader gay community when it expressed public outrage over the murders of white gay men but ignored numerous brutal murders of transgengender women of color. 

"People didn't pay attention to it," she says.

When homosexuality could mean deportation

LGBT Cuban refugees
Courtesy of Ada Bello

Immigration status has been another barrier to full inclusion in the movement.

"Before I was aware of sex, I knew who I was attracted to," says Ada Bello.

Now in her 80s, Bello first immigrated to the United States from Cuba in the 1950s to attend college in the south. She later moved to Philadelphia in 1962. 

"Homosexuality was illegal," she says. "To get my green card, I had signed papers saying I would not commit any crimes."

Fearing deportation, Bello kept her sexual orientation a secret. She never even told her parents, who remained in Cuba. She used an alias when she join the Daughters of Bilitis, a social group formed as an alternative to lesbian bars.

"The police had the tendency of raiding them," says Bello. When Philadelphia police raided Rusty's in 1968 and arrested 12 women, she decided to become an activist.

Homophile Action League
John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives
She says the Philadelphia chapter soon broke off from the national Daughters of Bilitis organization and formed the Homophile Action League.

"We used to say action is our middle name," she says, laughing.

The group requested meetings with police, pushing for change. Bello says her immigration status meant she could only drive the "get-away-car." But she became a U.S. citizen in the late 1960s. So when Stonewall happened in 1969, the focus shifted.

"The attitude changed from 'We deserve to have equal rights' to 'We demand,'" she says.

Bello's work continued. Today she advocates for LGBT seniors who live in nursing homes.

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Fifty years after the uprising at Stonewall that marked a turning point in the fight for equality, KYW Newsradio examines the past, present, and future of the LGBTQ rights movement through voices from the Philadelphia region in the series "Stonewall Uprising 50th Anniversary."