Gay rights pioneer dies at 89


In June of 1969, while working at the Philadelphia Tribune, I received a call informing me of a forthcoming protest in front of Independence Hall on July 4. The demonstration, she told me, was for "homosexual rights"— a phrase as alien to me at that time as a call for Martian rights would have been. Despite the holiday, I attended the rally, curious to see what these protesters advocating for their rights before the term "gay" was widely used would be like. 

To my surprise, the men wore suits and ties, resembling bankers, while the women donned attractive dresses, appearing like a group of corporate secretaries. One of the women I met that day was Ada Bello, a captivating woman who I would later come to know well.

Bello, who lived all her adult life in various Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods and spent her last 18 years at Cathedral Village in Roxborough, died in Chestnut Hill Hospital of pneumonia and Covid on March 31. She was 89 years old. 

A pioneer in the fight for LGBTQ rights since that 1969 protest, Bello was polite, kind, and soft-spoken. She believed in treating everyone with respect, regardless of their differences. 

“You can be revolutionary in your fight for justice and equal rights,” she told me. “But that doesn't mean you have to be unpleasant and nasty in your behavior. You should treat everyone with respect if you want to be treated with respect in return.”

Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1933, Bello told me that she couldn't openly acknowledge her sexual orientation because of dictator Flugencio Batista's persecution of gays and lesbians. 

To escape Cuba and find opportunities abroad, she decided to study chemistry at the University of Havana. “Instead of going into something like literature,” she told me, “I chose chemistry so I could travel, and find a job most anywhere, including another country.”

Her enrollment there coincided with a period during which the university had become a breeding ground for opposition to the Batista regime – with students and faculty members often participating in protests and strikes. As a result, the government temporarily closed down the university in November 1956. 

So Bello emigrated to the U.S. in 1958, completing her degree in chemistry from Louisiana State University. She came to Philadelphia after graduation to accept a research job at the University of Pennsylvania for the Food and Drug Administration. She continued to do that work until her retirement 20 years ago.

According to Bello, most of her Cuban friends and peers opposed Batista “because he had become a tyrant and an assassin.” 

And in 2018, in an interview with the Canadian magazine OutWords, Bello said she was surprised to find almost as much repression in Louisiana. 

“One thing I found that surprised me was that the situation at the university in Baton Rouge, La., was not particularly better than it was in Cuba,” Bello said. “The university had some outrageous laws and regulations. For example, you could be expelled from the university if they found you in a small town wearing pants. You couldn’t wear pants to the cafeteria. You can imagine any question about having a gay life at all. We did go to New Orleans, only 50 miles away. Of course, there they used to raid the (gay) bars.” 

From the time she marched on July 4, 1969, until her death, Bello was an indefatigable activist for LGBTQ rights. She helped the William Way LGBT Community Center get on its feet, joined the board of the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, served as a panelist at the LGBT Aging Summit in 2010, and served on the board of the LGBT Elder Initiative. In 2015, Ada was honored by GALAEI, Philadelphia’s queer Latino social justice organization, with their David Acosta Revolutionary Leader award.

“Ada Bello was a brilliant, courageous woman,” a friend wrote in a Facebook post. “She will be deeply missed.”

A memorial service was held Friday, April 14, at Cathedral Village. Donations in her name may be made to the William Way LGBT Center, 1315 Spruce St., Phila., 19107; or Morris Animal Refuge, 1242 Lombard St., Phila., 19147.

Len Lear can be reached at