Remembering a 1966 'Sip-In' for Gay Rights

The Mattachine Society was one of the first gay rights groups in the country. On April 21, 1966 they staged a "Sip-In": they went into a tavern, declared that they were gay, ordered a drink — and waited to be served, or turned away, in order to sue.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Before Stonewall, there was the "Sip-In." In 1966, gay bars were technically legal in New York but they were often raided by agents of the State Liquor Authority, which had a regulation against serving homosexuals in bars on the idea that they were disorderly.

The Mattachine Society was one of the first gay rights groups in the country. And on April 21 of 1966 the society decided to take inspiration from the civil rights sit-ins that integrated so many lunch counters in restaurants and stage a "sip-in": go into a tavern, declared that were gay, order a drink, then wait to be served or turned away, and then sue.

Today, the bar called Julius(ph) welcomes gays and commemorated the sip-in on Thursday as part of Pride Week in New York. Dick Leitsch was then head of the New York Mattachine Society. He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DICK LEITSCH (Former Chairman, Mattachine Society New York): It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Why did you settle on Julius?

Mr. LEITSCH: Well, first of all, we were going to go to this bar on 8th Street. They had a sign in their window saying, if you're gay, go away. And we thought that would be very dramatic and we'd go there and ask for service and see what happened. We notified the press and being gay, we got there late. And the New York Times had already gotten there and said, what about this gay demonstration? And the manager said, what? So he closed the place for the day.

When we got there, there's a sign on the door saying, closed today. And so then we decided we had to go Julius' because Julius' had been raided like 10 days before. The bar would have a sign in the window saying, this is a raided premises, and very often they'd put a uniformed cop on the stool inside the door, and he sat there until the trial came up.

So we knew that Julius' would not serve us because they have this thing pending. And so when 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 whole thing ended up in court, and the court decided well, yes, the Constitution says that people have the right to peacefully assemble and the state can't take that right away from you. And so the Liquor Authority can't prevent gay people from congregating in bars.

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

SIMON: I got to tell you, Mr. Leitsch, listening to you describe what life was like for gays in New York in the mid-'60s, I wonder. In 2008, when young gays can observe gays getting married, gays owning multi-billion dollar corporations, do they know this history?

Mr. LEITSCH: I don't think so. You know, in the gay world we're missing a couple of generations here who died of AIDS, so there's not the continuity. And history has always been a problem for gay people because we're a different sort of minority. You know, black people have black children. Irish people have Irish children. The gay people tend to have straight parents. There's no generational hand down sort of thing here, you know.

SIMON: Mr. Leitsch, is there still a Mattachine Society?

Mr. LEITSCH: Oh, no, not after Stonewall. I kept saying, what's the goal of Mattachine? And I always said the goal of Mattachine is put ourselves out of business. When the cops walked into Stonewall, they tried to close it. People said, no, you're not going to close our bar. We have a right to have our bars and it's been established we have the right to have our bars. And Mattachine had nothing to do with Stonewall. That was something where the people rose up and did it. And that's the beginning of the gay movement.

SIMON: Dick Leitsch, former chairman of the New York Mattachine Society. Thanks so much.

Mr. LEITSCH: Thank you very much. It's pleasure being here. And Happy Gay Pride Day.

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