Before Stonewall


In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, every gay bar in New York, and plenty of straight bars, welcome hordes of proud homo revelers, happy to toast to the power that a drag queen’s high heel could wield in a discriminatory police raid in 1969. But this year, at Julius, a West Village bar around the corner from the Stonewall, one party will commemorate a lesser-known event in gay history, which preceded Stonewall by three years.

That party is Mattachine, and the incident it honors is the “Sip-In” staged on April 21, 1966, in hopes of overturning the State Liquor Authority’s regulations against serving homosexuals in bars. While there was no law on the books against such a thing, the SLA often penalized bars that served homosexuals on the grounds that their gatherings were “disorderly.” Bartenders ordered patrons to sit facing away from other customers to prevent cruising, denied them drinks, or just kicked them out as precautionary moves under the SLA’s watch. At the same time, bars frequented by gays were often targeted by police in entrapment schemes.

The New York chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early gay-rights group founded by Harry Hay in Los Angeles and named after an acting troupe in Renaissance France, decided to take back the night. Dick Leitsch, the society’s president, with John Timmons and Craig Rodwell (who later opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop), staged a demonstration that later became known as the Sip-In. The plan—which, historian David Carter wrote, was “both creative and ingeniously simple”—was to walk into a bar as a group, make their homosexuality known, and order a drink, inviting the inevitable refusal. Then Mattachine would take legal action against the bar and the SLA.

At the top of Mattachine’s hit list was the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant on St. Marks Place near Third Avenue (site of today’s Gama, an upscale Korean joint). The restaurant had a sign in the window that read: “If you are gay, please go away.” Leitsch, Timmons, and Rodwell designated noon for their happy hour—but, says Leitsch, “being gay, we were late.” Mattachine had tipped off the press, who in turn had tipped off the restaurant’s management, which closed the restaurant before the Mattachine men arrived.

The three activists, joined by the chapter’s secretary, Randy Wicker, went to two more Village establishments—Howard Johnson and Waikiki—where Leitsch produced a note on Mattachine stationery announcing: “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” The managers in both establishments poured them drinks. One of the managers, who had ties to the mob, actually laughed and, according to Leitsch, said: “How do I know they’re homosexual? They ain’t doing nothing homosexual.”

Their plans to be denied service thrice thwarted, the Mattachines then went to Julius, on the corner of West 10th Street and Waverly. It was a mixed bar: “Everyone went to Julius because they made the best hamburgers,” recalls Leitsch. “About 10 days earlier, a clergyman was entrapped and arrested there for solicitation. The SLA couldn’t take away the bar’s liquor license before there was a trial, and until then, there was a sign in the window that said: ‘This is a raided premises.’ Having that sign up, they knew they couldn’t serve us. So we went to Julius.” Upon arrival, the bartender immediately began fixing the men a drink. But when Leitsch read the announcement from his piece of stationery, the bartender “played along,” according to Carter—he placed his hand over the glass. This is the scene in Fred McDarrah’s photo for The Village Voice shown on the previous page, the most famous photo of the Sip-In.

The action didn’t overturn the law, but it did bring awareness to the issue and led the New York City Commission on Human Rights to declare that homosexuals had the right to be served. Eventually, entrapment by police was also outlawed. Homosexuals could assemble freely and drink while they did it. The gay bar as we know it was born.

“The Sip-In was the opening shot in the campaign to make gay bars legal,” says Carter, who’s written perhaps the most comprehensive account of the Sip-In in his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. “It was actually the challenge to SLA policy that led to private clubs like the Stonewall Inn being open.”