The Shoulders On Which We Stand: LGBT Activist Dick Leitsch Passes Away At 83

The now-famous 'Sip-In' where gay men were refused service
The now-famous ‘Sip-In’ where gay men were refused service 

In a world where we, thankfully, have high school gay/straight alliances and Pride parades galore, it’s important to remember a time when being gay didn’t come with so many allies.

As we know, there was a time when it was outright dangerous to walk down the street being openly gay.

It’s with that in mind that we take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Dick Leitsch, an important, early leader in the gay rights movement.

Dick Leitsch died June 22 at a hospice center in Manhattan due to liver cancer. He was 83.

From The Washington Post:

A bartender, freelance journalist and onetime Tiffany sales representative, Mr. Leitsch was a self-described “hick from Kentucky who didn’t known anything about gay rights” when he followed a boyfriend to New York in 1959. He soon became a member and young leader of the Mattachine Society, an early gay advocacy group named after a group of medieval jesters who, disguised by masks, protested the oppression of peasants.

Mr. Leitsch rarely donned a mask himself. After being named president of the organization’s New York chapter in 1965, he took the group in a more aggressive direction, taking on the city’s police chief and newly elected liberal mayor, John V. Lindsay, in campaigns that drew on the tactics of the African American civil rights movement and became a model for other gay rights groups across the country.

In that pre-Stonewall era, a few years before an uprising at a Greenwich Village gay bar galvanized a broader protest movement for equality and acceptance, few gays used their name or showed their face on television. Mr. Leitsch was a notable exception, appearing on “The David Susskind Show,” in local news and radio broadcasts and at town-hall-style meetings.

In 1960s New York Leitsch actively opposed anti-gay entrapment by police and organized the very first major act of civil disobedience by a gay rights group — a ‘sit-in’ that came to be known as the Sip-In.

Here’s the history on that now-famous ‘Sip-In’ which occurred on April 21, 1966, at a Greenwich Village bar named ‘Julius:’

Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, the society’s president and vice president respectively, and another society activist, John Timmons, planned to draw attention to the practice by identifying themselves as homosexuals before ordering a drink in order to bring court scrutiny to the regulation [against serving gays]. The three were going to read from Mattachine stationary “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.”

The three first targeted the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant at St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue in the East Village, Manhattan which had a sign, “If you are gay, please go away.” The three showed up after a New York Times reporter had asked a manager about the protest and the manager had closed the restaurant for the day. They then targeted a Howard Johnson’s and a bar called Waikiki where they were served in spite of the note with a bartender saying later, “How do I know they’re homosexual? They ain’t doing nothing homosexual.”

Frustrated, they then went to Julius, where a clergyman had been arrested a few days earlier for soliciting sex. A sign in the window read, “This is a raided premises.” The bartender initially started preparing them a drink but then put his hand over the glass which was photographed. The New York Times ran a headline the next day “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.”

The Mattachines took their case to court and the courts agreed with them saying that gays had a right to peacefully assemble.

Thanks to that ruling, the practice of licensed, legally operating gay bars began.