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LGBTQ stories: The 'Sip-In' paved the way for gay rights

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Davis Dunavin
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WSHU Public Radio
Randy Wicker, an original "sip-in" participant, points to himself in the famous photo that now hangs in the bar.

A few years before the Stonewall riots, a protest took place at another New York City gay bar, just about a block away. It didn’t draw as much attention, but in its own way, it was a milestone for gay rights. Its participants called it the Sip-In — and it happened at Julius’s Bar in Greenwich Village.

“It’s a very warm, inviting, comfortable place,” says Tom Bernadirn, the bar’s historian. “I would say if anybody wants to come into the city and they want a real taste of gay life from the 1950s, it would be Julius’s … A lot of dark wood, a lot of brass. We’re surrounded at this particular corner with big windows. And as I tell people, the minute you know it’s going to start snowing, head to Julius’s and grab a seat by the window.”

Tom and I pull up a choice seat. We’re joined by Randy Wicker, who’s going to tell us the story of how Julius’s got caught up in the early gay rights movement.

“This is exactly as it was when we came in here and asked to be served and they refused us because we were gay,” Wicker says.

It was common practice among New York City bars in the 1960s to deny service to people they knew were gay. Technically, it wasn’t illegal to serve gay people. But the New York state liquor authority banned disorderly conduct in bars — and in practice, it treated just being gay as disorderly conduct. Randy and his friends were part of an early gay rights movement called the Mattachine Society.

“And what we had done was, we had broken into the airwaves,” Wicker says. “I was the first on radio, the first on television, taking questions to the audience.”

And they wanted to challenge what the bars were doing. So they hatched a plan. They’d go into a bar and order drinks. If they were refused, the plan was to sue the liquor authority. Randy says they hoped the lawsuit would lead to change. But the plan didn’t work out so smoothly at first.

“We went to Howard Johnson’s,” he says. “Said we’re homosexuals and we wanna order a cocktail. And the woman said ‘no trouble!’”

Another bar also served them without issue. Another one heard about the protest and closed early. So, Randy says the group wandered the streets for a while.

“We were looking for a bar to be refused!” he says. “So we thought of Julius’s because we knew Julius’s was uptight.”

Julius’s had a big gay clientele, including famous patrons like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. But Randy says that wasn’t intentional. The bar fought hard to maintain a straight-laced image.

“Julius’s did not want to be a gay bar,” he says. “They wanted to be a neighborhood bar.”

The management was afraid of undercover police officers who would pretend to be gay to arrest patrons for soliciting sex — entrapment. Julius had recently been raided, and police had their eyes on them.

“So they would have doormen on the door, and if there were too many men and not enough women, you couldn’t get in unless you had a female with you. And if you were obviously or seemed to be obviously gay, they would also turn you away. So they were really fighting to remain heterosexual.”

So on that day — April 21, 1966 — Randy and his group walked in and sat at the bar. Their leader, Dick Leitsch, ordered a beer. Leitsch described the incident to NPR’s Scott Simon in 2008, 10 years before he passed away.

“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,” Leitsch said. “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.”

One photo of the so-called “Sip-In” appeared in the Village Voice. It shows Dick Leitsch at the bar with a calm but defiant look on his face. He speaks to the bartender — who looks back with his hand over the glass. The other members of the Mattachine Club surround Dick Leitsch — including Randy Wicker. That photo now hangs on the wall in Julius’s.

The headline in the New York Times the next morning read: ‘3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.’ Soon after, the city’s Commission on Human Rights got involved. And the New York State Liquor Authority changed its rules.

“So suddenly it was legal,” Randy says. “No, you couldn't deny homosexuals the right to drink. You couldn't close the place because homosexuals gather there. That homosexuals, like all other citizens, have the right to partake in public establishments of eating and drinking. “

But police raids continued. Three years later, a police raid at the Stonewall Inn — just a block away — turned into a riot.

“And finally, I always say that if you give people a sense of dignity, they reach a point where they say, I'm not going to put up with this anymore,” Randy says. “You can't do this to me, it's not right. And that's the reason that they resisted at Stonewall. It was sort of like we had created all the gas fumes, they lit the match.”

Randy says, back then, they only dreamed of what events like the Sip-In could accomplish — going from a tiny movement to a mass movement almost overnight.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.