In the heart of the West Village, steps from the Christopher Street train station, stands a historic gay bar. Once, about a half a century ago, it found itself at the epicenter of an unprecedented protest asserting gay people’s right to gather in public spaces without police harassment.
Not the iconic Stonewall Inn, but Julius’.
At the corner of Waverly Place and West 10th Street, Julius’ is the oldest gay bar in New York City. And in April 1966, three years before the famed riots at nearby Stonewall that many historians mark as the start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, Julius’ was the site of a very different rebellion: a “Sip-In.”
The Sip-In was the brainchild of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group. Mattachine, led by president Dick Leitsch, was out to solve a problem: though the State Liquor Authority had no regulation against serving gay people in bars, it did prohibit establishments from serving “disorderly” patrons—and all gay people were considered, by interpretation, disorderly.
The Mattachines set a plan. They would visit a bar, announce they were gay, and request a drink. When the business inevitably declined to serve them, they would file a complaint with the State Liquor Authority, forcing the state to recognize that refusing to serve gay patrons was a violation of their civil rights.
Julius’ was the fourth bar visited by the group on April 21, 1966—the first three either shut down in anticipation of their arrival or, bemused by the stunt, served them openly.
Paradoxically, it was precisely Julius’ popularity with gay customers that made it a sure bet for the outcome the Mattachines sought. The establishment was a frequent target of the police, its patrons often entrapped and arrested for “solicitation” by plainclothes officers. The activists knew the bar would not risk serving four men who sat down and publicly announced their homosexuality.
Their plan worked. The activists ordered their drinks, then stated they were gay. The bartender quickly covered a glass with his hand, indicating his refusal to serve them. A Village Voice photographer, Fred McDarrah, captured the moment in an iconic photograph that still hangs at Julius’ today.
The Mattachine Society never successfully filed a discrimination suit based on the Sip-In, though in a related case the following year, a state court ruled that bars could not be shut down for the presence of homosexuality alone. But the message they espoused—that they had the right not just to exist in public spaces, but to be out in those spaces—is one that still resonates. Only in June of this year did the Supreme Court rule on another case that, if decided differently, could have endangered any queer or trans person who dared to declare their identity openly in a hostile space.
Today, Julius’ has been in operation for some 150-plus years, having opened in the 1860s and remained in business throughout the entire twentieth century. Its long history is evident in the physical space. Julius’ is practically a museum, from the wagon-wheel chandeliers to the Jacob Ruppert Brewery barrels that support the century-old oak bar. Framed black-and-white photos on the wall have been up for at least 75 years, and probably longer—they appear in the background of a picture that the photographer Weegee took at the bar in 1945.
Even the menu is old. The bar’s tiny kitchen still serves the same hamburgers that a guidebook author called “peerless” in 1959.
That history is important, says Ken Lustbader, one of the founders and directors of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, which successfully nominated Julius’ to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.
“It’s what a community space should look like…you get to meet some of our queer elders and have conversations with people who have been in that same seat for 30 years or more. And I think that’s something to embrace.” —Jason Rosenberg, member of ACT UP and Julius’ patron
“Julius’ is authentic,” he says. “You go to Julius’ and you’re in a physical space that would be recognizable to someone who went there in the early twentieth century. So, in some ways you’re time-traveling. It enables you to go in there and know that there were so many people who came before you, and that history was made in this location that changed the trajectory of LGBT rights…that’s the wonder of it.”
ACT UP, the long-running queer activist group, hosts an annual fundraiser at Julius’, bringing in a DJ and decking the bar with ACT UP buttons, flyers and signs.
“It’s my favorite bar,” says Jason Rosenberg, a member of ACT UP who’s been visiting Julius’ for about five years. “It’s one of the few queer bars that have stuck to its roots of serving the community and actually investing its time and energy in the community.”
The bar’s widely beloved owner, Helen Buford, donates to the organization every year. She also opens Julius’ doors wide on Thanksgiving and Christmas, serving a buffet dinner for anyone who might want to spend the holiday there.
“It’s what a community space should look like,” says Rosenberg. Plus, he adds, “you get to meet some of our queer elders and have conversations with people who have been in that same seat for 30 years or more. And I think that’s something to embrace.”
In 1966, at the time of the Sip-In, Julius’ had been a popular gay haunt for close to a decade—one 1964 write-up describes it, euphemistically, as drawing “an amazing quantity of attractive men, theater notables.” But it was far from an openly gay bar, as the Mattachines Sip-In illustrated. Their protest called for recognition—it was, in a sense, the first public claim to Julius’ as a gay space. Their protest called for recognition. It was, in a sense, the first public claim to Julius’ as a gay space.
Today, 54 years later, they have definitively won. Julius’ big windows face onto the street, the bar’s unofficial historian and long-time regular Tom Bernardin points out. They are open, inviting; they hide nothing. And this month, for Pride, they are decorated with long paper chains of rainbow hearts.
“We need it,” says Bernardin, when asked about what makes Julius’ special. “Marriage equality, the Supreme Court [ruling], all of that’s great news. But we need a place to be able to talk.”