Embracing Our Heroic Legacy As 2019's "Stonewall 50" Begins

Even the walls of New York City's oldest gay bar recount historic events.

Posted Dec 28, 2018

After strolling down Barrow Street, trying to recall exactly where on that charming West Village street of red-brick townhouses my late friend Allen lived 40 years earlier, I headed toward West 10th Street, aiming for Number 159: Julius’, the oldest operating gay bar in New York City.

Sipping a bottle of tasty Magners Irish hard cider, I noticed the wall across from where I sat. On it were framed photos, mostly of men, presumably gay (its being a gay bar, after all). They included early Mattachine Society activists John Timmins, Dick Leitsch, Craig Roswell, and Randy Wicker.

It got me thinking.

The Mattachines

Harry Hay, often called the "father of the modern gay rights movement," started the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950. He intended it to be a discussion group for gay men to enhance their self-understanding and explore the contributions that gay people had made to human society through the ages. The group was named after the secret male societies in France that in the Middle Ages dressed as jesters and used dance and comedy — a kind of camp humor — to mock the king and ridicule society’s false pretenses.

Loosely affiliated Mattachine chapters sprang up in several cities around the U.S. during the 1960s, most significantly in Washington, D.C. Its leader was World War II combat veteran, Harvard doctorate holder, fired federal employee, and firebrand activist Frank Kameny.

“Gay is good!” declared Kameny — as he seized control of the discussion about gay lives and fought with everything in him to ensure that gay people also were legally recognized as equal citizens. Kameny was instrumental in activists’ successful efforts to convince the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 finally to heed the scientific literature and remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental illnesses — an historic, pivotal advance toward full equality.

On April 21, 1966, the four Mattachines in the photo on Julius’ wall staged a “sip in” at the bar to challenge the New York State Liquor Authority regulation that prohibited bars and restaurants from serving homosexuals. Together with five reporters, the group were able to be served at a number of other bars until they were denied service, ironically enough, at Julius’, already by that time an established gay bar. News coverage of the incident forced the liquor authority chairman to publicly deny that his agency discriminated against homosexuals.

More than three years before the Stonewall uprising, this early act of civil disobedience helped push along what eventually became major changes in the legal, political, and social standing of LGBT people.

John-Manuel Andriote/photo
Mementoes and framed photos of gay heroes and important moments in LGBTQ history adorn the walls of Julius' in New York City.
Source: John-Manuel Andriote/photo

The "Heroic Legacy," right there on the wall

The surroundings at Julius’, the mementos and framed photos of heroes of the LGBT equality movement, are testaments of the heroic legacy.

I know that sounds highfalutin'. But consider this: The gay men in those photos believed so deeply in their own full equality — as Americans, as human beings — that they risked their reputations, jobs, family relationships, pretty much everything they held dear by insisting openly that second-class and ashamed would no longer be the destiny of LGBT people in America.

After President Obama’s 2016 designation of the Stonewall Inn as a national monument, I heard some embarrassment that the first national monument to a significant place in LGBTQ history was a gay bar.

Granted, it’s not your usual battlefield monument. But the battle cries of the Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1969, have reverberated down the decades, inspiring new generations to pick up the mantle of activism and continue to fight for full equality.

Julius’ wall rightly celebrates the bravery and determination of people whose insistence on their own integrity and equality make them worthy role models for other gay men — and anyone else who values integrity and equality.

In 1966, it was a radical act for gay men to openly assemble in an establishment serving alcohol — right in the heart of big, sophisticated, and worldly New York City. Dissembling and hiding one’s truth were widespread means of coping with homophobic oppression.

Openly declaring not only that you were gay, but you were proud of it, would have seemed so crazy at the time it could have had its own listing in the DSM.

It took enormous courage for those gay men in that photo to stand up against the shame and outlaw status imposed on them — fundamentally, for being different. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for the freedom we have today to call ourselves LGBT. Even the Q of “queer” — traditionally, like “fag,” one of our “N words” — has been reclaimed and turned inside out to mean something good.

As 2019 gets underway, and the LGBT community prepares massive and multiple celebrations of Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, it’s useful to remind ourselves — and our fellow non-gay citizens who can learn from it, too — our LGBTQ heroic legacy is there for us admire, emulate, feel proud of, and claim as our own.