On the website for his vintage-dance company, Mixed Pickles, Bob Skiba alleges he was born in the wrong century.

And truly, his interests and sensibilities were forged in another era. Skiba has written a book about mid-19th-century dancing in Minnesota. As president of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he ensures that visitors are given historically accurate spiels. In his spare time, he is translating a European stage-acting manual from Latin to modern English.

But because Skiba is gay, if he had been born in the past that fascinates him so - as much as he would have fit right in waltzing through mannered society as a gentleman - he would have had to deny or assiduously hide his sexuality. Back then, homosexuality was not merely socially unacceptable, it was criminal.

As director of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) archive at the William Way Center in Center City, Skiba is guardian of the bleak documentation.

"In Pennsylvania, sodomy was up there with theft and murder," he says during a tour of the spartan library filled with cardboard boxes stacked on gray shelves. "No one was ever put to death for it here, but in 1940, people went to prison for it. You could be put in a mental hospital and given electroshock therapy. In the 1950s, gays and lesbians could be arrested just for saying they were gay."

Philadelphia has become one of the nation's more gay-friendly cities, with several LGBT festivals (the week-long Equality Forum ends here Sunday).

For decades, though, the community struggled. Holding forth on gay history in Philadelphia, Skiba spills information like a tipped flagon of bitter ale. He describes the political influence of the Daughters of Bilitis, an early lesbian-rights organization, and the homophile Mattachine Society. He traces the city's gay geography - from the "tenderloin district" along Vine Street, where lonely gay men burrowed in boardinghouses, to the gay coffeehouse that once thrived at 60 N. Third St. and the bars - the Loft and Allegro, Drury Lane, and Rusty's. He recalls the Reminder Day demonstrations held on July 4 from 1965 through 1969 near Independence Hall, where the city's gays and lesbians marched for civil rights.

And he knows the life stories of most of the community's major players - Barbara Gittings, who fought to have homosexuality stricken from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association; Walter Lear, a gay activist doctor and regional health commissioner; and Mark Segal, founder of Philadelphia Gay News.

Skiba also has memorized the history of the William Way Center, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.

Named for Bill Way, an openly gay man who worked for the city Office of Housing and Community Development, the center began as Penguin Place, an organization with no real home. "It was named that," Skiba says, "because there was a comment, offhandedly made by a Democratic politician, that talking about gay rights for gays is like talking about civil rights for penguins."

Skiba's own history as a gay man has paralleled many of the social changes the archives chronicle.

"I feel like I've lived six different lives," he says.

The middle son of a Bayonne, N.J., steelworker and a full-time mother, Skiba graduated in 1968 from Regis High School, an all-scholarship, academically elite Jesuit school in New York (and alma mater of the immunologist and AIDS researcher Anthony Fauci). Skiba moved to Boston, where he danced with the student company of the Boston Ballet, studied linguistics at Boston College, and sang in the choir. That was where he met and fell in love with his future wife.

"I was first tenor. She was last alto. If I'd stood next to the basses, my life might have been different earlier," he says. Now a smooth-faced 60-year-old in a button-down oxford, crew-neck sweater, and tweed Kangol warming his balding head, Skiba recalls his hippie past, when he macraméd his own belt, wore shoulder-skimming hair, and slept around. "Everyone was doing everything with everyone," Skiba says. "I figured I was bi."

His marriage lasted two years.

"Coming out now is a lot different than it was then," he says, especially for a Catholic boy from a working-class family. "My family never hugged or touched, and we never talked about sex or money." Skiba never told his parents he was gay. It was hard enough, he says, for his father to accept that he was an intellectual.

"I am the only one in my family who went to college. My father resented the elitism." When his father asked, "What sport are you going out for?" his answer - "I'm captain of the debate team" - was met with dead silence.

A few years after his divorce, when he finally understood he was gay, Skiba decided to tell his brothers the truth. "I came out to my younger brother because I liked him. I came out to my older brother because I didn't."

Skiba says he loved his wife and regretted never telling her he was gay.

"So many things in life you don't get to finish in the right way," he says. A few years ago, when he was packing to move to a new apartment, a book toppled from a shelf and a slip of paper fell out. "It was a note from my ex-wife saying, 'I love you.' " He cried and set about tracking her down. Through her brother, he discovered she had changed her name and moved to Canada.

"We still haven't talked, but we've exchanged e-mails. It was like opening an old wound. I told her that none of what happened was her fault and that she'd been a major influence. That she'd opened me up emotionally, since my family was so closed, that I don't regret a minute with her, and that I can still hear her laugh."

After that, he says, he decided to forgive his father's coldness, too. "The first time I told him, 'I love you,' was on his deathbed. 'I love youse too,' he said."

Skiba hopes his work at the archive will help make life for others, if not easier, then at least less lonely. The collection, he says, provides proof that despite all the recalcitrant bigotry in the world, enormous progress has been made in a relatively short time.

He opens the doors every week to high school students, university researchers, authors, and individuals interested in the past.

He shows them photographs of protests and pinup boys and preppy gay men gathered in Rittenhouse Square. He pulls out plastic boxes filled with "Sorry girls, I'm gay" refrigerator magnets and art deco matchbooks from the city's underground gay bars. He dusts off protest signs and the minutes from activist meetings, newspaper clippings, and a 1962 article from Philadelphia Magazine, "The Furtive Fraternity," the first mainstream media story on the city's gay community.

"We have one of the largest collections in the country," he says. "I feel it's important that LGBT people take control of their own history and don't rely on others to conserve or interpret it for them."

He values it all, he says, from the k.d. lang coffee mug to the yellowing copies of One: The Homosexual Magazine, a thin pamphlet that sold for 25 cents. To print "Homosexual" on the cover, Skiba says, was an act of civil disobedience. To mail it to subscribers was to risk prosecution, because any reference to homosexuality was considered pornography.

The contents, however, were anything but.

In one issue from August 1955, a man identified as Luther Allen wrote:

"It seems to me that it matters very little, really, whether a man goes to bed with a woman or another man. It matters much whether a lover is an honest man or a cheat, whether he is vain or modest, whether he is loyal or faithless, whether he is charitable and compassionate or ruthless and cruel, whether he is brave or cowardly, whether he is sensitive or callous, whether he is generous or mean. These are the things which make the difference between a good man and a louse. Whether one is homosexual or heterosexual has nothing to do with the case."

A radical opinion at the time, says Skiba, and in some quarters, still.