© 2011 by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
To be a street queen in Philadelphia in the early ‘70s was to know the police and the prison system intimately. Even gay men who weren’t effeminate or didn’t run around in drag understood that they could end up in jail any time they stepped into a gay bar. It was illegal in many states, including Pennsylvania, to serve alcohol to a homosexual.
Police raided gay bars when the owners didn’t come through with their payoffs or around election time, so that politicians could prove they were “cleaning up” so-called vice. In big cities today, politicians go after the homeless in the same way whenever they need to win points with their base. Payoffs were how those institutions—which were breaking the law every time they served a drink, even a beer, to a homo—stayed open and relatively safe from police harassment.
I was in my first bar raid when I was 19 or 20. I was carrying my older brother’s expired driver’s license. My brother and I looked like twins except that he had lighter hair. Both floors of the dark, narrow bar were packed to the gills with white gay men. Women, drag queens, and blacks were usually asked to show multiple pieces of identification or were refused admission outright—as in, “Sorry, no women allowed.” I didn’t know at the time that a year later I would be picketing that bar with the Gay Activists Alliance because of its sexist, transphobic, and racist policy. That day, I was sporting long hair, which was popular at the time, and standard dress: jeans and a T-shirt. I hadn’t started doing drag yet.
I wasn’t there long when the music suddenly stopped and the lights came on. Someone yelled, “It’s the cops!” I had heard about bar raids. I knew I had to escape. I ducked into the kitchen and told a worker that I was underage. He let me out the back door into an alley. I climbed over a fence to safety.
I watched from across the street as patrons were led into the paddy wagon. I was relieved for myself but pissed off as hell at what the boys in blue were doing to my queer brothers. When you got arrested in a bar raid, your name and address ended up in the local newspaper. Many men had their lives and careers ruined by bar raids, even though the charges were eventually dropped.
Then there were the tearooms—public bathrooms that gay men cruised for sex. A tearoom could be in a department store, a university, a rest stop along a highway, or just about anywhere else that men went to relieve themselves. Long before Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho walked into that airport bathroom in Minnesota, gay men were signaling each other in stalls and at sinks.
I visited my first tearoom shortly after coming out at Temple University, where I went to school to avoid the draft. It was at the top of a building that housed several student lounges. An old stone building that had the somber appearance of another era, far removed from the freewheeling early ‘70s. While tearooms were the antithesis of the spirit of the sexual revolution, which advocated free love out in the open, they served the practical function of giving married and closeted men a place to indulge their hidden desires. Not to mention members of the faculty.
The university generally maintained a hands-off policy, especially with the bathroom on the upper-most floor. Except when a student complained. Even then, the university generally didn’t call in the city police; a security guard was posted outside the facility to discourage sexual activity. Other establishments, especially department stores, did notify the local boys in blue (there were no female officers in those days). Highway patrol officers dragged off to jail gay men caught at highway stop bathrooms. Vice squad officers went undercover to entrap men making passes at them, then led them away in handcuffs. It was risky being a gay man. Being a queen was even more dangerous. I had been anything but a butch kid. Growing up in South Philly’s Little Italy, I was often ostracized for not being a Guido boy. Or at least an Italian stallion wannabe. I survived the name-calling and the feeling of being an outsider in my own family and neighborhood: I found community in the Gay Liberation Front at Temple.
Many of the gay liberationists I met were into radical drag (also known as genderfuck), a form of political dress that mocked traditional gender roles. Its purposes were to show people how arbitrary gender-specific dress and behavior were and to free up men and women to be themselves. Why did men have to be macho and women weak? Why couldn’t women earn the bacon and men stay home and take care of the kids? Before long, I was running around in full flaming radical drag: Long, frizzy “straightened” hair, hot pants, blouses, makeup, and colorful platform shoes. I looked like a cross between Bette Midler and the New York Dolls. I elicited an interesting assortment of responses as I made my way down the street to my favorite hangout, even in the gay male area of town. Queens had their own area, separate from the gay boy bars. It was nicknamed the “drag strip” even though it was shared by female hookers and male hustlers. The center of its universe was Dewey’s, a 24-hour diner that at times could have been a transgender community center. Queens hung out there at all hours of the day and night, sitting alone at the counter or in groups at the tables along the sides of the room. From what I heard, queens carved out that bit of space for themselves because they were not welcomed in the gay boy bars or cruising areas.
Those gay boys had no sense of history. If they did, they would have known that for many years, starting in the dark ages of the late ‘50s, queens marched on Halloween night in a defiant display of pride. They assembled at a certain bar (I don’t know the name of it) and strutted through the streets of the center of town, putting on a show for the straights who would gather from as far away as the surrounding suburbs. Police Captain Frank Rizzo (who would become police commissioner and then mayor with a widespread reputation for spacco il capo, or splitting heads) put a stop to the Halloween marches in the mid-‘60s. “Philly’s Finest” had a tradition of roughing up the queens along the drag strip. The gay boys didn’t seem to care about that abuse, nor did they understand that queens in New York had recently rioted and given birth to a movement that would soon end the police raids and the entrapment in tearooms and public sex areas.
I didn’t quite fit into the scene along the drag strip. Many of the other queens considered me a freak because I didn’t want to pass as a woman, nor did I want a sex change. I regularly lectured them about redistributing the wealth and other Marxist and anarchist ideas. They nodded politely, sometimes even offered comments, but generally stared at me blankly. I was the ‘70s version of a “nerd.” And I wasn’t a prostitute. A few times, guys offered me money to go home with them. I refused. I was working at a record store run by hippies who accepted my unconventional looks (they thought I was trying to be David Bowie), and I didn’t need to sell my body to pay the rent or buy food. More importantly, I didn’t trust the guys who approached me. Any john could be an undercover vice cop.
I was terrified of being arrested and thrown in jail. Not only because my Southern Italian famiglia would have to come bail me out, but also because I had heard too many horror stories from the older queens. They told of being beaten and sometimes even raped in prison. They described sexual favors they were forced to perform for some of the officers. They were resigned to the fact that every once in a while (especially around election time), the cops came around and “cleaned up” the neighborhood, and off they went to spend time behind bars.
An old queen once showed me a scar she got from resisting arrest in her younger days. It was a mark of pride, but I could still see the pain in her eyes. She had been a hooker for a long time and all the cops knew her well. That didn’t stop them from tossing her in a cell when it suited them. Prostitution wasn’t the only thing that the cops had over our heads. They also used a state law that prohibited “impersonating the opposite sex,” which meant that if you weren’t wearing two articles of clothing of your “appropriate” gender, you could be hauled off to prison. I usually wore my Fruit of the Loom briefs, but no other item that could be considered “male.” I could have argued, I guess, that my glitter socks or platform shoes were “unisex,” as we called them, and therefore technically not “female.” It wouldn’t have saved me. Philly cops didn’t look favorably on that particular fashion trend. I hated cops.
When I was in high school, I fell madly in love this guy in my class. He and I would do homework at his house. It was a chance to be together. Coming home late sometimes, I’d be stopped by cops who thought, as they put it, that I “looked like someone” who had just committed a crime: Ethnic profiling before it was called that. No doubt the description in the police bulletin said “Italian.” I had a “Roman nose,” therefore I must be a criminal. To my uncle the cop, I was something even worse. When I worked at the gas station that my father operated with his oldest brother, Uncle Cop always needled me about being effeminate. He loved to do it in front of the old guys who hung out at the station. He’d yell across the driveway while I was washing a car: “When’re you gonna start acting like a boy!” It achieved its effect: I was totally humiliated. I tried to ignore him, but he kept at it until he was distracted by something else or until I walked off to the bathroom.
At family gatherings, my uncle bragged about beating up the queens along the drag strip. Fortunately, by the time I was hanging out in that area, he had been transferred to another police precinct.
On the drag strip, I had one very close brush with “Lily Law,” or “Alice,” as we called the cops. I don’t know where “Lily Law” came from, but “Alice,” or “Alice Bluegown,” was the invention of a very loud and proud queen named Alice who used it to signal the other queens when they needed to stop what they were doing. One night on the “merry-go-round,” a gay cruising area, I was in a dark alley about to go down on someone when I heard, “Alice!” I took off. Sure enough, a cop car was circling the block.
I wasn’t so lucky that summer night on the drag strip. I was talking to a john. I wasn’t really going to do anything with him. I liked the fact that he kept telling me how pretty I was, but had no intention of going off with him. A cop car pulled up to the curb. The john fled. He didn’t need to worry; the police would never have arrested him. “Get in,” the police officer said. He was standard-issue white Anglo. My heart started pumping harder. I knew I had to stay calm. I got in the car, sitting as close to the door as I could, in case I had to make an escape. Of course that would only make me look guiltier.
“Let me see your ID,” he said. I handed it to him
“Avicolli? You related to…?
“Yeah, he’s my uncle,” I said.
“Does he know?” “No.”
He didn’t say anything for the longest time. He handed the card back to me. I wanted to beg him to not say anything to my uncle, but I was too scared to talk. I was willing to do anything to avoid being booked. He seemed to be considering something. A blowjob would be a fair exchange for my freedom. He wasn’t that bad looking.
“You know this is a dangerous neighborhood,” he said.
I was barely breathing, trying to be as still and silent as possible.
“I should take you in.” He paused. “But your uncle’s a good guy. He don’t deserve this.”
He was obviously conflicted: duty versus loyalty to a fellow officer. I remained frozen. I figured it best to keep quiet.
“Get outta here,” he said, “and don’t let me see you out there no more.”
I was out of that car before he could reconsider. As I walked back to Dewey’s, some of the girls asked me what happened. I just shook my head and kept going. I went straight past the restaurant and toward the bus stop. When the bus pulled up, I got on and sat in the back, still trembling.
Uncle Cop had saved my queer ass.
originally published in Captive Genders, edited by Eric A. Stanley & Nat Smith, AK Press, 2011; and The Stonewall Reader, edited by the New York Public Library, Penguin Classics, 2019.