How the Dewey’s Restaurant sit-ins helped lift Philadelphia’s LGBTQ activists

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On April 25, 1965, the first of two sit-ins took place at Dewey’s Restaurant at 219 S 17th Street in Philadelphia. That day, inspired by sit-ins in the segregated South by civil rights activists, LGBTQ activists sat down to protest the establishment’s refusal to serve Clark Polak, one of the protesters and president of the Janus Society, a homophilic organization based in Philadelphia. , describes “a large number of homosexuals and people wearing non-conformist clothing”.

Dewey’s was a small chain of local restaurants that started in the mid-1950s and was open all night. Naturally, it drew a colorful crowd in the early hours of the morning – and the location near Rittenhouse Square became a hangout for the local LGBTQ community in the mid-1960s due to its proximity to local bars.

“At two or three in the morning, you found prostitutes, you found drag queens, you found everyone,” recalls Joan Fleishmann, a member of the Philadelphia Mattachine and Janus societies. Fleishmann even met Liberace at Dewey’s one night. The crowd was racially diverse, known as a good place to warm up with a cup of coffee, or maybe meet some people.

But in the spring of 1965, Dewey’s began refusing to serve people because of their sexuality or gender identity. In a 1993 oral history, resident Bill Brinsfield recalled a “vulgar” sign stating their new policy.

According to various records, on April 25, three teenagers of different genders, whose names are lost to history, refused to leave when they, and reports of up to 150 people – black, white, trans, gay – were refused service. Clark Polak rushed to the scene to offer his help and the four were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

In response, the community revitalized. Over the next week Janus Society activists distributed 1,500 leaflets and met with local authorities and restaurant representatives, while others demonstrated against Dewey’s homophobic policies.

A second sit-in will be organized a week later, but this time the local police will leave the activists alone. Soon after, Dewey would reform his policies. Victory was proclaimed.

Historians consider the Dewey sit-ins for LGBTQ rights to be the first of their kind, applying the tactics of the civil rights movements to their cause. Activists made headlines in 1960 when North Carolina students refused to leave a “whites-only” Woolworths counter, prompting hundreds of black and white students to join them, and launched protests. similar sit-ins in the segregated south. Their courageous work would force desegregation and federal policy change and inspire the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – although compliance enforcement was spotty in the 1960s.

Restaurants were often the choice for sit-ins, which accompanied resistance to integration, whether racial, sexual or gender-expressing. Eating was considered such an “intimate” act, as race and food studies scholar Angela Jill Cooley writes in her book, Live and Dine in Dixiewhite supremacists feared that meals would lead to “even more intimate interactions”.

“There’s something deeply personal about the places we eat — they’re also markers of identity and shared community,” says Philadelphia native Garret Broad, associate professor at Fordham University and author of More Than Food: Food Justice and Community Change. He says restaurants are becoming hotbeds of discrimination and activism. “It’s a bold statement to say ‘no, you shouldn’t be revolted by me – we’re human,'” he says.

» READ MORE: Take our walking tour of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ history

What makes food a particularly powerful place of discrimination is also what allows political and social change to be fomented there. Coming together over a meal sows equity and peace, and sharing food can bridge cultural differences. Being able to share a place to eat “is a commentary on shared humanity,” says Broad.

Gabrielle Lenart, Philadelphia-area native, activist and founding member of the Community Self-Help Project Queer Food Foundation, also notes the long history of “common places like restaurants that are not considered safe places” for members of the queer community, who have often been forced to congregate in private. Lenart says that “the easiest way [to marginalize] any historically excluded group or minority [is through food].” The Dewey’s Restaurant sit-ins were a time when this marginalized group sought to claim their identity in a public space.

The legacy of the activists who participated in those sit-ins can still be seen today in the food industry – and beyond. Lenart says there has been a resurgence of LGBTQIA+ communities – “chefs, media pundits, farmhands, sommeliers – anyone who works in the food industry puts their identity in what they do”.

It’s only in the past 25 years, Lenart notes, that queer people have been recognized in popular media. Lenart, who has researched the representation of queer people in food media, points out that there is still an erasure of stories of black and trans food activists, among other marginalized identities.

A memento of Dewey’s Restaurant sit-in participants helps illustrate the contributions of these diverse queer activists.

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