A story about Philly police raiding gay bars

A friend forwarded me the story below from the current William Way Community Center newsletter. I just love it:


This month, we honor Women’s History Month while also remembering a key moment in LGBT history.On the south side of Walnut St., opposite the Forrest Theatre is Moriarty’s Irish Pub and Restaurant. Around the corner, through the side door on Quince and up a flight of stairs is what was “Rusty’s,” the most popular lesbian bar in Philadelphia in the ‘50s,‘60s and early ‘70s. Although back then the sign on Walnut St. identified the bar as “Barone’s Variety Room,” women in the city knew it as “Rusty’s,” after Rusty Parisi, the tough, butch, no-nonsense lesbian manager.

On the night of March 8, 1968, Rusty’s suddenly found the jukebox unplugged and the house lights brought up. It was a police raid, an all too common occurrence for gay and lesbian bars under then Police Commissioner Rizzo.  Many of the women were verbally abused; police accused them of being drunk and disorderly. Some were booked and held overnight, then brought before a magistrate the next day, but all charges were dropped. It was a clear-cut case of harassment.

The local chapter of D.O.B. editorialized against the raid. D.O.B., the “Daughters of Bilitis,” was a national lesbian social and support organization with a policy of political non-involvement. The Philadelphia chapter was one of the exceptions. A few nights later, when there was another raid on Rusty’s, local activists Ada Bello, Lourdes Alvarez and Barbara Gittings were present. When asked for her I.D., Gittings flashed her ACLU card and the police moved on.

In May, the D.O.B. arranged a meeting with the Philadelphia Police Inspector and they brought along an ACLU observer. The D.O.B. let the Inspector know that they represented the community and that they were not afraid to protest violations. The police issued a statement that “homosexuals have been, are now, and will be treated equally with heterosexuals.” Because of their active support in the incident, membership in the Philadelphia D.O.B. increased dramatically. A year before the Stonewall riots, the raid on Rusty’s and the reaction of local lesbians was a clear success story for gay rights.

You can learn more about LGBT political activism in Philadelphia in Marc Stein’s book, “City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves” and by visiting the John J. Wilcox Archive.

My favorite line is the one about Barbara Gittings being asked for her ID, but instead showing her ACLU card, “and the police moved on.”

For years I’ve had this idea of staging a police raid at a gay bar as a fundraising event. My generation of LGBT patrons have never had to experience that (at least, not in Philadelphia) and I think it would be engaging and startling. Halfway through the event, the house lights would come up, the music would suddenly stop, and actors portraying police would barge in and start harassing patrons. Perhaps they could even “arrest” patrons, and the “bail money” they paid would be their donation to the fundraiser. I don’t think it’s quite right for the ACLU, but maybe I can sell the William Way on it.

I’ve even heard there’s at least one gay bar in Philadelphia (I don’t know which…maybe the Bike Stop?) that still has its raid light installed. This is the bright red alarm light they used to trigger when the cops showed up, to tip off the patrons that they’d better high-tail it out the back.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.