Philadelphia, PA

Beyond the Bell Tours, Philly’s tour group focused on marginalized communities, is back

Nick Fiorellini

Beyond the Bell Tours was forced to shut down their in-person tours during their pandemic. They’re back — and ready to share the city’s diverse history with the world.
Joey Leroux, co-founder of Beyond the Bell, giving a tour.Beyond the Bell Tours

PHILADELPHIA, PA — You’ll stand facing the western wall of the William Way LGBT Center and observe Ann Northrup’s mural Pride & Progress, illustrating the evolution of Pride from protest to parade. Here, you’ll learn about queer rights icon Barbara Gittings, who was one of the first LGBTQ people in Philadelphia to connect the idea of a gay identity to a civil rights issue.

Next, you’ll learn about Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture school. Kuromiya, who served as an openly gay delegate to the Black Panther Convention, was an ardent advocate who fought for both LGBTQ causes and racial justice.

Before you depart, you’ll be reminded of the drag protest held in 2010 at Suburban Station, which successfully sought to remove the gender markers on SEPTA’s weekly and monthly TransPasses after transgender riders reported SEPTA employees harassing and confiscating their passes because of disputes over their cards’ marker.

Joey Leroux tells NewsBreak that these are some of the stops and the history that you can visit and learn about right now while strolling through Center City with Beyond the Bell Tours. Founded in May 2018 by Leroux and Rebecca Fisher, Beyond the Bell chronicles the stories of marginalized communities that are often left out of mainstream tourism.

But, like many businesses across the country, Beyond the Bell was forced to pivot their in-person operations online once lockdown orders were put in place back in March 2020. Instead of tours outside on the streets of Philadelphia, they posted and streamed educational content on Zoom and their social media. Last year during Pride, they also hosted virtual drag shows and sold boxes filled with goods from local LGBTQ businesses.

It wasn’t the same.

“[The pandemic] was completely horrible and a disaster for us,” recalls Leroux. “I like to call us last responders. We only talk about people after they’ve died. We were not going to be doing tours anytime soon once COVID started happening.”

Leroux also notes that the shift from in-person to digital content was difficult because “how could you compete with Netflix?”

While on June 11th Beyond the Bell began offering all three of their core public tours — Beyond the (Liberty) Bell, Badass Women’s History, and Gayborhood Tours — in-person, their absence beforehand was felt most by the people and communities the tourism company worked to tell their stories.
Rebecca Fisher conducting a "Badass Women's History" tour.Beyond the Bell Tours/Facebook

As the birthplace of the country, Philadelphia has a lot of history it can share with the world. At historic sites like the Liberty Bell and Elfreth’s Alley, tour guides will recount the events and tales that occurred at these places while glossing over topics of race, gender, and sexuality - despite their deep physical and metaphorical connections with slavery and residents who weren’t straight, cisgender, or gender conforming.

For decades, residents and historians have criticized the city and its historical institutions for not doing a better job preserving and telling its history. Fueled by a construction boom razing older buildings and blight threatening historic properties, these concerns have heightened over recent years.

While the content of each tour can slightly vary, Beyond the Bell makes a conscious decision to center their tours’ content on women, people of color, and LGBTQ people that have made Philadelphia and the country the place it is today. It’s this emphasis on marginalized groups, according to Leroux, that makes them stand out.

“As tour guides, we've always been asking ourselves what feels like the most urgent story to tell,” says Leroux. “During each tour, every guide has to choose which stories to tell and not to tell because there’s too many stories of the city. And so obviously, every tour is different, and every guide makes these choices.”

Last January, this concern over how to tell the city's history became real for Beyond the Bell, when the former site of the 12th Street Gym, a location often visited on LGBTQ-focused tours that had connections to the Underground Railroad and was adorned with a mural of the late LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez, was controversially demolished in the Gayborhood. It left Casarez without a single easily identifiable and permanent public memorial.

Like other important figures in Philadelphia who either didn’t live or have a current marker in Center City, Leroux says that he now has to find new ways to highlight the importance of Casarez’s work, like passing by City Hall and mentioning her work as Philadelphia's first director of Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender affairs. The difference is one of the unexpected ways the pandemic has changed how the company conducts its tours.

“I think that it's exciting to incorporate the changes into the tour, and it's definitely been a challenge to continue to talk about Gloria Casarez. But I definitely still like including the building where her mural was in tours now because it tells the story of how Philadelphia grapples with its own history and its historic preservation. And at this moment, that’s an open question,” Leroux says.

Have you been on a walking history tour with Beyond the Bell or any other tourism company in Philadelphia since the #reopening of the city? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. You can find information on how to book a walking history tour with Beyond the Bell here.

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Nick Fiorellini is a freelancer writer from the Philadelphia area.

Philadelphia, PA

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