What the 'Sip-In' Did for Gay Rights: Before Stonewall, the Fight for Equality Inspired a New York Bar Crawl

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Taking inspiration from the “Sit Ins” in the South of America during the civil rights movement, the “Sip-In” was a way for gay rights activists to make themselves heard.

In the spring of 1966, members of a gay rights organization wanted to make their voices heard. Instead of taking to the streets, they hit the bars in New York City and demanded to be served, despite laws stating homosexuals could not be.

It was a rebellion that paid homage to the “Sit In” protests in Southern States during the Civil Rights movement, as those pushing for equal rights would sit at a “whites only” counter and demand to be served.

In April 1966, members of the Mattachine Society plotted to go to one bar and try and get arrested for asking for an alcoholic drink. They intended to challenge New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) regulations that made it so bars could not serve drinks to known or suspected gay men or lesbians because just their being there was designated as "disorderly."

What occurred was an unexpected bar crawl across Lower Manhattan to not only be heard but be served. At the West Village pub, Julius’ Bar, they were refused service. Three years before the Stonewall Revolution, this would become a key moment in the fight for the rights of LGBTQIA+ New Yorkers. 

“I think this is what really happened in the '60s, before Stonewall, is that we started challenging the idea that all homosexuals were sick,” activist, “Sip-In” participant and Mattachine Society treasurer Randy Wicker told Inside Edition Digital.

The Dry Wells

In the early 1960s, the New York State Liquor Authority refused to issue licenses to gay bars as they were considered “disorderly houses” and spots where “unlawful practices are habitually carried on by the public."

Though homosexuality was technically legal in the state, the community often faced ridicule and discrimination. People could be fired from their corporate jobs for being gay. Even just kissing or holding hands as a same-sex couple could be considered disorderly and result in arrest.

“As a community, we've come a long way. In the ‘60s we had to live in the shadows and hide,” former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto told Inside Edition Digital in 2019.

Stonewall Inn bartender Tree told Inside Edition Digital in 2019 that gay bars were hidden in plain sight, and to find one, you had to be taken there by someone who already knew where it was.

“The windows were painted, everything was dark, black, you had to knock on the doors,” said Tree, who asked that his last name not be used.

Police were notorious for raiding bars in the West Village and Lower Manhattan, which were suspected of serving homosexual customers.

“If you sat at a gay bar, you could not turn around,” Tree said. “You had to talk to the person behind you through a mirror ... because they wanted to make sure if the cops came in that there didn't look [to be] anything suspicious.”

Members of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, looked to do something about the treatment members of the LGBTQ community endured.

The Mattachine Society took their name from French Renaissance groups who were inspired by the Italian theater character Mattaccino, a court jester who spoke truths to a king, according to Wicker.

The Society started in the early 1950s in Los Angeles before spreading across the country. It was one of the first gay rights groups in America, according to the Library of Congress.

“We were an educational research organization, concerned with issues regarding homosexuals,” Wicker said.

As the Mattachine Society tried to educate and tried to raise awareness. Wicker said he would try to appear on radio shows, report in newspapers and in 1964, he spoke on MacDougal Street to a small crowd to raise awareness about the discrimination gay men faced inside bars.

“My legs were shaking at this moment, and I said, ‘Down the street, there is a bar that operates because it caters the homosexuals and it operates only because it pays off the police,’” he said. “This is because gay bars are illegal in this city. I said, ‘I don't think it's in the public interest for bars to operate and operate because they're paying off the local police because paying off the local police is corruption of the Civic Act.’

“And after a talk like that, literally holding my breath because we used to think that people knew we were homosexual, we'd be stoned to death on the street corner," he continued. "To my surprise, I got a light smattering of applause and then got one heckle… People often ask me, ‘How did you ever have the nerve to do what you did?’ And actually, it came from that moment. But I found out that if you got up and presented yourself, even the people,” he added.

All of this was laying the groundwork for what Mattachine Society president Dick Leitsch would go on and plan in the spring of 1966.

Pouring on the Protest

Leitsch along with Mattachine Society members, Craig Rodwell and John Timmons, concocted a plan to go a bar, walk in, declare they were gay right away and see if they could get served. 

“Dick Leitsch in 1966, had arranged to have a 'Sip-In,' which would challenge the laws,” Wicker said. “Gay bars were much more significant within the gay community than they are today…So they wanted to challenge the liquor laws and set out to find out.”

On April 21, 1966, Leitsch, Rodwell and Timmons planned to start off at the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant in the East Village. They planned to order a drink, be refused service, protest and then get arrested. Wicker would join them later on in the day.

Much to their surprise, the bar was closed and had a sign in the window saying, “If you are gay, please go away,” according to the National Park Services.

It is believed the owners of the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant were tipped off by a New York Times reporter about the “Sip-In” and opted to keep the doors shut, according to The New York Times.  

The trio then tried Dom, a favorite for the members of the Velvet Underground to play in, but that was also closed, according to The New York Times.

They then went to Howard Johnson’s, which were nearby and where Wicker planned to join them. Upon entering the Howard Johnson’s on 8th Avenue, they made their declaration when they sat down that they were gay men and the waitress laughed. There was no pushback in serving them, Wicker recalled.

“The waitress just laughed and said, ‘No problem, of course,’ because they had gay people in there all the time,” Wicker said.

After a welcome they didn’t expect or want at Howard Johnson’s, they went to Waikiki, a well known Mafia-run Tiki bar, The New York Times reported. There, again much to their surprise, they were served without any issue.

It was proving difficult for the group to make their point of protest. It was then that they remembered that Julius' Bar in the West Village had recently been raided by the police. 

It was there they would make their next move.

A Loud Moment in a Quiet Bar

Julius’ Bar opened in the 1860s and maintained a liquor license, according to the National Parks Service.

The bar was also known to be quiet and the type were people would go to have a nightcap or after-work drink. Patrons were straight and gay, Wicker said. 

“It wasn't an openly gay bar, you had windows where there wasn't any dancing in the back room or anything like that,” Wicker said. “They actually, aggressively, saw to keep it from going gay because if they ended up as the gay bar, they'd have to pay off the cops.”

Once the group arrived at Julius' Bar, they “identified ourselves as homosexuals, demanded to be served, the bartenders had been instructed to refuse,” Wicker said. 

They finally had achieved their goal: A bar refused to serve them because they were gay.

Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah, who had been tipped off by the members of the Mattachine Society that they would be going to Julius’ Bar, was there to capture the moment they men were refused service. 

And since they had been refused service, they could take legal action against the State Liquor Authority (SLA), according to History.

“So the thing with Julius' was essentially laying the groundwork for a legal case, and that legal case succeeded in having the bar association say, ‘No, either repealing the rule or just saying, 'No.' This has been misinterpreted. It's definitely alright for homosexuals to gather, they have as much as anybody else, right of assemblies in the U.S. constitution,’” Wicker said.

The Mattachine Society teamed up with the ACLU and took the SLA to court. The SLA's regulation that prevented serving gay patrons was overturned.

The “Sip-In” was also covered by The New York Times and the Village Voice, showcasing what was happening to gay men inside the bars at the time.

Though the SLA changed their stance on serving drinks to gay men, it was still illegal to engage in simple behaviors like holding hands or kissing someone of the same sex. There were also laws in place that said wearing less than three gender-appropriate articles of clothing could lead to an arrest. Authorities continued raiding bars known to be gay hot spots in the hopes of catching people violating laws.

Relations between authorities and members of the LGBQTIA+ community would continue to simmer until June 1969, when they boiled over at the Stonewall Inn.

"So the whole world changed after [the Sip-In and Stonewall riots] because once that could happen... real legitimate gay bars open... And you started having people that were running for city council or other offices saying that there was a community, that we reached there," Wicker said. "And that totally laid the groundwork for change in the halls and the society in New York City."

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “Sip-In,” Julius’ was added to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Parks Department on April 21, 2016. At the time, it was just one of 10 historic sites on the National Register honoring LGBTQIA+ history, according to the National Parks Service.

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