The two historic protests and sit-ins at Dewey’s Restaurant in Philadelphia in 1965 was a pivotal moment in the history of the LGBT rights movement in the United States. At a time when discrimination against members of the LGBT community was widespread and often went unchallenged, a group of activists decided to take a stand and demand equal treatment under the law.
The sit-ins were organized by members of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) and the Janus Society because of Dewey’s discriminatory denials of service to “homosexuals,” “masculine women,” “feminine men,” and “persons wearing non-conformist clothing.”
The first sit-in of April 25, 1965, a group of about 150 ECHO members gathered at Dewey’s Restaurant, a popular lunch spot in downtown Philadelphia that was known to discriminate against gay customers. Over the next five days, Janus Society activists and their supporters, led by Robert L. Sitko, demonstrated outside the restaurant and distributed 1500 fliers to passersby.
At he second protest on May 2nd, protesters, many of whom were dressed in their Sunday best, entered the restaurant and attempted to order food. When they were told that they would not be served, they sat down and refused to leave. Some of the protesters brought signs and placards that read “We are your sons and daughters” and “We demand our rights.” They sang songs and chanted slogans, drawing attention from passersby and media outlets.
The sit-in lasted for hours, with the protesters refusing to budge even as police officers arrived on the scene. The officers initially attempted to disperse the crowd, but when they realized the size and determination of the group, they decided to let the protesters stay.
The Janus Society focused on four objectives in particular, which they believe were accomplished after the second sit-in on May 2nd: “(1) to bring about an immediate cessation to all indiscriminate denials of service, (2) to prevent additional arrests, (3) to assure the homosexual community that (a) we were concerned with the day-to-day problems and (b) we were prepared to intercede in helping to solve these problems, (4) to create publicity for the organization and our objectives.”
The Dewey Restaurant protest and sit-ins did not come without some criticism from within the LGBT community itself due to the involvement of DRUM magazine., a sexually explicit, gay magazine that was controversial at the time, some in the LGBT community that DRUMS participation and support cast negative light on the Dewey’s sit-ins and provided “ammunition for enemies of the LGBT movement.”
Additionally, the sit-in was notable for its peaceful and nonviolent nature. The protesters did not engage in any acts of violence or destruction, despite being met with hostility and aggression from some members of the public. This helped to dispel the myth that LGBT people were inherently violent or unstable, and demonstrated that they were capable of organizing and protesting peacefully.
Perhaps most importantly, the sit-in at Dewey’s Restaurant helped to change attitudes toward LGBT people in Philadelphia and beyond. Many people who had previously been indifferent or hostile to the LGBT community began to see them as real people with real struggles and concerns. This helped to pave the way for the eventual repeal of discriminatory laws.
Although lesser known than the later, large-scale riots at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, and the preceding the Cooper Do-nuts Riot of 1959, the Dewey’s sit-ins became iconic stepping stones in the fight for LGBT rights. Drum Magazine (of which Clark Polak was the editor) deemed it “the first sit-in of its kind in the history of the United States.”
The Dewey’s Restaurant protests and sit-ins of 1965 was a watershed moment in the history of the LGBT rights movement. The protesters who participated in the sit-in were brave and determined, and their actions helped to raise awareness of the discrimination and inequality faced by LGBT people across the country. The sit-in inspired others to take action, and ultimately helped to change attitudes toward LGBT people and bring about significant progress in the struggle for equal rights.