Philadelphia, PA

How to learn about LGBTQ history in Philadelphia

Nick Fiorellini

Mainstream historians might gloss over LGBTQ history — but it’s still out there, and you can learn about it. NewsBreak spoke with an LGBTQ history expert on how you can learn about this history in Philadelphia.

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Philadelphia Pride flag flying on the streets of Philadelphia7beachbum/Flickr

PHILADELPHIA, PA — What events or places come to mind when you think of Philadelphia history? Most tour guides, historians, and educators might point to the Battle of Germantown, when Congress members signed the declaration of independence, or the Liberty Bell.

But Philadelphia’s history is much more diverse than that. From Quaker parties to coffee shops to raids and riots, the city’s history is filled with diverse events and traditions where LGBTQ people partied, protested, and paraded.

It’s important to learn about that history, claims Bob Skiba, who is a curator, writer, and public historian of LGBTQ history, because “you can’t move [progress] forward unless you know where you came from”. 

Skiba believes this is especially true for younger LGBTQ people who weren’t alive for these events — or need reassurance that there are older members of the community who are willing to support and fight for their rights and safety.

And while many places and people working in mainstream history might lack LGBTQ knowledge and content, he believes you, too, can learn about LGBTQ history in Philadelphia. Speaking with NewsBreak, here are some tips and resources that Skiba recommends:

  1. Reach out to the William Way LGBT Community Center.

Philadelphia is lucky to have one of the largest and most comprehensive LGBTQ community centers in the country. Originally founded in 1974 as the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia, the William Way LGBT Community Center offers a plethora of resources, from an extensive library and archives to peer counseling and other support programs.

“[Our archives] are a great place to start for local history because often there are stories that don't appear anywhere else, and we're the only ones telling them. Everyone knows when Stonewall happened; everyone knows when marriage equality passed. But not everyone knows what went on locally to contribute to the national story,” says Skiba, who works at the Center’s John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives as a curator.

2. Go on a public history walk.

While many walking history tours in the city ignore or gloss over LGBTQ history, a couple of them focus exclusively on this history. Skiba gives tours of the Gayborhood (you can reach him here), as well as Beyond the Bell Tours, which focus on telling the stories of various marginalized communities in Philadelphia.

3. Find trusted online sources and read a book.

Back when historian Marc Stein was completing his Ph.D. in history during the 1990’s at the University of Pennsylvania, he conducted dozens of oral histories for his thesis on LGBTQ history in Philadelphia. Those oral histories would also later become the foundation for his book City Of Sisterly And Brotherly Loves: Lesbian And Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972, which is the only extensive scholarly text exclusively documenting LGBTQ life in Philadelphia.

While not all of the oral histories Stein presented in his book are publicly available, many are available to read and review here on the Out History website.

Other online resources include The Philadelphia LGBT Mapping Project and The Philly Queer Spaces Project, which celebrate, document, and explore the diverse histories, material culture and narratives of the city’s queer spaces. Skiba founded the former in 2016; the latter was launched this year, with Skiba as one of the collaborators.

4. Talk to queer and transgender elders.

There’s no greater way to learn about the past than to speak with those who lived through it.

Before the pandemic, many cities, including Philadelphia, held SAGE Tables, which were meals younger and older LGBTQ people would have together to exchange stories and life experiences. SAGE, the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ older people, sponsored the events. The pandemic may be putting similar gatherings like these on hold for a while, but you can still reach out to your local SAGE chapter here to see how you can connect with LGBTQ people from another generation.

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Nick Fiorellini is a freelancer writer from the Philadelphia area.

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