I want to tell you all about the Dewey’s Lunch Counter Sit-Ins. This protest was the first known LGBT protest in Philadelphia (though only by a few months, as the Annual Reminders would start soon after).
Dewey’s was a chain of hamburger restaurants that, in 1965, had two locations in Philadelphia. (I don’t think there’s any locations anymore — couldn’t compete with the Big Mac, I guess.) One of these was at 219 South Seventeenth St (which, I just checked Google, and there doesn’t seem to be anything there right now — except maybea parking garage?). That’s where this story unfolds.
Responding to a crowd of teenagers whose outfits were, let’s say, outside of typical gender norms and who were apparently behaving disruptively, Dewey’s management instructed their employees to deny them service. This order was interpreted broadly, and service was denied to anyone who appeared to be LGBT in any respect — but this was a local LGBTQ+ hangout, so that policy ended up leading to roughly 150 people being denied service in one day (April 25, 1965). Three of those people refused to leave — and thus the sit-in began. The Janus Society joined the teenagers with their sit-in at Dewey’s. The police arrived and arrested the three teenagers and Janus Society president Clarke Polak.
These arrests, if anything, further incensed the Janus Society. They proceeded to demonstrate outside of the restaurant, and handed out over 1,500 leaflets throughout the next five days. They staged a second sit-in on May 2, and although the police were called no one was arrested this time. Following this, Dewey’s put an end to it’s discriminatory policy.
The Dewey’s sit-in is particularly significant for what is, otherwise, a pretty small protest. First, it was successful in a pretty short amount of time. Especially as an early LGBT protest, that’s remarkable.
But this was also one of, if not the, first protest for LGBT equality in the United States. Earlier rallies, riots, and protests were mostly about police harassment and seeking access to legal protection. This was a new kind of protest, asking for something more than just safety, and it signaled the beginning of a new kind of LGBT activism led by the teenagers of the day. A much more radical, liberal philosophy emerged that demanded society change to accept people no matter how they defied gender norms. It’s still a struggle we’re having with society to this day, but the next time you’re sneaking a Baconator from Wendy’s just remember how far we’ve actually come. (And then when you’ve finished eating, remember how far we have left to go!)
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)
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