The oldest gay bar in New York City, Julius’, is also the site of a groundbreaking “Sip-in” protest in 1966 that succeeded in ending the law banning gays from bars, three years before Stonewall. Dick Leitsch was one of three gay men who bravely staged the “Sip-in.” He met with NBC Out recently at the historic Greenwich Village bar to relive the momentous day that helped spark the gay rights movement.
As Leitch points out, Julius’ was a known hangout for gay men as early as the 1950s. It was a time when police raids, entrapment and harassment were common and any public displays of same-sex affection were grounds for being refused service and even jailed. It was even common to see signs posted at bars that warned, “If you’re gay, please go away.”
By the 1960s, many LGBT were inspired by the civil rights movement and began to organize against oppressive laws and systemic bigotry. One of the earliest organizations spearheading gay activism was the Los Angeles-based Mattachine Society. It was the New York chapter of Mattachine Society that would plan and stage the “Sip-in.”
On April 21, 1966, Mr. Leitch and two other Mattachine members, Craig Rodwell and John Timmins, dressed in crisp, pressed suits and ties and, accompanied by five reporters, began the brave bar-crawl through Greenwich Village’s most frequented gay bars. The three men entered the bars, ordered drinks, were served and informed the bartender they were homosexuals. The New York State Liquor Authority at the time included serving homosexuals as ground for charges of operating a “disorderly” premise. Two bars, Howard Johnson’s and a mob-owned tiki bar, Waikiki ignored the law, and served the men.
It was at Julius’ that Mr. Leitch and his Mattachine brothers were denied service for admitting they were gay. One reporter, Fred McDarrah, captured the famous image when the bartender placed his hand over the cocktail, refusing the gay men their drinks. The story broke in the press the following day, with the The New York Times running the unfortunate, yet predictable headline: “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.” The press exposure resulted in an investigation conducted by the chairman of the city’s Human Right’s Commission. The commission ruled that gays had a right to peacefully assemble and the law was changed.
Julius’ is now the oldest continually operating bar in New York City, opening in 1864, and the oldest gay bar in New York. And, as Mr. Leitch noted, the divey gay haunt does still maintain much of its original architecture. Ken Lustbader, co-director of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, a preservationist group, was also on hand for the NBC Out interview, explained, “Not only is it a gay bar, it’s a historic site. It’s important to know that there’s a pre-Stonewall history of activism, of rich life in New York City.”
Indeed, Julius’ has a rich history of gay cultural and political significance. Famous patrons of the legendary bar include Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Rudolf Nureyev. In 1970, scenes from the milestone gay film Boys in the Band, currently headed for a Broadway revival, were shot at the West Village watering hole. The bar’s website proudly displays a description to the famous “Sip-in” and promotes a monthly “Mattachine night,” co-hosted by Hedwig and the Angry Inch filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell, to commemorate and celebrate the site’s watershed moment.
As the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation notes, unlike Stonewall, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has a long record of refusing designations to historic LGBT sites, has not given Julius’ the classification that would protect the bar from potential altering or destruction.
During the interview, Mr. Leitch ordered a drink, and sipping his cocktail, touchingly expressed the historic magnitude of what he and Mattachine Society fought for back in 1966, “We wanted people to see who we are, what we are.”
(Interior bar photos: Konstantin Sergeyev/New York magazine)