On an afternoon in the spring of 1966, at the corner of 10th Street and Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, three men set out to disrupt the political and social climate of New York City. After having gone from one bar to the next, the men reached Julius’, a cozy tavern with a bar opposite a small grill and an isolated space in the back. They approached the bartender, proclaimed they were gay and then requested a drink—and were promptly denied service.
The trio had accomplished their goal; their “Sip-In” had begun.
The men, who were part of the Mattachine Society—an early organization dedicated to fighting for gay rights—wanted to demonstrate that bars in the city discriminated against LGBTQ people. The practice of refusing service to gay people in bars was common at the time, although it was more veiled than discriminatory legislation like Jim Crow laws in the South that forced racial segregation.
Because a person’s sexual orientation couldn’t be discerned as easily as a person’s sex or race, the New York State Liquor Authority instead based requirements for service on what was deemed “orderly conduct.” Intimate encounters between two men were deemed disorderly, so gay men were often refused service at bars.
Bars that served gay people ran the risk of having their liquor license revoked. And they often were the targets of police raids due to the work of Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr.
“At the time of the World’s Fair in 1964, Mayor Wagner did a huge cleanup of New York City to make it more welcoming towards the visitors of New York City,” said Tom Bernardin, a longtime patron of Julius’ since 1973. ”So he shut down a lot of the gay establishments, went through Times Square and cleaned that up. He wanted to rid the city of homosexuals.”
Using the successful model of the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, Dick Leitsch, leader of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society, decided to stage a “Sip-In” with two other members, Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker. It came at a time when the civil rights movement began to motivate and inspire underrepresented groups throughout the country. And with the November 1965 election of a new mayor, John Lindsay, Leitsch saw an opportunity to try and move the needle.
“He was a liberal republican,” says John D’Emilio, historian and author of Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities:The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. “When [Lindsay] took office in January, this is why the Mattachine Society is now challenging policies. They also were challenging plain clothes harassment and plain clothes police activity that were designed to trick gay men into breaking the law.”
Leithsch’s plan involved revealing to a bartender that he and his colleagues were homosexuals and then being denied service. Once that happened, the Mattachine Society—with the support of the American Civil Liberty Union in New York—could move forward with action against the State Liquor Authority.
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The first part of Leithch’s plan was harder than expected. Prior to the demonstration, the society reached out to publications in order to properly cover the event. The original bar they chose for the Sip-In, the Ukranian-American Village Hall, closed after reporters showed up.
They went on to two bars in search of rejection, Howard Johnson’s and Waikiki, however both establishments served the men drinks. It wasn’t until they got to Julius'—a safe bet for rejection since it had just been raided a few days earlier—that they got the response they needed to move forward and expose the discriminatory law.
The “Sip-In” was covered in the New York Times and the Village Voice, with the former publication running the story as “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.”
The State Liquor Authority denied the discrimination claim, responding that the decision to serve or refrain from serving individuals was up to bartenders. Soon after, the Commission on Human Rights got involved, claiming that homosexuals had the right to be served in bars, and the discriminatory policy by the State Liquor Authority no longer viewed homosexuals as “disorderly.” Afterwards, gay patrons were allowed a freedom that they hadn’t experienced before.
For the next few years in New York, the gay community felt empowered. Police raids became less commonplace and gay bar patrons, while still oppressed in society, had recovered their safe havens. Along with that sense of complacency came the strength to defend it. According to historian D’Emilio, the landmark 1969 Stonewall Riots may not have happened if the gay community hadn’t reaped the benefits of the Sip-In years prior.
“It has a quick impact in New York in that spring of ’66. More bars start to open, they’re less likely to lose their licenses, they’re less likely to be raided by the police because the police are stepping back,” explains D’Emilio. “After two or three years of this, more and more gay men and lesbians in New York city are coming to take this for granted.”
There had been dozens of raids before the “Sip-In” that never garnered such a fierce reaction as Stonewall, which happened three years after the three men had stepped up to Julius’ bar.
More than 50 years later, Julius celebrates its history as one of the oldest gay bars in New York City. Lining the walls of Julius’ are photos of the three men getting denied service from the bartender, next to the unsavory headline by the New York Times.
“Everybody has a history and everybody’s history has a significant part in all of history,” explains Helen Buford, owner of the bar. “Yes, it is a man’s gay bar but it welcomes everybody. Whoever you are, you’re welcome here.”