Dick Leitsch, a leading gay rights activist in 1960’s New York, where he helped end police entrapment of gays and organized the first major act of civil disobedience by a gay rights group — a Sip-In at Julius’ bar — died June 22 at a hospice center in Manhattan. He was 83.
In 1966 being homosexual was, in itself, seen as a disorder, It was also “illegal” to serve a homosexual liquor by order of the New York State Liquor Authority. Leitsch who was president of the Mattachine Society’s New York chapter in 1965, took the group in a aggressive direction, taking on the city’s police chief and newly elected mayor, John V. Lindsay.
On April 21, 1966 Dick Leitsch along with two other Mattachine Society members 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 them. Dick Lietsch announced they were gay and 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.
Dick Leitsch’s Sip-In led to a growing acceptance of gays at bars in New York and across the country. Perhaps most significantly, the publicity resulted in a Mattachine lawsuit in New Jersey, where in 1967 the state Supreme Court ruled that “well-behaved homosexuals” could not be barred from a drink.
Richard Joseph Leitsch, who often used the family name Valentine as his middle name, was born in Louisville on May 11, 1935. Survivors include a brother and sister. His partner of 17 years, Timothy Scoffield, was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1989.