01/07/2014 05:24 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Gay Philadelphia Story, Part 2: My Gay Philadelphia


I started coming into Philadelphia on a daily basis in 1968 when I was a young journalism student. I took Isherwood's train from the Main Line, got off at Penn Center, and walked the long blocks to Broad and Locust to school. In the afternoons I'd explore the city, aware of my homosexuality but thinking that I was pretty much alone. About the only other homosexuals I saw -- or thought I saw -- were the thin, bleach-blond boys in white Levis who hung around a restaurant called Dewey's, two blocks from school. They were startling to see at first. Their blond hair was so brilliant, their Levis so tight and sexy, and their behavior so flamboyantly gay. I felt worlds away from them, yet within me there was something reaching out trying to make a connection. I'll never forget one liberating moment when I saw a "Freedom for Homosexuals" button in a button shop. Although I was thrilled to see such a thing, I couldn't imagine a soul on earth brave enough to wear it.

By the 1970s, 13th Street was a conglomeration of bathhouses, coffee shops, pizza parlors, peepshows and drag bars. The area became a tawdry afterhours promenade, an X-rated avenue for the pent-up and the randy. At the height of the tenderloin years, businessmen, City Hall workers, politicians, students and urban wayfarers would make the peepshow rounds on any given night. Filbert Street, a small street between Market and Arch, was the city's neon hotbed of porn. It included the Track 7 bar, where gays, hustlers, pimps, sailors and drag queens drank cheap draft beer to the sounds of Janis Joplin on the jukebox. Close to the Greyhound bus station, which has since moved to another part of the city, sexy travelers would often wander into the Track 7 for a beer. This gave the bar a John Rechy-style ambience. On New Year's Day, buxom female Track 7 bartenders would expose their breasts and give the sedate city a taste of New Orleans. On the other end of Filbert, an African-American bar blasted other jukebox sounds (notably the Supremes), while on the sidewalk the walk-till-dawn promenade of sex seekers visited peepshow after peepshow.

Miss Tinsel, a drag queen friend of mine who would sometimes dress as a Catholic nun and cajole an Irish cab driver into her digs, was the unofficial general manager of the peepshow loop, extending from 13th and Market to Arch and Filbert Streets. She had her flamboyant entourage, of course, which included peepshow employees and fellow street cruisers. Most were African-American, although a few Caucasians like myself tagged along for the thrill of it all. We found the scene a lot more interesting than life in the stuffy uptown bars. Hanging out with Miss Tinsel meant being on the lookout for trouble, which in those days could be an angry cruising rival, an arrest-happy undercover cop, or an angry "piece of straight trade" (in Miss Tinsel's words). "If angry straight trade ever attacks you at home or in a high rise," Miss Tinsel once said, "just charge the nearest window and dive out onto the sidewalk, no matter how high up you are. True, you might die, but you might live too. But you know you're gonna die for sure if the straight trade guy gets his hands on you."

Then in my twenties, I often saw the sun come up with Miss Tinsel when we'd go to the local Horn & Hardart for bacon omelets and coffee and where, more often than not, she'd tell me to fix my gaze on some lonely construction worker or exhausted-looking nightclubber of indeterminate sexual orientation who nevertheless looked good enough to eat while dipping into his own platter of eggs and Philadelphia scrapple. "That's not the way you cruise," she told me more than once. "Don't look directly at him but let your eye rotate to the side so that he only catches a glimpse of your stare. He must not feel threatened. If you stare them down too much, you'll scare them away!"

Philadelphia's most notorious peepshow, which was on Arch Street, was a place where an endless array of glory holes once had men hopping in and out from all over the city and surrounding suburbs. The glory holes were crude, hand-carved crevices in the wooden panels between the booths, and management used them as a lucrative money-making device, patrolling the holes constantly to make sure that the men inside kept dropping in their quarters.

Today, Miss Tinsel's old stomping ground has changed. Most of the peepshows are gone, and Filbert Street, that neon strip of sex and booze, has been replaced by the Philadelphia Convention Center and some upscale shops. Philadelphia's lesbian and gay neighborhood -- called "the gayborhood" by many -- extends around the area of Camac Street and runs west of Broad to 7th Street and from Walnut to South Streets. Rainbow flags, chic cafes and shops, Giovanni's Room (a gay, lesbian and feminist bookstore) and upscale homes give the area a pleasant ambience. The strip along 12th Street might as well be an updated, gay version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Haven't seen an ex-boyfriend in years? A walk near the gyms and cafes and card shops is often a way to re-establish old connections. Millennium Coffee Shop, with its sidewalk tables, juts out like an octopus appendage. The latest in fashion wear -- Jackie O sunglasses along with 1950s retro shades -- can be spotted at any one of the small wire tables, while around the bend you might also spot a young male hustler without a shirt (and two tattoos of spiders on each arm), his trousers halfway down his butt.

In the 1800s Philadelphia and New York hustlers wore red neckties to distinguish themselves from ordinary blokes. They stood on street corners just as they do today. Philadelphia has a rich hustling tradition, but today the trade is frowned upon and often condemned by "good gays" as sleazy, dangerous and sexually unsafe.

The police in Philadelphia used to harass and sometimes arrest women who looked too butch and round up gay men who walked or lingered in gay areas. In the mid-70s I was picked up by a police wagon and hauled off to jail for the night for conversing with a gay friend on a stoop. That experience -- which included being hauled off along with 10 gay men packed inside a paddy wagon -- ended the following morning when we were taken before a judge and a gallery of laughing heterosexual spectators. We were clowns, buffoons that the cops had scooped up in one of their sweeps, and everyone in the gallery strained to get a look.

Male hustlers have been the cause of many problems in the gayborhood. Perhaps if they sat politely on stoops or ambled nonchalantly on street corners, one might be tempted to overlook them, but their behavior is often that of a bad saloon, with fights, catcalls and other noisy disturbances ringing into the night. The police crackdown on hustlers has been severe in recent years, and the scene has moved from 17th and Pine Streets to 13th and Spruce, where one can find all sorts of boys on the prowl. Most are dirty urchins on drugs, so it pays to be careful, but sometimes one can spot a diamond in the rough.