One of the earliest victories for LGBT rights happened at this Philly diner

Pat Loeb
June 14, 2019 - 8:00 am
Dewey's at 17th and Chancellor in Philadelphia, c. 1965

John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Four years before the Stonewall riots, Philadelphia was the scene of what local historians believe was the first successful protest for LGBTQ rights.

Historian Marc Stein is shown with his book "The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History."
Andrew Kramer/KYW Newsradio
On April 25, 1965, protesters staged a sit-in at an all-night hamburger restaurant called Dewey's, demanding service for gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming people.

Like many of the early demonstrations, the exact participants are unknown, their first-hand accounts lost to time. But their impact, argues historian Marc Stein, can be seen in everything that came after.

"I think it was changing the climate of opinion in the gay community," Stein says. "People saw other people who were willing to stand up for their rights and be visible."

Dewey's had a chain of restaurants in the city, including one at 17th and Chancellor streets in Center City.

By day, it would have attracted the thin-tied, fedora-wearing businessman portrayed in the TV series "Mad Men," with the same attitudes toward same-sex attraction — either keeping their own proclivities a desperately held secret, or expressing open distaste.

But after the bars closed, Dewey's increasingly became a hang-out for young gay men, according to Bob Skiba, archivist for the William Way LGBT Community Center.

This was a new generation, more open than the previous, and influenced by the civil rights movement in the South.

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"One Sunday, they were a little bit rowdy," says Skiba, "and (Dewey's) started throwing people out. There were three people who were not doing anything but were not dressed 'gender appropriately,' was the excuse they use to ask them to leave. The description says it was a young girl and two young boys. They refused to leave. (Dewey's) called the police to arrest them."

Somebody also called Clark Polak, the president of the Janus Society, a very early gay rights advocacy organization. He sped over to offer legal representation for the three. All four got arrested.

Polak, who died in 1980, was the galvanizing force for what happened next, according to Malcolm Lazin of Equality Forum.

"Daily, after the first arrest, he and others were handing out leaflets," says Lazin. "It made it very uncomfortable for Dewey's. Dewey's started to lose some business. People just decided to go to other establishments rather than cross, essentially, a picket line."

The Janus Society, and early gay rights organization, distributed this leaflet during the protest at Dewey's.
John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives

One week after the first incident, Polak and others returned and occupied the Dewey's counter. They were refused service, but they refused to leave. The police were called again.

"The police were no longer willing to enforce or assist," Lazin says. "Dewey's decided to rescind its policy of not serving homosexuals or folks in non-conforming attire."

Dewey's eventually went out of business. The 17th and Chancellor restaurant became a popular late-night diner called Little Pete's. That was torn down two years ago to make way for a Hyatt hotel, but a nearby historic marker commemorates the incident.

Stein believes it was the first of some 30 protests around the country between 1965 and 1969, none of which had quite the impact, but all of which built the foundation, of Stonewall.

Historical marker at the former site of Dewey's
Tim McLaughlin/KYW Newsradio

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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."