Happy Pride Week, everyone! Today, let’s take visit a landmark West Village bar that was at the center of a historic protest in the fight for LGBTQ rights.
Nope, not that one.
Yeah, that’s the one.
I know, it doesn’t look like much. While you wouldn’t know it thanks to the shitty stucco added in 1932, Julius has actually been around since 1826. At the start, it was just a humble two-story townhouse (that’s the original roofline poking out of the plaster), but by the 1840s, it was a grocery selling grog and stale beer out the back door. By 1864, owner Carrol C. McConke had converted the space into a proper saloon, making Julius the oldest gay bar in New York City.
Of course, it wasn’t always called Julius. During Prohibition, it was called the Seven Doors – ironic, since there was only one entrance in or out at the time. It wasn’t until the 1930s that an Italian truck driver named Johnny Boggiano purchased the former speakeasy and renamed it Julius after his beloved basset hound. He even added these adorable brass basset hound railings at the foot of the bar.
And it wasn’t always a gay bar, either. During the 30s and 40s, it was a popular jazz hangout, hosting the likes of Fats Waller and Ella Fitzgerald. It wasn’t until the 50s that homosexuals found a home here, and even then they confined themselves to the discreet back room. Most bartenders refused to serve openly gay patrons, as even the mere mere presence of homosexuals was enough for cops to raid bars for being “disorderly.”
It was precisely this discrimination Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, and John Timmons aimed to challenge. Leitsch and his friends were members of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups in the United States. Inspired by black activists conducting sit-ins in the South, Leitsch decided to hold a “sip-in” to challenge the discriminatory nature of New York’s liquor laws.
On April 21st, 1966 Leitsch and his friends set out to find a bar where they would be denied service. Now Julius had been raided a mere week before (the raid sign still hangs on the wall of the bar) and bartenders were obviously skittish about serving openly-gay patrons. When the Mattachines arrived, followed by a bevy of reporters, they approached the bar and asked for a drink. As the bartender poured their drinks, Leitsch told him “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” The bartender quickly placed his hand over the glasses before they had a chance to drink, at which point a quick-fingered photographer caught the snapshot below. The Mattachines brought their discrimination case to the courts, which eventually ruled that gays had a constitutional right to assemble and could not be denied service on account of their sexual orientation.
Okay, so it’s not as sensational as Stonewall, but by breaking new ground in the fight for LGBTQ equality three years before the famous riots, it’s no less historic. In the back room where Leitsch, Rodwell, and Timmons once congregated, there’s an entire wall devoted to Mattachine memorabilia, as well as photos from groundbreaking gay films shot here like The Boys in the Band (1970), Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), and Life is Strange (2014.) Straight or gay, it remains an excellent place for a good burger, a cold beer, and a strong shot of history.
Want to learn more about West Village history? Consider taking a West Village Ghost Tour.
Categories: Regular Article