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NYC honors historic gay bar with landmark status

Julius’ bar, located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, was the site of one of the earliest acts of civil disobedience in the fight for LGBTQ rights.
Julius' opened its doors as a bar in 1864. Before that, it was a grocery store.Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News

One of the earliest sites of gay rights activism is officially New York City’s newest landmark. 

Julius’ bar, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, received the official designation Tuesday, following a vote by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Located at 159 West 10th St., just a short walk from fellow historic gay bar Stonewall Inn, Julius’ has been open since the 1860s. It started attracting gay patrons in the mid-20th century, and, according to the conservation nonprofit group Village Preservation, it’s the city’s oldest existing gay bar. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016 for its significance in the gay rights movement. 

Brendan Byrnes and Stephen Cabral clink their drinks at Julius' in New York on March 19, 2021. They got married at Julius' in 2015.Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News

Village Preservation called Tuesday’s news the culmination of a decadelong campaign to recognize one of the first planned actions of civil disobedience in the fight for LGBTQ rights, three years prior to the iconic 1969 Stonewall uprising.

In the mid-1960s, gay rights activists frustrated by New York state’s ban on serving alcohol to gay customers came up with the idea of a “sip-in,” inspired at the time by widely publicized lunch counter “sit-in” protests for civil rights. They hoped the publicity from a similar type of demonstration would help galvanize gay rights supporters and potentially lead to greater acceptance and decriminalization of the community.   

On April 21, 1966, a handful of gay men set out in downtown Manhattan, determined to be served despite the New York State Liquor Authority’s prohibition on serving drinks to known or suspected homosexuals. If they were refused service, they vowed to cause a scene and file a human rights complaint with the city.

The first bar the group visited was tipped off to the demonstration and closed early. Eventually, the men landed at Julius’ — whose management at the time was hard pressed to let the establishment become a gay bar, the group later said. Dick Leitsch, then the president of the city’s chapter of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations, let the bartender pour him and his friends a drink — before abruptly announcing they were gay. 

“We are homosexuals,” he told the bartender. “We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” 

The bartender refused them service, reached over and snatched back their drinks. A photo of the moment went down in gay rights history. 

“We wanted people to see who we are, what we are,” Leitsch told NBC News in 2017, shortly before his death the following year. 

Gerry Gonzalez mixes a drink for a customer at Julius' in New York on March 19, 2021.Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News

Sarah Carroll, the chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, said in a news release Tuesday that the protest “drew vital attention to unjust laws and practices” and “paved the way for future milestones in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.”

The designation comes as New York City’s queer community grapples with a wave of unease following the deaths of two gay men earlier this year after they left Hell’s Kitchen gay bars, as well as a series of robberies and assaults that the New York City Police Department said may be connected to the other incidents. 

In Tuesday’s release, Mayor Eric Adams said honoring a location where gay New Yorkers were once denied service “reinforces something that should already be clear: LGBTQ+ New Yorkers are welcome anywhere in our city.”