Three gay men walk into a bar.
Laughable, no? As many states move to prohibit bars and restaurants from serving customers indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it may seem so. But this isn’t a story about our present — it’s a story about our past. More specifically, it’s about the events of April 22, 1966, when three men enter Julius’ — now a divey watering hole in Manhattan’s West Village — and engage in an entirely different type of defiance.
The men, members of an early gay-rights advocacy group called the Mattachine Society, take a seat facing bottles filled with booze. A bespectacled bartender places an empty glass in front of them, and the men announce a once-unspeakable truth — they’re homosexuals. The bartender then places his hand over the glass and says, “I can’t serve you.” At that very moment, a photographer alerted by the activists snaps a picture.
Modeled after the Civil Rights Movement’s successful sit-ins, the Mattachine Society’s Sip-In was a staged event protesting New York State’s discriminatory laws against serving homosexuals. It made a splash: After receiving coverage in The New York Times and The Village Voice, the Commission on Human Rights stepped in to say that homosexuals had the right to receive service in bars.
Although often overshadowed by the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, the Mattachine Society’s Sip-In was a watershed moment in the LGBTQ rights movement. Julius’, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, is one of NYC’s oldest continually operating gay establishments. The picture taken in 1966 hangs proudly near the bar’s entrance.
That black-and-white photograph may soon be the most consequential record to keep the memory of Julius’ alive for future generations. Because of financial uncertainty related to the on-going health crisis, the bar is fighting for its life and asking patrons for their support.
Gay bars look to patrons as a lifeline
In March, owner Helen Buford started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $50,000 for Julius’, but with no possibility of reopening anytime soon, she’s now hoping for $100,000. “We all need to work together and also understand that small business owners are getting hurt tremendously trying to navigate the forever changing rules,” she wrote online earlier this month.
Several queer watering holes in NYC, including 9th Avenue Saloon and Therapy, have already closed their doors. The Stud, San Francisco’s oldest gay bar, shuttered in May, as did Washington DC’s Eagle and North Austin’s ‘Bout Time II. After an 11-year run in Los Angeles, Gym Bar announced its permanent closure on July 5.
Other bars, including one of New York’s only lesbian haunts, Henrietta Hudson, hope their GoFundMe campaigns will save them from ruin. It worked for Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the last remaining gay bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Since May, the kitschy-queer haunt raised over $100,000 from individual donors. The Stonewall Inn, ostensibly the most well-known gay bar in the world, raked in over $300,000 since its campaign began in mid-June.
If businesses remain closed much longer, it’s doubtful that even the most successful campaign will keep them alive. In March, Chicago-based gay bar owner Mark Robertson told the Daily Beast, “The vast majority of bars don’t operate with margins to be able to sustain themselves for two weeks, four weeks, or eight weeks without cash flow.” Some bars are entering their fifth month without the ability to turn a profit.
The death of the American gay bar
Sentimental notions aside, America’s health crisis may merely be accelerating a recent trend in queer culture. According to sociologist Greggor Mattson, nearly 40 percent of the country’s gay bars shut down between 2007 and 2019. Gayborhoods are morphing from centralized hotspots into decentralized cultural archipelagos, and making friends doesn’t always happen over drinks. Queer people don’t need bars as meeting places when they can find one another through apps. On top of all that, the majority of gay nightlife doesn’t adequately cater to the entire LGBTQ community and often marginalizes anyone who isn’t cis, white, and male. A migration toward all-inclusive venues is long overdue.
As the pandemic lingers on, virtual play places are becoming the queer safe spaces du jour. With so many digital platforms celebrating Pride month in June, it was hard to keep track of them all. Queer folx started dancing till dawn on Zoom, and even gay sex parties are taking off online.
Still, revolutionary though these new mediums may be, they can’t replace the history-steeped, all-sensory experience of an old-fashioned gay bar.
A snapshot of Julius’
Stepping into Julius’ is like stepping into a time before skyrocketing rents pushed the majority of queer folx out of the Village. The bar is unassuming in a way most of the neighborhood’s watering holes are not. Its name, painted on the street-facing windows in a bold green cursive, is reminiscent of the Cheers logo. Between the monochromatic photos lining its walls and the old Broadway playbills covering the bathroom stall, the space looks like an Irish pub decorated by a barkeep whose favorite jukebox jingle is probably something from Barbra Streisand’s Superman album. The drinks are cheap, the greasy grub is cheaper, and rest assured you’ll go home smelling like onion rings if you sit by the deep fryer. The perfume is part of the appeal.
Unlike many Manhattan gay bars, Julius’ is the opposite of pretentious. Here, an intergenerational cross-hatch of New Yorkers, usually known for their “get out of my way!” chutzpah, can melt you with a smile. You may even make a friend while sipping a brew on the barstools fashioned from barrels. Julius’ is both a reunion hall for chosen family and a home for the next queer generation to inherit.
That’s the picture I have in my mind, at least. Here’s hoping we won’t have to rely on it once the pandemic passes. Here’s hoping Julius’ will still be there to enjoy, with a picture from the events of 1966 welcoming you to sit down and have a drink.
You can donate to Julius’ GoFundMe campaign here.