April 21, 1966: NYC Gay Rights Activist Stage “Sip-In” Protesting Refusal To Serve Homosexuals
A little-known but very important milestone in gay history took place at Julius’ bar on West 10th Street in NYC 50 years ago this week that helped pave the way for the Stonewall Riots.
The Mattachine Society staged the first civil rights “sip-in.”
At the time, being homosexual was, in itself, seen as disorderly,” said Dick Leitsch, 81 an original member of the group. It was also “illegal” to serve a homosexual liquor by order of the New York State Liquor Authority.
On April 21, 1966 Mattachine activists invited along four newspaper reporters, including Thomas A. Johnson of The New York Times. The plan was to convene at noon at the Ukrainian-American Village Hall, a bar on St. Marks Place. “ The Times reporter tipped off the owners, who shut the place. A sign in the window made the establishment’s attitude clear: “If you are gay, please stay away.”
So the men moved across the street to the Dom, a club that, by night, hosted concerts by the Velvet Underground. It had a sign just as unwelcoming as the one at the Ukrainian Hall. The Dom, too, was closed.
After going to a Howard Johnson’s, at Eighth Street and the Avenue of the Americas which served them. The men then advanced to a Mafia-owned Tiki bar, the Waikiki. The amused manager told them: “How do I know you’re homosexuals? Give these guys a drink on us.”
In desperation, the troupe trudged over to Julius’ on West 10th Street. “It was a rather dull, neighborhood place which was about three-quarters gay,” said Randy Wicker, 78, who joined the action at that stop. “I called it a closet queen bar.”
The activists knew Julius’ had to refuse them, because the night before, a man who had been served there had later been entrapped by an officer for “gay activity,” meaning the bar was in jeopardy of having its liquor license revoked. As they entered, the men spied a sign that read “Patrons Must Face the Bar While Drinking,” an instruction used to thwart cruising. (They enforced that rule well into the 1980’s)
As soon as they approached, the bartender put a glass in front of him. When the men announced they were gay, the bartender put his hand over the glass; it was captured in a photograph by Fred McDarrah for The Village Voice.
The next day’s New York Times featured an article about the event with the headline “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.” Two weeks later, a far more sympathetic piece appeared in The Voice. The publicity prompted a response from the State Liquor Authority chairman, Donald S. Hostetter, who denied that his organization ever threatened the liquor licenses of bars that served gays. The decision to serve was up to individual bartenders, he said.
At that point, the Commission on Human Rights got involved. Its chairman, William H. Booth, told The Times in a later article: “We have jurisdiction over discrimination based on sex. Denial of bar service to a homosexual solely for that reason would come within those bounds.”
From that moment on gay men could not be refused service in any SLA licensed New York establishment.
Andrew Dolkart, co-director of the New York City L.G.B.T. Historic Sites Project, is seeking to have Julius’ made the second gay history site to enter the national register, after the Stonewall Inn. The building, which dates from 1826, has been a bar since 1864 and has had a gay clientele since the 1950s. It has been a setting for films including “The Boys in the Band” and “The Normal Heart.”
The small grill within the bar also made one helluva cheeseburger in the 1980’s.