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.