Years Before Stonewall, Gay Rights Activists Staged a 'Sip-In'

The most famous event in LGBT history is surely the Stonewall Riots, a response to the police raid of New York's Stonewall Inn in 1969 that's credited as the catalyst for the gay rights movement as a whole. But it wasn't the gay community's first act of defiance against unfair treatment. Years earlier, gay activists took inspiration from the "sit-ins" of the civil rights movement and staged a "sip-in" of their own.

Disorderly Humans

In the 1960s, New York City — and the rest of the United States, for that matter — was an extremely unwelcome place for sexual minorities. Laws against solicitation of homosexual relations and even against wearing clothes that didn't match your sex meant that gay, bisexual, and trans people could be arrested simply for being themselves.

In that environment, bars became a haven for the gay community since they allowed people to commune in private, away from the cruel eye of the law. But unfortunately, liquor laws were no different. In an effort to avoid a return to the rowdy saloons that had existed before Prohibition, state liquor boards would only allow establishments to serve alcohol if they didn't turn into "disorderly houses" — and to New York's State Licensing Agency (SLA), that meant any bar that served homosexuals. For a bar owner, serving the gay community meant risking the loss of their liquor license.

Enter Dick Leitsch, the leader of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society, which was a nonprofit organization founded in 1951 with the goal of "serving the needs of all homosexuals." (The name came from the Italian "mattachino," a court jester who dared to speak the truth to the king.) Leitsch took a lesson from the successful model of the sit-ins of the civil rights movement and decided to stage a "sip-in." He would find a bar that would refuse him service, make a complaint to the SLA, and hopefully change the law.

'Please Go Away'

One afternoon in the spring of 1966, Leitsch and two other Mattachine members, Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker, called up a New York Times reporter and headed for the Ukranian-American Village Hall, chosen for its prominently displayed sign reading "If You Are Gay, Please Go Away." But the men were late and the reporter spilled the beans to the bar owner, who managed to close up before the trio arrived.

So they tried another place: Howard Johnson's Restaurant. They informed the owner that they were homosexual and asked for a round of drinks. The manager laughed and had a waiter bring them three bourbons, saying that he knew of no law forbidding him to do so. "I drink," the New York Times quoted him as saying, "and who's to say whether I'm a homosexual or not."

Undeterred, they tried the Waikiki a block away. It, too, had no problem serving them. But their fourth try was promising: Julius's Bar had been raided less than two weeks prior, and the staff was being extra careful.

As Leisch recounted to NPR, "... [W]hen we walked in, the bartender put glasses in front of us, and we told him that we were gay and we intended to remain orderly, we just wanted service. And he said, hey, you're gay, I can't serve you, and he put his hands over the top of the glass, which made wonderful photographs."

The discrimination claim the men made was denied by the SLA, which said that it was up to the individual bartender whether to serve a customer. But eventually the Commission on Human Rights got involved and the SLA changed its policy to no longer view homosexuals as "disorderly." This gave LGBT people a freedom they hadn't experienced before — which led to a feeling of empowerment that scholars think helped enable the Stonewall Riots three year later.

"... [T]he importance of this, I think, was that until this time gay people had never really fought back," Leisch said. "We just sort of take in everything passively, didn't do anything about it. And this time we did it, and we won."

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Learn more about the LGBT movement in "Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America" by Martin Duberman. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer June 10, 2019

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