How colonial Philly's same-sex secrets pointed toward the future of gay rights

By Natalie Hope McDonald
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It was practically bacchanalian on the streets of Philadelphia in the 18th century. Men drifted from tavern to tavern, soaking up strong harvest ales, while loose women walked the streets looking for action by last call—or at least enough to pay the “room for let” in Old City for the evening—as the smell of horses pinched the air, mingling with the pungent fresh fish being pulled from the river and lugged across cobblestone streets in wobbly carts.

While there was no shortage of big-city sexuality in colonial days, that didn’t hold true for all. To be gay or lesbian in this heady era of early independence would have been akin to being a shadow on the wall. “Would have,” that is, because those terms didn’t exist yet, and there was certainly no organized culture. With “buggery” and “sodomy” designated as serious criminal offenses under English law, same-sex love existed in a secretive world of knowing glances, careful rendezvous and heartfelt letters.

For instance: “He seemed to be stark naked,” one 27-year-old man wrote to another in a letter that survives today, “and as we were running along hand in hand to the place where his clothes were—I awakened—greatly agitated by the danger from which we seemed to have escaped. I will give myself up to you, I will go wherever you go and one shall not go without the other. I love you very much. Yours for ever—and ever and ever.” (Reprinted from The Overflowing of Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation of the American Republic by Richard Godbeer).

While such correspondence was rare, tucked farther underground than Washington’s slave quarters, this early acknowledgement of colonial gay life would eventually blossom into what we now know as the city’s modern LGBT rights movement. To read a timeline of gay life in Philly is to watch people come out of the shadows of Old City and Camac Street and into the light—quite literally.

This year, of course, LGBT rights have just taken a few more steps forward with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last month that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—arguably one of the biggest stumbling blocks toward full equality for gay people—was unconstitutional. At the same time, while Philadelphia passed one of the strongest LGBT civil rights laws of any American city this year—take that, New York—giving same-sex couples many of the same rights as straight ones, including domestic partner benefits, relationship recognition and transgender-inclusive healthcare, Pennsylvania nonetheless lags far behind states like New York and Delaware that already sanction marriage equality. Even our neighbors in the Garden State have civil unions, imperfect though they may be, while Pennsylvania still operates under a kind of statewide version of DOMA with restrictions that are similar to what the Supreme Court just struck down on the federal level.

The good news? The recent ruling could make way for marriage equality legislation to be introduced even in states like this one, and even if it is governed by an old crone like Tom Corbett. A mere day after DOMA fell, Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia), the state’s first elected openly gay legislator, announced he’d be introducing a bill that would give same-sex couples the same rights as straight married ones in Pennsylvania. Time will tell.

But we needn’t look too far in this city to realize that, right from the start, American freedom—or at least the ongoing quest for it—has always been inextricably entwined with what happens in the daily lives of all Philadelphians. It’s as true of LGBT rights today (or during the first gay and lesbian protests in the late 1960s) as it is of abolitionism, civil rights and the Declaration of Independence itself.

And how we’ve come to today’s historic tipping point in LGBT equality—in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, in America—has been a long and winding road peppered with enough lavender skeletons in the colonial closet to make even bawdy old Ben Franklin blush.


Figuring out what life was really like for LGBT folks at the dawn of American Independence is tricky. It’s not like there was an 18th-century equivalent of Woody’s or the Philadelphia Gay News. That’s because, in 1776, gay men in the original 13 colonies, and anyone else dubbed a “sodomite” or “bugger,” were legally sentenced to the death penalty. The first English statute against homosexuality was actually created earlier, in 1533, under Henry VIII—yep, the same king who had a nasty habit of putting his own wives to death—making buggery (pretty much anything other than vanilla married-couple sex) a crime.

“In the 18th century, homosexuality was not seen as a lifestyle, but as a sin or crime that anyone was capable of committing,” says Bob Skiba, archivist for the William Way LGBT Community Center and co-author of Lost Philadelphia. “Even the term ‘sodomy’ included any act, even between married people, that was outside vaginal penetration by a penis.”

Yet while any sort of erotic variation from simple baby-making was officially outlawed in colonial Pennsylvania, the sexual culture of Philadelphia was far more permissive than the laws would suggest. “Overall, Philadelphia was wide open with streetwalkers and brothels,” says Thom Nickels, a longtime writer and author of the upcoming Legendary Philadelphians. And though there were plenty of laws governing sexual behavior on the books, he says, enforcement was a different story: “A prosecution for sex of any kind was rare.” In fact, it was common for sailors at sea to engage in same-sex relations for years at a time. And our first president, George Washington, opted to court-marshal a soldier caught with another man rather than send him to the gallows. “He was certainly a gay-friendly general,” Nickels says. “He had a rather benevolent attitude about it all.”

In 1786, three years after the Revolutionary War ended, Pennsylvania became the first state to abolish the death penalty for sodomy conviction. The reasons are foggy—though, interestingly, the change came just one year after the only known sentence of execution the state actually passed against a citizen (one Joseph Ross of Westmoreland County), suggesting a possible backlash against the draconian punishment.

Still, engaging in nonprocreative relations was seen as a social threat to a colony eager to build up its population after the war. The protest signs we see at anti-gay rallies even now, claiming that being gay is somehow “un-American” or a “threat to national security” are the same arguments early opponents of sodomy shouted from the courthouse rooftop.

Fortunately for Philly, while being gay could still land a person at Eastern State Penitentiary, the Quakers—and numerous founding fathers—were much more open-minded about these things than, say, the Puritans. Biographies of such notable men as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, General Lafayette and John Laurens (believed to be one of Hamilton’s boy toys) say each are suspected of having same-sex trysts. The relationships were often described on friendly terms, but the men regularly shared beds with other men and “bonded” on the battlefield.

Lafayette waxed poetic about Washington in one surviving letter: “My dear general—From those happy ties of friendship by which you were pleased to unite yourself with me, from the promises you so tenderly made me when we parted at Fishkill, gave me such expectations of hearing often from you, that complaints ought to be permitted to my affectionate heart.” It makes you wonder what was really going on under the blankets that cold winter in Valley Forge.

And while lesbian and trans life was just as secretive, there was one woman named Deborah Sampson Gannett who dressed like a man and went by the name Robert Shurtliff just so she could fight in the military. (Native Americans were much more enlightened than the settlers in this regard, with gender nonconforming tribal leaders who shocked early immigrants. These berdaches, also known as “two spirits,” were documented in more than 130 tribes in the U.S. Considered a third gender, they wore costumes associated with both men and women.)

Another major figure in American military history of the time was Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, often called simply “The Baron.” He was also a well-known “sodomite” who single-handedly helped create a militia of farmers to fight the British and gain American independence. “He helped turn the ragtag American army into a disciplined fighting force,” says Skiba. “When he died, he left his estate to his beloved young aides-de-camp.” No one blinked an eye.

In later years, gay men sported red ties to signal their attractions to other men. Being gay was very much like an underground society—and only the members knew the secret handshake. It would be the unspoken credo of gay life for more than a century, up until Stonewall marked what many consider to be the Rubicon of the modern LGBT rights movement.


Early notions of civil liberty,
which prompted the American Revolution, had more to do with freedoms of religion and the pursuit of prosperity than anything having to do with minority rights. Much like gays, women would still toil for a century before achieving voting rights, and nonwhites would face a pervasive uphill struggle to overcome slavery.

Ironically, for some gay and lesbian Philadelphians, achieving the sort of freedom promised by our founding fathers has meant having to leave not only the state, but America itself—even in this day and age.

“I am a love exile,” says Matty Hart, a former Philadelphia resident who moved to Paris just last year to be with his partner, a French national. “There was no way to stay in Philadelphia with DOMA firmly in place. The only way we could stay together was if one of us had a complete and radical change to both our professional and public lives.”

That’s because marriage discrimination has tremendous ramifications for cross-national same-sex couples; even as the immigration debate rages on Capitol Hill, it does nothing to acknowledge the thousands of same-sex couples who are torn between borders. That DOMA is gone offers hope*—but until marriage equality is recognized as an American value, not simply a patchwork of states’ laws, couples like Hart and his partner are left unable to build secure American families.

For Hart, the decision to become an expat was bittersweet—not unlike what it must have been for early American settlers who left Europe behind, looking for their own integral freedoms. Even in the age of Facebook and frequent-flyer miles, moving to another continent is no easy decision. But while starting a new life in France would entail risk, Hart says, “we knew that with France’s [national civil union laws] and the potential for national gay marriage and adoption, which recently passed, France was a safer bet.”

Americans going to Europe to achieve independence? Wonder what the founding fathers would have to say about that?

Natalie Hope McDonald is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia.

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1. Anonymous said... on Jul 3, 2013 at 02:34PM

“Does the PW need a boost in circulation? It is a recognized journalistic tactic to publish an article full of speculation and what ifs to garner a reader response for the benefit of the editorial staff.

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2. Anonymous said... on Jul 5, 2013 at 01:02AM

“Enjoyed this article. When I was a kid, I had a Disney Album and one of the songs was about Deborah Sampson. I must have been in 2nd grade but I remember the lyrics were, "Deborah Sampson, as a man she volunteered... as a man she persevered... Did everything but grow a beard to join the continental army." Even at that age I thought the song quite progressive for a Disney history album!”

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