Roberta Hacker grew up in a small, mostly working-class, largely Mennonite community in Telford, 50 miles outside Philadelphia.
At 17, she graduated from high school, six years before the Stonewall riots.
Within the year, Hacker had her first job at a Philadelphia social-service agency, working to de-institutionalize patients suffering from mental illness.
By the time Hacker retired at the end of 2017 from her position as executive director of Women in Transition, one of the country’s oldest agencies serving abused women, she was a nationally known advocate for victims and survivors of domestic violence.
She cofounded the Philadelphia Women’s Death Review Team, the first multi-agency, multi-disciplinary effort designed to prevent future violence-related deaths of women, and she was president and chair of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Hacker is a longtime activist in the Philadelphia LGBTQ community, dating back to those early years before Stonewall.
Like most young lesbians in the 1960s, Hacker was seeking the companionship of other LGBTQ folks.
“But it was hard to find the gay community in those days,” she said. “I went to all the bars and clubs in the Gayborhood. The first time I went, I was shocked. I was still a young country bumpkin. The bars were all pretty seedy and Mafia-run. Gay people were taken advantage of with expensive drinks and cover charges.”
She went to all the regular hangouts in Center City’s 1960s-’70s bar scene: The Hideaway, Parker House, Allegro, Mystique and the main lesbian bar, Rusty’s, also known as Barone’s Variety Room. “The bars were the only place to be. We hadn’t developed a community outside that world yet.”
That, Hacker said, would evolve after Stonewall—and, for lesbians, with the confluence of the feminist movement.
“The emerging dyke community happened because of the sexism and misogyny in the gay male community,” she explained. “And that was, for me, worse than being with straight men, because I thought they were my brothers, but they didn’t see us that way at all. There was so much objectifying of women in such negative ways.”
Hacker said bar culture was the focal point of lesbian and gay life in those years before and immediately after Stonewall.
“It was so sad for me — there was nowhere for us to go, nowhere for us to hang that wasn’t about drinking,” Hacker said.
As she explained it, nearly everyone who was openly gay was forced by homophobia into marginalized lives.
“The first lesbians I knew were rough-and-tumble bull-dykes who were petty criminals and B girls who worked the bars. Some were active drug users. I lived in the Gayborhood then, but we hadn’t named it that yet.”
Hacker’s road to LGBTQ activism came through leftist politics. A member of the Socialist Workers Party, she rose through the ranks quickly. She said she could feel the pull of activism, but as a newly out lesbian, she still wasn’t sure how to access it.
“I was looking for something to connect with,” Hacker recounted. “There was NOW [National Organization for Women], which I did join. And I was involved in the Young Socialist Alliance. I would go on radio shows and debate people. I was involved in their abortion-rights group, WUAR [Women United for Abortion Rights]. It was through The Militant, the Socialist newspaper, that I discovered HAL [Homophile Action League].”
HAL was an early gay group in Philadelphia, a spin-off of national lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis. Hacker gave radio interviews, but she was informed she would have to use a pseudonym.
“I was Julie West,” she said, laughing. Honey West was a 1960s female detective on TV, and she and her portrayer, Anne Francis, were well-known lesbian heartthrobs of the time.
In 1971, Hacker joined the newly formed Radicalesbians, but was banned from the group when she was accused of being an infiltrator from the SWP. She wasn’t — but she explained that nascent LGBTQ and feminist groups were being infiltrated by the FBI, so there were concerns among those groups’ leadership about provocateurs.
The next few years Hacker spent engaged in various political actions, as planned during LGBTQ meetings at a variety of locations including the University of Pennsylvania campus, St. Mary’s Church and the Hillel Society at Penn, the Women’s Center in West Philadelphia, Gay Activists Alliance and Giovanni’s Room bookstore on South Street.
She worked on the Philadelphia lesbian quarterly Wicce and in 1975, began cohosting the first lesbian radio program in the U.S., Amazon Country on WXPN-FM at the University of Pennsylvania. Soon she became the sole host, continuing that work for over a decade. The show is still on the air and is the longest-running lesbian radio show in the nation.
For Hacker, Amazon Country was a labor of lesbian activist love.
“I loved doing that radio show,” she said of the hour-long Sunday program. “I had to spend a lot of time putting that program together every week with a mix of interviews, music and lesbian news. I had an opportunity to meet and interview so many people I never would have met otherwise. In addition to local lesbian activists, writers and performers, there were major feminist authors like Rita Mae Brown, Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin. Lesbian and feminist musicians, like Meg Christian, Margie Adam, Toshi Regan, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Kay Gardner. It was such a time for an explosion of lesbian work driven by the need to uncover our history.”
It was, she said, a period of creative and political enlightenment.
The radio program was a subversive underground that connected women to lesbian society and culture in the decades before social media. “I would get letters from women who said that I was the only contact they had with other lesbians. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.”
Hacker’s lesbian activism paralleled her career as a social worker, where she worked with runaway and homeless youth prior to moving into the domestic-violence arena. As executive director of Voyage House from 1974 to 1985, Hacker established the first drop-in center for LGBT youth at the agency.
It was also at Voyage House that she was forced to out herself to her board of directors when a staff member she fired for having sex with one of the minor girls living in one of the agency’s housing units threatened to out her.
“It was the first time I had to confront publicly what it meant to be a lesbian,” she said.
“It’s nostalgic, thinking back over that time,” Hacker said. “There was so much change in such a short period of time, and yet some things never quite evolved — like we’ve never fully addressed the sexism and misogyny that’s still so deeply embedded in our own community.”
But Hacker is hopeful about the current generation of young LGBTQ activists. “We forged a model of activism in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” she said. “Now they are forging their own, 50 years after Stonewall.”