When drinking while gay could get you arrested
Unlike the Stonewall Inn, Julius’ Bar—just around the block from the Stonewall—had a liquor license. In fact, Julius' has been open at 159 West 10th Street and Waverly Place since the 1860s, although not always as a gay or gay-friendly bar.1 In fact, drinking while gay in the early 1960s was considered illegal in New York state.
Every bar or restaurant could be raided or closed for being “disorderly.” What was disorderly? According to the police, one man buying another man a drink, or chatting him up in a flirtatious manner, was enough grounds to be charged with disorderly conduct in New York City. Kissing was certainly regarded as disorderly conduct.2 But was that really what the law demanded?
Three men from the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society, a “homophile” organization, decided to challenge this interpretation of the law in court. (Before Stonewall, most pro-gay groups preferred the neutral word “homophile” to the term homosexual. Homosexuality was defined as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973.3) But they needed a case.
On April 21, 1966 Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell and John Timmons walked through the door to engage in a “sip-in.” Randy Wicker joined them later. This was inspired by earlier “sit-ins” to desegregate diners in the American south. Reporters came with Leitsch and the others.4
Julius’ Bar was the fourth choice for the group’s “sip-in.” The first place they went was the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant, which had a sign in the window saying, “If you are gay, please go away.” But the manager closed the restaurant when a New York Times reporter tipped him off. Leitsch and the others tried two other bars but, unexpectedly, when they announced they were homosexuals, they were served drinks.
At Julius’, the bartender wanted no trouble. Leitsch asked him to cooperate, promising that he would help with the bar’s legal issues. The bartender played his part. When Leitsch revealed that he and his friends were homosexuals, the bartender covered the glasses with his hand and refused to serve them, saying, “I think it’s against the law.” The New York Times ran a story entitled, “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.”5 The Mattachine Society had the court case it wanted.
In 1967, the courts ruled that indecent behavior had to be more than same-sex “cruising,” kissing or touching. Gays could legally drink in a bar.6 But getting a liquor license for an openly gay bar was still tough, which is why Mafia-owned bars like the Stonewall Inn still existed in 1969.
On April 21, 2016, Julius' was added to the National Register of Historic Places.7 At the time, it was one of only ten historic places on the National Register honoring any aspect of LGBTQ history.
- Chibbaro, Lou, Jr. "New York's oldest gay bar approved for landmark status," Washington Blade, April 21, 2016. Retreved June 21, 2019.
- Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Started the Gay Revolution, St. Martin's Press, 2004, pp. 49-51.
- Kozuch, Elliot. "#FlashbackFriday—Today in 1973, the APA Removed Homosexuality From List of Mental Illnesses," December 15, 2017. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
- Carter, loc.cit.
- "A historic “sip-in” at a West Village bar in 1966," EphemeralNewYork.wordpress.com. Retireved June 21, 2019.
- Carter, loc.cit.
- "Julius' Bar," National Park Service/National Register of Historic Places. Retrieved June 21, 2019.