Ada Bello, who emigrated to the United States from Cuba in the 1960s, found in Philadelphia a gay and lesbian community where she felt safe — even if it was behind closed doors. As she and her friends got more active, they were able to help drive the gay rights demonstrations of the time and challenge the status quo.
Ada Bello, who marched for gay rights in Philadelphia in 1969, has been an activist for a long time.
When the Cuban government shut down her university in 1958, she transferred to Louisiana State. After working briefly in Mississippi, she came to Philadelphia in 1962.
I thought Philadelphia was a perfect place, because I had a gay community to integrate myself in. I had clubs where I could meet people. And of course, nobody knew me, so I didn’t have to worry about the family. My job was in a university, so I could count on a certain degree of liberal thinking. However, after a while, I realized that, yes, I could go to a bar, I could go to gay functions, but I always had the fear that the place was going to be raided, and I was going to end up in jail. And that would have really been very — I would say, a serious development — because I wasn’t a citizen.
It was not only me, but a number of my friends, lesbian friends. They considered themselves useful citizens, yet we had to confront this reality. What we did was always under the shadow of the potential police coming in, or you getting in some sort of problems, because of your sexual orientation. So that’s what brought us together to form the Philadelphia chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis in … I think it was 1967.
At the beginning, we really didn’t have much direction. We were very inexperienced. We did have a newsletter that we would send to the media, which they’d very successfully ignore. I was one of the editors of the newsletter. And then in, I think it was in the spring of ’68, there was a raid at Rusty’s. That was a main gay bar for women. And in that case, they did cart off to jail a large number of women. They stayed there overnight, and they were let go the next morning, but they had a record. And expunging a record is not only time-consuming, it is also expensive. So some of the women came to us, they asked us, “Well, do something.”
We contacted Barbara Gittings. We had not contacted her before, because we really didn’t have any action to offer. And she put us in touch with the ACLU. We then consulted with them and then decided that we were going to challenge the police. And we did.
I didn’t go. I wasn’t a citizen, so I cannot show my face. I did drive the car — so I got to drive the getaway car. And a member of the ACLU that was advising us, they met with the police. They, of course, denied any kind of misconduct. Also, we didn’t get any dramatic change. I think the police was aware that we existed, and we had involved the ACLU. So that put us on the map. And we got new members, and then it became very difficult to function under the umbrella of the Daughters of Bilitis, because being a national organization, every chapter had to constantly get authorization to do any action, and that was not the way we wanted to function. We really wanted to have a rapid response to events. And remember, there were no cell phones or anything at the time.
So we decided to change from the Daughters of Bilitis into a new organization that was local, and it was called the Homophile Action League, with action very much the center of our goals. We were sort of the bridge between the pre-Stonewall, and post-Stonewall. Now we were actually going to address the society, and not only saying that we deserve rights, it’s that we are gonna demand rights. And that was actually the big change, pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall.
The police had this relationship with the bars that, if they didn’t pay enough, or they weren’t nice enough, they will raid the bar, to just let them know that they weren’t actually fulfilling their quota. It’s a very sad situation, but that was a reality. So that was the dynamic that made gay bars so dangerous. [The police] didn’t really care about gay people; they were after the owners.
Rusty’s was the typical gay bar. It wasn’t particularly attractive. The decoration was not one of their offerings. They had a jukebox, because that was before disco, and it was at the top of the stairs, in the second floor behind Barone Variety Room. That was the name of the bar downstairs. And that was a bar opened to the public. We have a male bartender because, I think at the time, women couldn’t serve behind the bar in Pennsylvania, unless they were the owner. And, of course, Rusty was not the owner, so she couldn’t do that. So that was the only man.
They were strict in the sense that they didn’t want any very clear demonstration of affection between the women, because that might get them in trouble. So if anybody got too chummy with their partner, they will come and they’ll tap you on the shoulder. If there was a raid, they would just allow them in. You will know that they were coming because the first thing is that somebody will unplug the jukebox and then the lights would go on. They had no explanation for what happened, they just sort of let it happen, and hope for the best.
I mean there was a lot of drinking. Obviously, it was a bar. And for those days, it was very loud. So there was not much room for conversations. And you drank more because you had to do something. And of course, there was dancing, which I understand in Pennsylvania, two women could dance, but not two men. So that was Rusty’s, and you went there because it was the only place you were gonna find potential friends.
And then of course, once we started to get active in the movement, we would go to bars and pass leaflets about events that we were sponsoring, or we just asked for signatures on petitions. HAL was the first to actually present a request to [Philadelphia City] Council for equal rights to have homosexuals included on their protected class. The petition went to Councilman David Cohen, who is the father of [Sherrie Cohen] who ran recently. I remember one summer, we actually had been going to bars and asking for signatures, and going to places where people congregated. It never got anywhere. I mean that was totally ignored. And it was going to be not until 1983 that the ordinance became a reality, protecting LGBT people.
Finally, it was the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force that pulled it through. And the situation in Pennsylvania is that that protection doesn’t exist outside the cities that had similar ordinances. You can be discriminated on sexual orientation at your work or even in accommodation. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and several other large cities have ordinances. The rest is totally unprotected. So there is a lot of work to do.
I am hoping that that will happen at the federal level, and that will take care of everybody. It’s another thing that is just a practical approach. The issue is becoming more acceptable, and I think it’s just because there have been all these changes, and the world has not come to an end. In fact, it had very little impact in the lives of the heterosexual population. So, the scare tactics that are used usually against this sort of decision, legal decisions, are just losing a lot of legitimacy, because — gays in the military — your life, most lives, are not being affected by that except the people who want to serve and couldn’t.
You had to remember the mood of the country at the time in the ’60s. There were a lot of groups claiming their rights. So, that had an impact on us, obviously. We didn’t realize, we had a grievance. Before, we were grateful that we can do it in private. Now, we started again to get really incensed about that notion. I was mad. I did not think that, first of all, we were asking for something that was detrimental to anybody else, and that if they were gonna talk about equality, they had left us behind, together with a number of other people. So I thought it was totally justified. I didn’t feel that I was doing anything against the society. We were trying to actually let society know that they had not really fulfilled the promise of the Declaration. And that is what is called a “reminder”, the picket circle. It was a reminder that there were still minorities that had not been given full rights.
I did participate, only in the last one. That was 1969, because then I was a citizen. I think all of the organizers realized that now the action was gonna have to be different. After the Stonewall, there was no more “Look at us, we are just like you, so we deserve the rights,” it was like, “Maybe we are not like you, but that is no reason not to have the rights we demand.” All movements go like that. They start in different places from different streams, and then there’s a big blow-up. And that was Stonewall. And after that, I think, people realized they had to be more active and more aggressive, and they were.
I’m very glad that I was part of it, and I am very satisfied for all of the progress that has been attained. And I look forward to the day — and that is fast approaching — in which it will make no difference, because it won’t be relevant, the same way that heterosexuals don’t have to declare as they enter a room, “I’m a heterosexual.”