NYC’s oldest gay bar — home to major pre-Stonewall public action for LGBTQ rights — gets commemorative plaque
April 20, 2022
By: Muri Assunção
Julius’ Bar, New York City’s oldest continuously operating gay bar, and home to a pivotal pre-Stonewall public action for LGBTQ rights, is finally getting a commemorative plaque — 56 years after a group of gay men used their drink orders to fight back against bars that refused to serve members of the LGBTQ community.
The plaque, presented by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project in collaboration with Village Preservation, will honor Julius’ role in the ongoing fight for queer rights, as well as the site of the protest known as “Sip-In.”
On April 21, 1966, four members of the Mattachine Society, an early queer rights organization decided to challenge regulations adopted by bars to deny service to patrons who were seen as “disorderly” — a vague definition that New York City police used to refer to same-sex flirting, kissing or even touching.
Inspired by earlier sit-in demonstrations, protests enacted to desegregate diners in the American south, the four activists set out to expose the bigotry faced by the community at the time — three years before the Stonewall Riots, a series of violent protests often seen as the catalyst for a new phase in the fight for LGBTQ rights.
They invited some reporters and a photographer, ordered a drink at Julius’ and then declared that they were gay. The bartender refused to serve them, the story made it to the press, and their courageous action became instrumental in bringing attention to widespread anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
That pivotal moment in queer liberation history, known as the “Sip-In” at Julius’, is the first documented case of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in New York City, according to Ken Lustbader, Ken Lustbader, a historic preservation consultant and a co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
On Thursday, to mark Sip-In’s 56th anniversary, and to honor the listing of Julius’ Bar on the National Register of Historic Places, the organization, in collaboration with Village Preservation, is hosting an event to honor the bar — and the historic event.
Lustbader, Village Preservation’s Andrew Berman, as well as award-winning actor, screenwriter and director John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), will unveil a historic plaque to celebrate the bar’s legacy on Thursday at 6 p.m. ET at Julius’ Bar, at 159 West 10th Street.
They will be joined by Julius’ owner Helen Buford, as well as Randy Wicker, the last living participant of the protest.
“This is about visibility,” Lustbader told the Daily News, speaking of the importance of having a plaque on a building for people to “walk by and see where gay history took place.”
“It’s especially important now with the pushback of [LGBTQ] rights and visibility, and its impact on children to know that there were other people that fought and who were visible and understood what they went through.”
He added, “We’re hoping that future generations, including this generation, will understand the importance of visibility and being who you are, and paving the way for a person to feel whole and entitled to be who they are.”