Explore LGBTQ history in Philly with a walking tour of 9 important sites

Pride month isnt the only time to recognize and celebrate LGBTQ history. Much can be learned on your feet, year round.

These nine sites are only a tiny sample of Philly’s rich legacy of fighting for LGBTQ equality, but they’re a good place to start. They’ll take you to the site of the county’s first trans and gay sit-in in 1965, a mural marking the country’s first annual LGBTQ demonstrations (before Stonewall), and even a traffic sign designed to curb gay cruising.

Put on your comfy shoes: This walking tour will take you through 100 years of history in a single afternoon.

21st Street & Delancey Street

In the 1960s and 1970s, Rittenhouse Square was the center of gay life in Philadelphia, and the first Pride march in Philly started at Rittenhouse Square and ended at Independence Hall. Gradual, as gentrification set in, “one by one, bars started to close West of Broad St.,” says Bob Skiba, curator of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives at the William Way Center. Rittenhouse Square was also a popular cruising spot for gay men, and Delancey Street was known as the “Merry-go-round.” “Men would drive around in circles, and they would sit on the stoops, and it was to meet other men after the bars closed,” says Skiba. In 1974, then-mayor Frank Rizzo put up traffic signs like this one in an effort to crack down on cruising by making it harder to drive through the streets. The signs were not popular with some residents, and even drew criticism from people inside the city government, “It’s kind of stretching it,” then-deputy streets commissioner John Scruggs told the Inquirer, “to think you can regulate human behavior with a traffic sign.”

Walk north on 21st Street to Locust Street

21st Street & Locust Street

Barbara Gittings played a huge role in LGBTQ history in Philadelphia. Gittings lived at 241 S. 21st St. with her partner Kay Tobin Lahusen, an openly lesbian photojournalist and documentarian. Gittings was the editor of The Ladder, the nation’s first lesbian magazine, and the founder of the Philly chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the nation’s first lesbian organization, which started as a social and educational group. Gittings routinely spoke out against police raids in lesbian bars, and pushed the Philly DOB to be more radical than its national arm because “Philly women were not having it,” says Skiba. “They didn’t want to sit around and have tea.” In 1968, she helped start a new group called the Homophile Action League. Gittings was instrumental in organizing protests and demonstrations throughout the 1960s and 1970s, promoted positive LGBTQ literature in public libraries, and was part of the fight to change the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. In addition to this marker at her former home, a section of Locust St. in the heart of Gayborhood is named after her.

Walk east on Locust Street; walk through Rittenhouse Square, and turn left on 17th Street.

219 S. 17th St.

While many people think that the Stonewall riot was the event which kicked off the LGBTQ civil rights movement, this was the site of a critical protest several years before Stonewall. Taking its inspiration from lunch counter sit-in demonstrations against racism by Black civil rights protestors, Dewey’s was the site of the first transgender and gay sit-in in the country. On April 25, 1965, at Dewey’s, a chain lunch counter with a location here, was the site of a sit-in protest by three young people, because the restaurant refused to serve gender-nonconforming and gay patrons (including “’homosexuals, ‘ ‘masculine women,’ ‘feminine men,’ and ‘persons wearing non-conformist clothing.’”) The youths were arrested, along with prominent gay activist Clark Polak, for disorderly conduct. By the end of the next week, the Dewey’s management changed their policy so they would serve anyone.

Walk north to Walnut Street; turn right and continue to Broad Street; walk north to City Hall.

Outside City Hall, 1400 John F. Kennedy Blvd.

This marker commemorates LGBTQ activist and leader Gloria Casarez, who died in 2014. Casarez spent much of her life fighting for civil rights for queer, trans, Latinx, and homeless communities, among others. Casarez was the executive director of Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI), and the city’s first director of LGBT affairs under then-Mayor Michael Nutter from 2008 to 2014, where she fought for the LGBT Equality Bill, which passed in 2013. A mural on the side of the 12th Street Gym honoring Casarez was painted over and then torn down in 2020 after a fight to preserve it failed; this marker was installed in 2021, and is the first marker in the city commemorating a Latinx person. After she died, Nutter said “We all loved Gloria’s commitment and spirit. She was a fighter and a champion, personally and professionally.” While you’re here, take a look at City Hall, which raises LGBTQ flags several times a year, including in March for the Trans Day of Visibility, in April for the Philly Black Pride weekend, in June for Pride month, in July or August for the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference, in October for LGBTQ History Month, and in November for the Trans Day of Remembrance.

Walk north to Arch Street; turn right and continue to N. 13th Street; turn right and walk south.

13th Street near Filbert & Arch Streets

While none of the original places remain, between the 1950s and the 1980s, this area was once called “North of Market” and was one of the centers of Black LGBTQ public life in Philly. Faced with racism in white gay establishments, many in the Black queer community would congregate in Black straight bars and jazz clubs in this area, as well as gay bars including Ritz, Track 7, Pentony’s, and Smart Place. Other key sites for social gatherings and organizing were within private homes and other discreet locations, since, historically, the Black queer community had to improvise to maintain safety. According to Philadelphia Pride festival organizer Dennis Maurice Dumpson, North of Market bars were not just for drinking, but for being seen and valued for who you were. Many Black queer sites have been destroyed and replaced by the likes of the Marriott and Convention Center, and excluded from official recognition by historical markers. “That tells a story in itself. People of color don’t get acknowledged in historical markers,” says Skiba. There are no historical markers of Black queer history in Philly.

Continue south along 13th Street to Walnut Street.

S. 13th Street, between Walnut & Locust Streets

13th Street is one of the main streets of Philly’s Gayborhood, full of lively restaurants and bars. While its rainbow-decorated street signs make it one of the most visible homes of Philly’s LGBTQ community, the area has also struggled with inclusion, including a legacy of racism and gender discrimination at primarily white gay establishments, and a 2016 complaint to the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission. However, the neighborhood has continued to evolve, and now includes Black- and South Asian-owned clubs among its nightlife options (Level Up Bar and Lounge at 1330 Walnut St., and Cockatoo at 208 S. 13th St., respectively). Walk along the block, and you’ll also see markers commemorating The Philadelphia Gay News, the area’s largest and oldest LGBTQ publication; John Fryer, a Temple professor whose testimony before the American Psychiatric Association helped declassify homosexuality as a mental illness; Barbara Gittings, for whom a section of Locust Street at 12th and 13th St. is named; and the AIDS Library, which in 1987 became the first library of its kind disseminating information about the AIDS epidemic.

Turn left on Locust Street, then right on Camac Street.

243 S. Camac St.

Nestled on a popular block of Camac, a street known in the 1920s as “Philly’s Greenwich Village,” the Tavern on Camac is thought by some to be the oldest continuously operating LGBTQ bar in Philadelphia, though it didn’t always operate under the same name (it was a speakeasy called Maxine’s in the 1920s and Raffles in the 1980s). Now, the bar contains a restaurant, piano bar, and nightclub.

Turn left on Spruce Street, then right on 12th Street until you reach Pine Street.

345 S. 12th St.

Named for the James Baldwin novel, Giovanni’s Room is the oldest continuously operating LGBTQ and feminist bookstore in the country, founded in 1973, the same year homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness. At a time when most of the area’s culture was its nightlife, Giovanni’s Room was the first institution in the Gayborhood that was open during the day and was kid-friendly; a “respectable” institution that anybody could go to. It boldly asserted itself into day time Center City, and as a result, windows were sometimes vandalized. “It had these windows that you could see from multiple angles and you could see who was inside you could see imagery of queer people kissing on a book cover, for example,” says Rebecca Fisher, cofounder of Beyond the Bell tours. Its legacy continues as part of Philly AIDS Thrift, which raises funds for AIDS organizations in the city.

Walk back up 12th Street to Spruce Street; turn left and continue until just before Juniper Street.

1315 Spruce St.

This LGBTQ community center takes care of queer people in many phases of life. It provides help for sobriety, elder care, as well as counseling. Many of its services are free. The center’s lobby has a living room vibe where people can have a place to hang out, and feel at home. The center shares this role as a safe space with other LGBTQ community organizations in the city, including COLOURS and GALAEI, which support Black, and Latinx/QTBIPOC people, respectively. The center is also home to one of the largest LGBTQ archives in the country. It was named after city planner and LGBTQ activist William “Bill” Way, his work and support for the community center throughout the 1980s. In 2024, the center will celebrate its 50th anniversary, making it one of the oldest queer community spaces in the country. On the center’s west wall, you can see the mural “Pride and Progress,” (2003) by Ann Northrup. The mural depicts a Pride festival. On the left hand, you can see archival images of the “Annual Reminder,” the first organized, regularly occurring protests for LGBTQ rights in the US, held in front of Independence Hall from 1965 to 1969, before Stonewall. “That’s where the Constitution was drawn up. So people knew it was the perfect place to talk about rights in America, who gets them and who doesn’t,” says Skiba.


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