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Dick Leitsch, whose ‘Sip-In’ was a milestone for the gay rights movement, dies at 83

After pouring their drinks, a bartender in Julius' refuses to serve John Timmons, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker, who were protesting New York liquor laws that prevented serving gay customers. (Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

Dick Leitsch, who became a leading gay rights activist in 1960s New York, where he helped end police entrapment of gays and organized the first major act of civil disobedience by a gay rights group — a boozy sit-in known as the Sip-In — died June 22 at a hospice center in Manhattan. He was 83.

The cause was liver cancer, said a niece, Cheryl Williams.

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.

While Mattachine’s Washington leader, Frank Kameny, focused on ending discriminatory practices at the level of the federal government, Mr. Leitsch’s work centered on a more quotidian, if nonetheless important, aspect of gay life: ending discrimination and police entrapment at bars, one of the few places available for gay men and women to meet, mingle and organize.

In New York, the State Liquor Authority often revoked the licenses of bars that served gays, whom it targeted under a Prohibition-era provision barring “disorderly” customers. (Sodomy laws aimed at gays remained on the books in New York until 1980.) Plainclothes police officers flirted with gay men and lesbians who were then arrested on charges of “homosexual solicitation.”

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Mr. Leitsch, collaborating with poet Allen Ginsberg and meeting with city leaders, led a 1966 campaign to end the practice of gay entrapment in New York, according to George Chauncey , a Columbia University history professor and author of “Gay New York.”

“This had a profound impact on gay life in New York,” Chauncey said. “It really meant that for the first time in a generation, a gay man going into a bar didn’t have to worry that the cute guy coming onto him might’ve been a plainclothes man who was trying to reach his arrest quota.”

“His actions,” Chauncey added, “helped make it easier for a generation of gay people to come out and be openly gay.”

Building on the success of his anti-entrapment campaign, Mr. Leitsch organized an effort to spotlight the refusal of bars to serve gay customers, which Chauncey described as “the first organized act of civil disobedience by gay people,” following picket line protests held in cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

Known as the Sip-In, an alcohol-infused twist on the sit-ins that African Americans held at segregated lunch counters in the South, the protest took place at the West Village bar Julius’, where the entrapment of a former Peace Corps volunteer had spurred Mr. Leitsch’s police-reform effort. In a public-relations coup for Mr. Leitsch, a Village Voice photographer captured the moment on April 21, 1966, when a bartender at Julius’ placed his hand over a glass, refusing service to Mr. Leitsch and his Mattachine friends Craig Rodwell, John Timmons and Randy Wicker.

The event, chronicled one day later in a New York Times story titled “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion By Bars,” almost did not happen. Mr. Leitsch and his fellow protesters had originally planned to stage their protest at a bar on St. Mark’s Place, where a sign read, “If you are gay, please stay away.” But after tipping off journalists to the protest’s date and time, they arrived 10 minutes late and discovered that the bar had closed, apparently seeking to avoid negative press coverage.

Improvising, the group walked a few blocks west to Howard Johnson’s, a popular gay hookup spot, and presented a statement to their waitress: “We are homosexuals. We believe that a place of public accommodation has an obligation to serve an orderly person, and that we are entitled to service so long as we are orderly.”

In place of a self-righteous refusal, the orderly, ordinary-looking men in dark suits were given a round of free drinks. Informed of their mission, the manager “doubled with laughter and had a waiter bring three bourbons to them,” the Times reported, saying he knew of no regulation that prevented him from serving gays.

Mr. Leitsch tried again, visiting a tiki bar called the Waikiki that gave the men another round of free drinks, before finally heading to Julius’. “As soon as I said the word ‘homosexual,’ ” he later told the New Yorker, recalling his encounter with the bartender, “he said, ‘I can’t serve you.’ ”

While Mr. Leitsch pointed to the event as an example of institutional discrimination, the chief executive of the State Liquor Authority insisted it did not discriminate against gays and said individual bars had a right to refuse service to customers who were not “orderly.”

According to historian David Carter’s book “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” Mr. Leitsch’s Sip-In led to a growing acceptance of gays at bars in New York and across the country. Perhaps most significantly, the publicity resulted in a Mattachine lawsuit in New Jersey, where in 1967 the state Supreme Court ruled that “well-behaved homosexuals” could not be barred from a drink.

“In our culture, homosexuals are indeed unfortunates,” the New Jersey ruling said. But “their status does not make them criminals or outlaws.”

Richard Joseph Leitsch, who often used the family name Valentine as his middle name, was born in Louisville on May 11, 1935. His parents owned a candy and tobacco store and, because of his mother’s alcoholism, he was often left to look after his three younger siblings, according to Williams.

Mr. Leitsch never “came out” to his family, his niece said, and his parents never asked about his sexuality. “I believe his parents were the first white members of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP,” she recalled. “They were very open, very receptive.”

Mr. Leitsch attended Catholic schools, including what is now Bellarmine University in Louisville, and worked at New York bars and restaurants until he effectively went into retirement around 2000 and began volunteering at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Manhattan.

Throughout that period he wrote occasional dispatches for gay newspapers and magazines, including a 1970 interview with then up-and-coming actress Bette Midler, titled “The Whole World’s a Bath!”

Survivors include a brother and sister. His partner of 17 years, Timothy Scoffield, was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1989.

Mr. Leitsch’s role in the gay rights movement was largely overshadowed by events at the Mafia-run Stonewall Inn, where a police raid on June 28, 1969, sparked days of riots and protests by gay and transgender patrons. In Mr. Leitsch’s recounting, Lindsay called him to ask him to stop the riots. “Even if I could,” Mr. Leitsch was said to have replied, “I wouldn’t.” (Mr. Leitsch was credited as perhaps the first gay journalist to write about the uprising, which he described in an article for the Advocate as “the first gay riots in history.”)

The Mattachine Society’s role in the movement effectively ended after Stonewall, Mr. Leitsch said, as he and the organization were supplanted by younger activists with a more militant approach. Many gays, he noted happily, no longer sought to hide their sexual identity.

“The day before Stonewall,” he told the Times in 2016, “I was the only gay person. The day after, everybody was gay.”

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