Early Gay Civil Rights Campaigner Dick Leitsch Dies at 83

As head of The Mattachine Society, he led "sip-ins" that helped end discriminatory practices in bars.

Gay civil rights activist Dick Leitsch, whose actions helped end discriminatory practices at New York City bars, has died at the age of 83. Leitsch, who was suffering from cancer, passed in hospice in Manhattan.

Leitsch led the New York chapter of The Mattachine Society, one of the first advocacy groups of its kind to fight for the rights of queer people, and gained notoriety for what he deemed the "sip-ins," which were actions modeled after the sit-ins by black freedom fighters at segregated lunch counters.

On April 21, 1966, three years before the Stonewall Uprising, Leitsch and three friends, Craig Rodwell, John Timmons and Randy Wicker, accompanied by a reporter from The New York Times, went to Julius', a bar that, like many others, served gay people only if they did not identify themselves as such.

An unwritten State Liquor Authority policy classified gay people as inherently "disorderly," and bars that knowingly served them were at risk of losing their liquor license.

"We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service," Mr. Leitsch told the bartender, who clasped his hand over a drink, refusing the request.

“I think it’s the law,” the bartender answered.

While the plan was to file a lawsuit, that proved unnecessary. The liquor board backed off, simply denying it had ever had the unwritten policy.

The year after the sip-ins, in 1967, New York State courts ruled on behalf of bar owners, in two concurrent suits, striking down the belief that queer people are inherently disorderly and should be banned from establishments serving alcohol, thus effectively ending the practice of revoking licenses from businesses who served them.

Delorean08 via Wikimedia Commons (CC license 1.0)

Dick Leitsch backstage with Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells during the production of The Boys in the Band.

“Dick Leitsch was one of the country’s most militant and important gay activists in the decade before Stonewall,” George Chauncey, a Columbia University historian and author told the Times. “The sip-in he organized at Julius’ is a brilliant example of lessons he took from the black civil rights movement about how to stage events that reframed public understanding.”

The Julius' was deemed a historically significant location in 2016, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, protecting it from being torn down.

Leitsch withdrew from the movement around the time of the Stonewall Uprising, and admitted to Making Gay History podcast host Eric Marcus that he never thought he'd be remembered, having once been resigned to obscurity.

But his contributions will not be forgotten. He will not be forgotten.