Protests do work!
Do protests work? Certainly they can make the participants feel that rather than passively accepting injustice they are doing something about it. But do they actually create change, or do they just enrage the opposition, which traditionally paints protestors as the equivalent of spoiled brats in mid-tantrum? While protests can be little more than acts of self-absorption, they also have the potential to change the world.
The 1966 Sip-In is a good example of a little-known protest that led to major change. In 1962, Illinois decriminalized private homosexual acts between consenting adults. Throughout the rest of the nation, however, homosexuality continued to be deemed not only unnatural and immoral, but illegal. Any same-sex conduct, such as holding hands, could be grounds for legal prosecution. On the rationale that people harboring same-sex desire were inherently disorderly, New York’s State Liquor Authority (SLA) could revoke the license of any bar that knowingly served an alcoholic drink to a homosexual.
Despite the legal dangers, gay bars proliferated. Closeted people who came of age in the 40s, 50s, and 60s speak movingly of how they risked their reputations, their marriages, their families, and their livelihoods by going to gay bars.1 Socializing with others like themselves kept them from despairing that they were the only ones, kept them from believing that society was right — that they were sick and criminal and would be better off dead. In the bars and nightclubs, they found hook-ups, partners, lovers, and friends — people who accepted them as they were, forming a community. The bars offered a respite from the exhausting work of pretending to be straight, and they thrived despite the ever-present threat of raids and frequent demands for pay-offs.2
Staff members at gay bars then were a bit like Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, who closed down Rick’s nightclub by announcing sardonically, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” while pocketing his winnings. Although everyone knew that gay bars catered to gays, SLA rules required that bar workers maintain the fiction that they were ignorant of their patrons’ sexuality.
In 1966, Dick Leitsch, president of the New York branch of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organization, was determined to challenge the SLA by demanding bar service as an openly gay man.
The “sip-in” carried out by Leitsch and Mattachine members John Timmons and Craig Rodwell was announced to the press in advance, and patterned after the sit-ins occurring in lunch counters in the South in the fight for racial equality. On April 21, the three men entered Julius’, one of the oldest gay bars in New York City, announced their sexuality, and ordered drinks. Julius’ had been raided just ten days earlier. The bartender, knowing that the bar’s license was in jeopardy, refused to serve them, placing his hand over the glass — a moment in history captured by Village Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah.
Leitsch’s formal complaint against the SLA was supported by the New York Commission on Human Rights, citing city ordinances against sex discrimination. The SLA backed down, declaring the decision to serve had always been up to the individual bartender. When Mattachine sued bars in New Jersey that refused service to gay people, the state’s Supreme Court cited the First Amendment in its ruling that gays could peacefully assemble at bars.3
The protest at Julius’ resulted in significant victories. This rare advance in the rights of homosexuals created not only an important legal precedent, but also brought some much-needed recognition of LGBTQ people as victims of discrimination, challenging their vilification (including the self-vilification suffered by many).
Mattachine’s successful protest didn’t stop police persecution, including raids on gay bars, but it did establish a new era of licensed, legally operating gay bars in addition to those whose management found it cheaper and more expedient to simply pay off police. The latter included a new gay bar established in 1967 only a few blocks away from Julius’: the Stonewall Inn.The hairpin drop heard around the world
Even amid the various challenges to authority that were rampant in the late 1960s, few were willing to let a hairpin drop (slang for revealing one’s homosexuality). However, three years after the sip-in at Julius’ helped to make some bar patrons less resigned to routine harassment, rioting began in the small hours of June 28 in response to the second police raid of the Stonewall Inn within a week. The riots are further proof that a protest — even one taking place in a seedy bar operating illegally and carried out by a diverse cast of characters disparaged by mainstream society — can create meaningful and permanent change.4
The exhilaration experienced by rioters fed up with police brutality fighting back against their oppressors quickly led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front, a radical, inclusive, and international political organization. Additional LGBTQ activist organizations soon rose to take up a variety of challenges. “Stonewall” became shorthand for the beginning of the modern LGBTQ liberation movement, and hailed by Dick Leitsch as “the hairpin drop heard around the world.”5Protest movements can do good
In June of 2016, the same year that Julius’ was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, President Barack Obama declared the Stonewall Inn the country’s first national monument to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights.
In this bitterly divided nation, many feel helpless as the new presidential administration pledges to turn back the clock on a variety of social advances. However, the 1966 sip-in demonstrates that meaningful change can stem from something as simple as a small group of determined people ordering drinks in a gay bar.