Hornet Sat Down With Late Gay Rights Pioneer Dick Leitsch at Julius’, the Oldest Gay Bar in New York
In April Hornet had the opportunity to visit Julius’ Bar, a watering hole in the West Village of New York City where one of the first demonstrations of gay resistance was staged. Pre-Stonewall, three members of the Mattachine Society, an influential gay activist group, organized a “sip-in” to challenge policies that said bars couldn’t serve people who were openly gay. Dick Leitsch, the last surviving member of that group, sat down with myself and Ken Lustbader, co-director of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
Sadly, Leitsch passed away on Friday, June 22, due to complications from liver cancer. He was 83 years old.
“The sip-in took place 52 years ago, and it was the one of the earliest pre-Stonewall public actions for LGBT rights in the city, if not the country,” Lustbader explains to Hornet. “So it was a really important moment where activists such as Dick came together with the Mattachine Society, which was a pre-Stonewall political organization of mostly gay men. They said it’s discriminatory that the State Liquor Authority has a policy that if you are openly gay — if you say, ‘I’m a homosexual’ — they can say, ‘We can’t serve you because by default you would be considered disorderly.'”
“So it was a really important message to send to the public,” Lustbader says of the 1966 event.
“You couldn’t have a demonstration thing, a big demonstration because the liquor board would say it has to be ‘well-behaved,'” Leitsch tells us. “We came in, the three of us did and said, ‘We’re gay people.’ And [the bartender] said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t serve you homosexuals.’ It wasn’t planned, it just happened. [He said] ‘I’m sorry, we can’t serve you,’ and clap, they took the photograph [referring to the photo at the top of this story].'”
Lustbader elaborates: “What was genius about Dick’s action was that he had the New York Post, The Village Voice and The New York Times trailing him. The Village Voice photographer Fred McDowell captured that iconic photograph. So it’s a really important public action and really shows that resistance worked.”
“We went to the Liquor Authority and they lied,” Leitsch says. “They had closed bar after bar after bar after bar, but they lied. They said, ‘We never said it was against the law to serve homosexuals.'”
“They denied that there was a policy,” Lustbader chimes in.
The work that Leitsch and his friends did on that day helped pave the way for the legalized gay bars that eventually came later.
“Dick has talked about how important gay bars were as places of socializing, political organizing and just community interaction,” Lustbader says. “They were the only places in town that you could sort of let your hair down and be gay in a public space. They were really important places, and if you didn’t have bars and people like Dick organizing and politicizing awareness about LGBT rights, you wouldn’t have had Stonewall. All those efforts led up to that watershed moment.”
When asked about his fond memories of Julius’ Bar, Leitsch reveals that he has “so many.”
“This bar was open all the time, and it was a neighborhood bar,” he continues. “It wasn’t totally gay, it wasn’t totally straight. It was a neighborhood type of place. And they served wonderful cheeseburgers [which they still do, by the way]. It was a good place to drink and hang out, stuff like that. Just a great neighborhood [spot] and a wonderful building.”
Leitsch passed away from liver cancer at a New York City hospice on June 22, 2018. He is survived by his brother, John Leitsch, and sister Joanne Williams. Leitsch lost his longtime partner Timothy Scoffield in 1989 from AIDS complications.
We’re honored to have had the opportunity to learn of the incredible work Dick Leitsch did for our community and to have met him before his passing. We’re sure he’s enjoying a drink and a cheeseburger at some fabulous gay bar up in the sky.
Watch Hornet’s interview with Dick Leitsch and Ken Lustbader here:
Featured Image: Mattachine Society members John Timmons, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker being refused service by the bartender at Julius’, April 21, 1966. Gift of The Estate of Fred W. McDarrah.