Dick Leitsch, a New York City gay rights leader in the 1960s who is credited with playing a lead role in ending police entrapment arrests of gay men and helping to organize the first known gay civil disobedience protest to end a ban on serving drinks to gays in bars – died June 22 in a Manhattan hospice from liver cancer. He was 83.
Gay historian David Carter said Leitsch’s early accomplishments as a homosexual activist were remarkable in that they took place in the mid-1960s prior to the June 1969 Stonewall riots, the tumultuous six-day uprising in New York’s Greenwich Village considered the starting point of the modern LGBT rights movement.
According to accounts by friends and fellow activists, Leitsch described himself as a “hick” from Kentucky who knew nothing about gay rights when he followed his boyfriend to New York City in 1959. Those who knew him said that not long after arriving in New York he and his boyfriend joined the Mattachine Society of New York, a chapter of one of the nation’s early “homophile” organizations that cautiously advocated for better treatment of homosexuals.
Over the years Leitsch worked as a bartender and freelance journalist.
Carter said gay rights leader Frank Kameny of Washington, D.C. played some role in Leitsch’s rise to become president of the Mattachine Society of New York in 1965. According to Carter, Kameny, known as an unapologetic, militant advocate for full gay equality before such assertiveness had been embraced by Mattachine chapters in cities outside D.C., appeared as a guest speaker at a Mattachine Society event in New York.
“That speech may have been Frank’s greatest, for it galvanized the MSNY membership to such an extent that they threw out the old board and officers who had supported the ‘research and education’ approach that the homophile movement then embraced,” said Carter, who is currently working on a Kameny biography.
Carter noted that the then prevailing “approach” among most Mattachine chapters, including the New York chapter, was “it is best to let the psychiatrists and psychologists speak for us because it is better to be thought to be sick and in need of understanding and therapy than to be branded as criminals who belong in prison.”
With that as a backdrop, Carter told the Washington Blade that Dick Leitsch, who sided with the Kameny faction, was swept into office as vice president of the Mattachine Society of New York. By 1965, when the newly elected president resigned, Leitsch became president.
“Leitsch then tackled the issues of ending police entrapment and legalizing gay clubs, the two main steps Kameny had urged for New York homophiles in his speech,” Carter said. “Leitsch managed, largely through a successful press campaign, to pressure the newly elected mayor of New York, John Lindsay, to order the police department to end entrapment and, in part through the direct action tactic of what the press labeled a ‘sip-in,’ as well through other actions, including court challenges, to make gay clubs somewhat less illegal,” said Carter.
Carter was referring to a 1966 civil disobedience action that Leitsch and four other Mattachine Society of New York leaders organized at Julius’s, a Greenwich Village bar then popular among gays that has since been designated as a historic landmark.
With Leitsch leading the way, the Mattachine members, dressed in business suits, sat down at the bar, ordered alcoholic beverages, and declared to the bartender that they were homosexuals who were acting in an “orderly” manner.
A policy believed to have been in place at the time mandated by the New York State Liquor Authority held that establishments licensed to serve liquor could not serve drinks to disorderly people, including homosexuals, who were known lawbreakers for violating the state’s sodomy law. Thus under this policy gays were automatically considered to be “disorderly” and could not be served drinks.
When the Julius’s bartender responded by refusing to serve the Mattachine members drinks, the group had arranged for reporters for the New York Times and the Village Voice to be present to witness and photograph the refusal. The action created an immediate stir among many New Yorkers, who thought it unfair to deny law-abiding citizens a drink at a bar.
Years later, Leitsch told fellow activists he and his fellow Mattachine Society members modeled their “sip-in” after the famous sit-ins at segregated lunch counters that African-American civil rights activists organized in the early 1960s. Similar to the actions by their African-American counterparts, the gay “sip-in” had an immediate positive impact that led to the liquor board backing down and claiming no such “official” regulation banning gays from being served drinks had been adopted in the first place.
Carter told the Blade that in the years since the Stonewall riots broke out on June 28, 1969, many observers have overlooked Leitsch’s important role as an eyewitness and early chronicler of the six days of rioting and unrest in the streets surrounding the now famous Stonewall Inn gay bar.
Leitsch has said he arrived on the scene shortly after learning the Stonewall had been raided by New York City police and its gay, lesbian and transgender customers fought back.
In its obituary on Leitsch the New York Times reports that on the morning after the police raid that triggered the Stonewall riots, then Mayor Lindsay called Leitsch and pleaded, “You’ve got to stop this!”
“Even if I could, I wouldn’t,” the Times quoted Leitsch as saying. “I’ve been trying for years to get something like this to happen,” the Times quoted him as reportedly saying.
Carter is the author of the 2004 book “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution,” which is considered the most authoritative and thorough account of the Stonewall riots.
“[F]ew people have ever taken note of the fact that Dick Leitsch wrote not only the longest contemporary accounts of the Uprising, but they were literally out on the street long before the two most famous accounts by Village Voice reporters Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott,” Carter told the Blade.
“This is because Dick’s first account was written up and distributed both as a handout and mailed out in the mail,” said Carter. “This means that the first lengthy account of the Uprising made public was written by an openly gay eyewitness,” he said. “Without Leitsch’s well-written and accurate accounts, our understanding of what transpired during the Stonewall Uprising would be much less detailed and complete than it is.”
In one of his write-ups on the riots, which was later published in the LGBT magazine The Advocate, Leitsch wrote, “Those usually put down as ‘sissies’ or ‘swishes’ showed the most courage and sense during the action. Their bravery and daring saved many people from being hurt.”
When it became known earlier this year that Leitsch was suffering from terminal cancer, among those who wrote to him was former President Barack Obama, according to the New York Times.
“Thank you for your decades of work to help drive our nation forward on the path toward LGBT equality,” the Times quoted Obama’s note as saying. “Our journey as a nation depends, as it always has, on the collective and persistent efforts of people like you.”
Leitsch is survived by his brother, John, and sister, Joanne Williams. Timothy Scoffield, his partner of many years, died of AIDS in 1989.