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The Inside Story of the Protest That Legalized Gay Bars in America
“Three deviates invite exclusion by bars,” read the headline in The New York Times after three openly gay men walked into a bar.
It was 1966, and it was illegal in Manhattan to serve alcohol to gay men. But a group of activists decided it was time to challenge that law, in a protest movement that helped usher in Stonewall and the modern queer liberation movement. Their names were Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, and John Timmons, all members of The Mattachine Society, an early queer liberation group. They were determined to challenge the prohibition on serving gay men.
Challenging an Unjust Law
And so they staged a “sip-in,” a pun on the then-popular protest phenomenon of sit-ins. Their target was Julius’, a gay bar that didn’t want to be a gay bar. Julius’ had been in operation since the 1860s — nobody’s quite sure when it opened — and management always did their best to harass gay clientele.
Julius’ wasn’t their first choice. It wasn’t even their second. The activists first went to a bar that, knowing they were coming, closed for the day. Then they went to a second that happily served them alcohol, destroying their chances at staging a protest there. And then finally, they made their way to Julius’, knowing that it had recently been raided by the police and would be particularly vigilant about not serving queer people illegally. (According to some accounts, the management there had actually made arrangements with the activists to play along.)
“We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” The three men read those words from a script. The bartender then put his hand over a drink and refused to serve them.
Victory in Court
Finally having been denied service, the men took the New York State Liquor Authority to court and won. A ruling overturned the ban, finding that bars could not withhold service to gay men simply for being gay.
The sip-in is noteworthy because queer people had very seldom fought back against oppression up until that point. Sure, there had been a few protests and some newsletters and the occasional angry op-ed, but it was rare that queer people would refuse to back down against oppression.
This victory proved that LGBTQ liberation could be achieved, at least in part, through the court system. It’s a strategy that served the movement well over the following decades, with major wins secured through very careful litigation. Whether it’s decriminalization or health care or marriage, queers have found that the law is often on their side when they challenge unjust oppression. But what’s required before all else is the courage to come out, to demand equality, and to stand up for what’s right even when it could be unsafe to do so.
Did you know about the Mattachine Society and the Julius Sip-In?
This article was originally published on July 21, 2019
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