1970s: GAY LIBERATION AND THE NEW LEFT

 Huey Newton

Huey Newton

In September of 1970, the Black Panther Party, led by Huey Newton, convened a Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: to "remake the United States." Present were Black Muslims, Women's Liberation, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Gay Liberation Front. Many gay, lesbian, and Trans radicals had participated in anti-war, feminist, and civil rights demonstrations, but were angered by the sexism and homophobia shown by the Panthers. Philadelphia gay activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya wrote "We're no longer going to sit back when the Black Panthers call the pigs and rednecks 'faggots and cocksuckers.'"

Only a few weeks before the convention, Huey Newton published a promising letter, "To the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements." In it, he argued "We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in the society."

In the Male Homosexual Workshop that was part of the Convention, about 60 gay liberationists including Philadelphia activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya discussed racism, sexism and sexual identities. They declared "the revolution will not be complete until all men are free to express their love for one another sexually." The Lesbian Workshop issued some of the same resolutions as the males, but they focused especially on demanding the control and power over their own destinies that they had been denied. This demand for real equality and power led to friction between lesbian feminists and the Panthers. Furthermore, black women felt that many of the Lesbian Workshop's resolutions concerning the destruction of the nuclear family invalidated African-American experiences.  

This uneasy alliance of black and white, gay and straight, and male and female, had reached its high water mark. From that time forward, those alliances would splinter, recombine and reform in the struggle for justice and equality in America.

- Bob Skiba, Curator, the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives of Philadelphia

 

O Captain! My Captain!

In 1954, the Delaware River Port Authority renamed the 30 year old Delaware River Bridge the “Benjamin Franklin Bridge.” To complement the honor given to Philadelphia’s most beloved citizen, they further recommended that the new bridge that was being built just to the south be named after a corresponding New Jersey notable – poet and essayist Walt Whitman.

Plans proceeded smoothly until 1955, when the Port Authority received a letter from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden, asking for a reconsideration of naming the bridge after Whitman, since “his life and works are personally objectionable to us.” Within a short time a controversy was raging. Hundreds of mimeographed form letters were sent to the Port Authority by outraged Catholic adults and school children, indicating an organized effort to demand a name change for the South Philadelphia bridge. In a veiled reference to Whitman’s homoeroticism, the text of the letters stated, among other objections “He boasted of his immoralities and published immorality as a personal experience. “ The Camden diocese paper was more explicit, saying "Whitman's major works exhibit a revolting homosexual imagery that is not confined to a few isolated passages but permeates the fetid whole."

A complete account of the situation was sent to the state’s Attorney General’s office, but by 1956, the tempest had died down.  The Port Authority ignored the objections and the structure remains the Walt Whitman Bridge today.

It’s interesting to speculate what Whitman, that visionary of American participatory democracy, would have thought of the whole affair.

- Bob Skiba, Curator, the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives of Philadelphia

 

Charlotte Cushman: Relentless Romeo

Charlotte_Cushman_Susan_Cushman_Romeo_Juliet_1846.jpg

Charlotte Cushman was one of the most successful American actresses of the 19th century, internationally famous for her masculine vigor and commanding presence in male roles onstage, and her tempestuous love affairs with women offstage. The strong jawed Cushman is pictured here playing Romeo to her sister Susan’s Juliet.

Her connection to Philadelphia was brief, but she left a lasting impression. In 1842, the 26 year old Cushman became the manager of the Walnut Street Theatre, no small accomplishment for a woman. While having her portrait painted by Philadelphia painter Thomas Sully, she fell in love with his beautiful young daughter Rosalie. Soon, the Sullys began treating Charlotte as one of the family. In an 1844, diary entry she mentions sleeping with Rosalie and giving her a ring. She cryptically adds “R Saturday, July 6, ‘Married.’”

Not long after, Cushman left for a European tour, promising to return to Rosalie after her engagements were through. The tour was so successful that it was extended for years. When word got back to Philadelphia that Cushman had moved on to another woman, the heartbroken Rosalie contracted a fever and died.

Cushman reacted to Rosalie’s death by cancelling performances and retiring to a spa. She would later move on to volatile affairs with writer Matilda Hays, sculptor Emma Stebbins and 18 year old actress Emma Crow, whom she affectionately called “my little lover.”

In 1907, a group of Philadelphia women formed the Charlotte Cushman Club as a respectable place for actresses to stay while they were appearing in plays in the city. When the club was dissolved the house on Camac Street and its collections of theater memorabilia were sold to endow the Charlotte Cushman Foundation which still funds non-profit theaters and groups in the Philadelphia area.
- Bob Skiba, Curator

Fighting the Good Fight – From Philadelphia to San Francisco

 Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Tommi Avicolli Mecca was born and grew up in an Italian Catholic family in South Philadelphia. He later attended Temple University, where, at 19, he became aware of the blossoming gay liberation movement and joined the radical Gay Liberation Front. Along with Cei Bell, he founded the Radicalqueens organization to smash gender roles and helped organize Philadelphia’s first Gay Pride March in 1972.

Tommi went on to serve as president of the Gay Activists Alliance, edited New Gay Life magazine from 1976 to 1979 and wrote for The Philadelphia Gayzette, the city’s first gay newspaper as well as for PGN. Throughout the 70s, he served on the board of the early Gay Community Center and helped organize its weekly coffeehouse.

A poet, writer and performer, he founded Avalanche, the city’s first multi-racial LGBT theatre group and also founded GALA, the Gay and Lesbian Arts Festival.

Tommi’s extensive collections formed the basis of the LGBT Archives at the William Way Center. His personal photographs as well as his narrative slideshow, “Rocking the Cradle,”  document the story of early LGBT activism in Philadelphia.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca moved to San Francisco in 1989, where he continues his activism on behalf of LGBT homeless people. A continent away now, Tommi’s contributions to  Philadelphia LGBT community will always be profound and enduring.

To learn more about Tommi Avicolli Mecca, visit the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives at the William Way Center.

- Bob Skiba, Curator