Saturday, June 23, 2018

"Who We Were / Who We Are"

who we were / who we are

Today I read in The New York Times, in an unusually long and informative obituary that Dick Leitsch, an early leader in what would later become the LGBTQ movement, had died, at the age of 83. He died of liver cancer in a Manhattan hospice on June 15th.
      I never met Leitsch, but I had heard of his achievements from gay friends such as Jeff Weinstein and John Perreault, who introduced me to some gay activist friends (such as Jonathan Katz) when I lived for a year in Manhattan, wandering in and out many of the establishments which Leitsch had helped protect and made famous.
     Richard Leitsch (who preferred the name Dick) was born in Louisville, Kentucky on May 11, 1935. In interviews he has described that, despite his strong Roman Catholic upbringing, he began developing crushes on his school-boy friends even in his elementary years and began having gay sex as early as high school. At one point, when he shared the fact that he was gay with his parents and family members, he was, unusual for the time, quickly embraced with family support.
      In New York City, to where he moved in 1959, newspapers—including The New York Times—still described gay men and lesbians as “sexual deviants”; police regularly raided bars in which gays gathered or in bathrooms where gay sex was often rampant (the bathrooms in Washington Square, Grand Central Station, and the outdoor Rambles in Central Park) and often threatened those they had rounded up with trials which, in those days, meant the loss of jobs and the ruination of their careers and friendships. Even in 1969, when I lived in Manhattan, there was always the possibility that some stray cop would solicit sex and bring you into arrest. Thank heaven, in part due to Leitsch, I never encountered such an arrest.
      Once in New York, Leitsch was attracted to Craig Rodwell (another important figure in the gay movement, who would later open Oscar Wilde Memorial bookstore, one of the first gay bookstores in the country). Rodwell kept inviting him to Mattachine Society meetings, then the only organization in the country that openly spoke out for gays. Having attended a Mattachine meeting earlier, which Leitsch described as a disaster when Albert Ellis gave a lecture on homosexuality as an illness and was greeted with loud applause, he was recticent to attend.
      Yet, because of Leitsch’s attraction to Rodwell, he eventually began joining Mattachine meetings, and was particularly taken with a lecture by the then-notorious Frank Kameny, who with Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society. Kameny, who Perry Brass, writing in the Philadelphia Gay News notes, was jobless after a federal witchhunt deprived him of a position as an astronomer, while Nick Nichols’ own father, an FBI agent, plotted to have him murdered as a teenager. Even I, who was rather ignorant of those gay men and lesbian women who had come before me, had heard of the Mattachine Society and Kameny. With the lesbian group, the Daughters of Bilitis, the coalition picketed the United Nations, the Pentagon, the US Civil Service Commission, and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, along with the White House in order to change the rules about gay and lesbians not being able to serve in government. In 1963, he began a campaign to overturn Washington, D.C.’s sodomy laws, which finally passed in 1993.  Moreover, he worked to remove the classification of homosexuality as a metal disorder from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In short, Kameny was one of the heroes of 20th century American gay history.
       Kameny’s intense speech argued for gays to use some of the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement in order to make their cause. Soon, Leitsch had not only joined the Mattachine Society, but suddenly was elected President-Elect, with Julian Hodges are President; and when Hodges, later that year, unexpectedly stepped-down, Leitsch found himself as President of the organization.
       Gay bars in New York and others which gays even visited continued to be raided, particularly when the mayoral dictates seemed appropriate, as when New York mayor Robert E. Wagner Jr. closed the bars in 1964 to keep “unwitting” tourists visiting the city during that year’s World’s Fair from wandering into them by accident. What might have happened if they had was never made quite clear.
      When the more liberal Republican mayor, John Lindsay was elected, Leitsch pressured him to stop the raids and cease the police actions on sexual solicitations. But his most famous action, perhaps, is when he, Rodwell, John Timmons, and Randy Wicker, accompanied by a New York Times photographer Fred W. McDarrah, determined to create what Leitsch described as a “Sip-in,” obviously a kind of pun of the blacks’ sit-ins in Southern restaurants.
      For years the New York State Liquor Authority had a policy that, insisting that homosexuals were basically “disorderly,” would not allow bartenders to serve customers who they knew to be gay. If bartenders discretely excused themselves from the question, if one of their customers might actually solicit sex, or, perhaps, act a little too “nelly,” they would not be served, even in the famous Julius’ bar—a place where, after dance lessons at the Joffrey Ballet, I would often stop by for one of their wonderful hamburgers and a good beer, before slipping away down the street to stop by Stonewall before moving on to my favorite, riverside bar, which had a large back room that, at least in those days, allowed, after hours, open group sex. Well those were the days!
      But Leitsch, just a few months before me, had determined to visit bars which had these rules in play, to challenge their premises. What I didn’t know is that he helped me to be in New York.
      The true story of the “Sip-in,” not provided by The New York Times, is as hilarious and disconcerting as a gay comedy-dramedy. I’ll quote, in this case, from a fairly intelligent commentary from the often-unreliable Wikipedia:
     The three first targeted the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant at St. Mark's Place and Third Avenue in the East Village, Manhattan which had a sign, "If you are gay, please go away." In Leitsch's words, "being gay, we got there late" when the three showed up after a New York Times reporter had asked a manager about the protest and the manager had closed the restaurant for the day. [I’ve been to that restaurant, and it’s good!]. They then targeted a Howard Johnson's and a bar called Waikiki where they were served in spite of the note, with a bartender saying later, "How do I know they're homosexual? They ain't doing nothing homosexual."
     Frustrated, they then went to Julius, where a clergyman had been arrested a few days earlier for soliciting sex.
Letisch’s drink, after he announced that he and his friends were homosexuals, was immediately covered over by the bartender. “I think it’s the law,” he declared. The photographer got the image.
      When the Mattachine Society began a suit against their beloved Julius’, the Liquor Authority chairman immediately denied that such a policy had ever existed; in short, they backed down, clearing the way, finally, to openly gay bars, wherein I sat or danced away in many a night. Things had suddenly changed.
      By the time, I came to Manhattan to live out my own gay fantasies (see My Year 2005) little did I know that Dick Leitsch had paved the way for my uninhibited behavior. As Brass writes, by then the Mattachine Society seemed like a bunch of old foggies:

Both Dick and Mattachine were loathed by many of my young GLF brothers and sisters, some of whom had been in it and, like unruly kids, resented their dowdier parents.

Dick was often referred to as “Pig Leitsch.” For us, he represented gay accomodationists, what we called “dragonfaggots,” “Aunt Sallies,” queer “Uncle Toms.” His very image seemed like a ghost.

     And then, just a few days after I left the city to return back to where I belonged and would meet by own life-time partner, Stonewall, that little bar wherein I sometimes stopped but in which I never truly felt comfortable, went wild, changing absolutely everything.
     Strangely, but perhaps we should never be surprised, Leitsch was there as well, rushing to the event to report on it in a remarkable series of statements that appeared in local papers but also in the important gay newspaper of the day The Advocate:

Momentarily, 50 or more homosexuals who would have been described as "nelly" rushed the cops and took the boy back into the crowd. They then formed a solid front and refused to let the cops into the crowd to regain their prisoner, letting the cops hit them with their sticks, rather than let them through. It was an interesting side-light on the demonstrations that 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, and their sense of humor and "camp" helped keep the crowds from getting too nasty or too violent.

      We don’t know who that “boy” truly was, even today, but it may have been Howard and my artist friend Tommy Langian-Schmidt, the skinny boy in a stripped T-shirt in several of the photographs of the day. Thomas for years sent us small Christmas presents of saint-like figures which he surrounded in glitter and other pasted-on decorations. I loved them, and when I read a piece about Stonewall in 2016 from The Washington Post, I suddenly realized that even if I had not been there that day, I had been there in spirit, night after night, probably eyeing that young boy who, as he reports, loved the place because:

      It was the only place we could dance slow together. For that reason alone, the Stonewall was sacred to me.

      As The New York Times reports:

      On the morning after the raid, as the violent protests spread, Mayor Lindsay called Mr. Leitsch and pleaded, “You’ve got to stop this!”
       “Even if I could, I wouldn’t,” Mr. Leistch reportedly replied. “I’ve been trying for years to get something like this happen.”

After that event, people kept asking, what is the goal of Mattachine. Leitsch admits he would always say that the goal of Mattachine “is to put ourselves out of business.”
       And so too did he disappear from the landscape, a man who because of his completely “out” expressions was not permitted to be hired in viable jobs. He lived most of his life as a waiter, a bartender, a journalist, whatever jobs we might be allowed. And sometimes was forgotten even in the gay community which he helped to exist.
       Today, I can only say, I wish I’d met this major hero, and have been able (if nothing else) to kiss him on the cheek for his great achievements which made my life and Howard’s so very much easier and better.
      If Kameny and Leitsch fought for rights in New York and Washington, D.C., by the time we left DC, we were now permitted to be called a couple even in the pages of The Washington Post, no longer described as sexual deviants, no longer perceived to be in a relationship that had to be hushed up. Heroes like Leitsch, Kameny, Nichols, and so very many others, had broken down the barriers for us to simply enjoy our lives as who we were, as who we now are.

Los Angeles, June 23, 2018

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