Monica Roberts

The 1965 Dewey's Lunch Counter Sit-In's

Filed By Monica Roberts | February 02, 2008 12:02 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: African-American, Black History Month, LGBT history, Monica Roberts, SGL community, transgender

When I first read about this event in Marc Stein's book, City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 I shared it with my TransGriot readers. It's the first documented instance of people protesting over anti-transgender discrimination.

The interesting aspect of this campaign is not that it happened during the height of the 1960's Civil Rights movement. It was an African-American GLBT production.

Dewey's Lunch Counter was a popular downtown hangout spot for African-American GLBT peeps in Philadelphia. While the owners loved the money they were receiving from our young people, they didn't care for the GLBT peeps congregating there.

Citing the claim that gay customers were driving away other business, Dewey's began refusing to serve young patrons dressed in what they called 'non-conformist clothing.'

On April 25 more than 150 kids dressed in 'non-conformist clothing' showed up at Dewey's in protest and were turned away by Dewey's personnel. Three teenagers (two male, one female) refused to leave after being denied service. The Philadelphia police were callled and those teenagers were arrested along with the African-American gay activist who was advising them of their legal rights. The four people were charged and later found guilty of misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Incensed over what had transpired, over the next week members of the Philadelphia African-American GLBT community and Dewey's patrons set up an informational picket line outside the establishment decrying the treatment of the transgender youth.

On May 2 another sit in was staged. Police were called to the establishment once again, but this time there were no arrests. Dewey's management then backed down and promised 'an immediate cessation of all indiscriminate denials of service.'

The Janus Society, one of the gay and lesbian advocacy organizations in existence at the time, said this in celebration of the Dewey's events in its newsletter.

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 are looked down upon...but the Janus Society is concerned with the worth of the 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 to some persons tomorrow, there is no reason to penalize non-conformist behaviour unless their is direct anti-social behaviour connected with it.

I knew that African-American transgender activism wasn't a new phenomenon and it goes back to the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Thanks to Marc Stein's book, having documentation of an event that took place four years earlier and was organized and conducted successfully by African-American SGL people brought tears to my eyes.

It is deeply gratifying to know that as an African-American transgender activist , I'm a link in a chain that goes back to the mid-60s and possibly earlier than that.

It also emphatically says, this is my GLBT movement, too.

[Editor's note:] This post is part of a series celebrating Black History Month and the Black LGBT experience.


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Monica: All too often we forget about the contribution of the African-American LGBT community in our struggle for even basic human rights.
I was thrilled to meet someone from this community at the Southern Comfort Conference last year who was at Stonewall for the police riot there.
For some who say that we haven't paid our dues yet, I have to wonder if the others in the G, L, and B community would be so far now if it weren't for the efforts of these courageous "peeps," as you say, who were willing to stand up and just say, "Enough!"
With enlightening articles like this, they will learn.
Thank you!

From your picture you aren't old enough to have been there but the man who offered to get legal help and was arrested was the Janus President, Clark Polak
( http://gayhistory.wikispaces.com/Polak,+Clark?f=print ). He wasn't African American. The quote you have is from the old Janus newsletter. I still have a copy along with the flyer that was handed out. It was covered in the old Drum magazine too - there's a few photographs in that article. You can see it wasn't primarily an African American protest from the photos & talking to those who were there. Though I'm sure it was inspired by other lunch counter protests that were primarily African American.

Dewey's had several locations and gays - and always drag queens - hung out there. Usually late night - they were open all night. They wanted gay people to use the one on 13th Street only and kicked people out. The protest wasn't just one day - it was over 5 days - my old newsletter says 1500 of the flyers were handed out and it was on the local television.

Thanks so much, Monica, for helping us reclaim a piece of our history. I completely agree that educating both our own LGBT community and the broader public about where we've been as trans people is crucial to building on the victories of those who went before us.

Thanks for adding extra info, Tom. Welcome to the Project! Were you there? If so, tell us more about it!

One thing I noticed was missing though (or else I missed it...) What year was this? It just said April 25th.

Okay - Geez. Sometimes I amaze myself...

1965. It's in the title. Ugh.

*smacks self in forehead*

Tom,
Dr. Susan Stryker and Marc Stein say otherwise.

And what you posted is an example of the 'whitewashing' of GLBT history. Here's an event that was predominately a FUBU production, that predated the Compton Cafeteria Riot by a year and Stonewall by 4. and here cone the comments that, "the advisor was white." etc.

It's the same modus operandi that changed the Stonewall Riots from a transgender and peeps of color event to having literally no mention of people of color participating in Stonewall.

If you want African-American partipation in the GLBT movement, you have got to have concrete examples of our participation in it so we feel we have a satke in it as well.



Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 2, 2008 12:51 PM

Monica, thanks for sharing this story! I'm not well read on our history and I'd never heard of the incident.

Tom, go back and re-read the entry: Monica never said that she was there. And while the question of whether or not the arrested legal advisor was white or African-American is an important historical detail, it doesn't change the fact that Dewey's was a hangout for African-American LGBT kids, the protest was influenced and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, and African-American LGBT folks played a prominent role in it.

I agree with Monica: the way you jumped in and tried to contradict those facts is indicative of a dynamic that is far too prevalent, namely, the erasure by whites of African-Americans, LGBT folks, Native-Americans, women, progressives and other minorities from history.

At the same time, this article goes too far in the other direction, not only by erasing or dismissing the involvement of non-African-American persons, but also by defining "drag queens" and butch lesbians as necessarily Transgender.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 2, 2008 7:42 PM

defining "drag queens" and butch lesbians as necessarily Transgender.

Excuse me, Timothy? I've got news for you, they ARE transgender.

Whooo! Go diverse community organizing!

Thanks, Monica!

Chris Bartlett | January 13, 2009 6:50 PM

Dear friends,

First of all Monica thanks for posting this important piece of LGBT history. It is a huge service to all of us.

I want to mention, however, as a long-time Philadelphia activist, that Clark Polak, the advisor mentioned in your article above, was not African-American. It just isn't so.

I mention this not to white-wash history, because there were African Americans there and at Dewey's in general, and they are a proud part of our LGBT history in Philadelphia. I mention it because Clark Polak is an unsung hero in Philadelphia's gay history-- publisher of Drum, unabashed sex radical, and courageous confronter of the status quo. He was a natural ally to the trans people and people of color who were there that day. He took a stand when many others wouldn't.

I would agree that it is often the white people who end up in history-- because they often wrote the history in the past-- and Clark wrote a lot of history in his magazine. I will also not deny that Philadelphia has a long and shameful history, both in its LGBT communities and in the broader community, of overt racism that has made the stories of Black LGBT folks in this city invisible.

The answer is not to deny Polak's participation-- and willingness to both be arrested and defend the folks there-- but to interview those who were there to hear the stories of the black and trans folk who participated.

My friend Kevin Trimell Jones has started the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia and is doing that work of collecting the stories, photos, and artifacts of Black LGBT Philadelphia. I'll be sure to post the link to his website here when he has it up and running. I'll also ask him whether we can seek Dewey's stories from African American participants.

But I will say that it is also important to acknowledge allies-- those rare white people who do the right thing. Clark Polak was one of them, and he was run out of town by the District Attorney in Philadelphia because of his activism, moved to San Francisco, and ended up committing suicide in 1980.

Black LGBT history is never served by mistatements of fact-- especially since there are so many great examples of LGBT African Americans who have been courageous leaders of our movement, from Bayard Rustin to Mandy Carter. There is no need to falsely claim Clark Polak as African American in Philadelphia when we can tell the stories of Tyrone Smith, Essex Hemphill, Anita Cornwell, Becky Birtha, Elizabeth Terry, Joe Beam and numerous others black LGBTs who have been crucial leaders in Philadelphia's LGBT history.


The link to the pertinent section of Mark Stein's book is here.

In solidarity and with appreciation,

Chris Bartlett

Chris,
I find it hilarious that you wish for me in this article that brings to light an all FUNU production of GLBT history, and now you want to in the name of 'historical accuracy' want tpo claim that a white person was 'an advisor'.

Did white gays like yourself concerned about 'historical accuracy' when Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major and the other transwomen who kicked off the Stonewall Riots weren't given their full credit?

This is the insidious nature of whitewashing history' and how it has erased POC participation in building the GLBT movement. First it's a 'white advisor', then next it will be claims 'The Janus Society helped plan it', then 20 years from now well be hearing this revisionist story about the Dewey Lunch Counter Sit In Protest that will have no African Americans in it.

Nope..not today, not on this post.

sharkey jones | June 17, 2010 7:17 PM

playwright larry myers

has penned

"getting down at dewey's"
&
"Banquet at Compton's Cafeteria"

cross dressers or those who prefer attire of their
'opposite" sex are not neceassrily trans
at this point there were no names or jargon for these souls
God Bless them!

My investigations reveal a variety of ethnicities, races, orientations, vocations involved in the dewey s incident. Marsha johnson was a personal acquaintance and I did meet Sylvia Rivera. These 2 valiant individuals threw the initial bricks!Many I know were actually at Stonewall and
I would tend to agree that the trans community as well as people of color have been slighted!!!!As well as being a university professor of 3 decades & knowing many major African American dramatists,
I once was press agent for the Negro Ensemble Company. May God bless your Project. The fight has just begun!