NEW YORK - For so many members of the LGBTQ+ community— especially those of a certain generation— a gay bar was the only place you could go where you weren’t compelled to lie about who you were.
"They had nowhere else to meet—publicly," said Ken Ludstbader is co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. "People could lose their jobs, people could lose their families, employment, and religious associations. So bars became really safe spaces."
But the gay bar of the past was much different than the one we think of today, every inch covered in rainbow flags.
"In many cases, they were private clubs where there was a bouncer at the door, they were bottle clubs, you had a sign, a fictitious name in many cases," Ludstbader said.
Lustbader says that was all because of New York's laws. After prohibition, New York formed the State Liquor Authority, which had a regulation telling bar owners they could lose their license if they served "disorderly people."
Homosexuals at the time were considered disorderly people. So to find a place to drink you’d have to either rely on word of mouth or know how to find an underground guidebook listing places considered safe— places like Julius’ Bar in Greenwich Village.
In 1966, Julius’ was being closely monitored by state liquor authorities for prior infractions.
That’s what brings us to one of the grand marshals of NYC Pride 2023. Randy Wicker was among a group of gay men who knew the bar was being watched with a careful eye by the state, and they thought there was a good chance they’d be denied a drink. So they brought a photographer to capture the scene.
And that’s exactly what happened. That photo is now framed on Julius’ wall behind the bar.
"We were saying, ‘We are homosexuals, and we want to order a cocktail,’" Wicker, now 85 years old, recalls.
They were denied. That incident became known as the Sip-In.
"That would be the first case of discrimination against homosexuals actually actively documented," Lustbader said.
And it all happened three years prior to the Stonewall Riots, widely seen as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement.
Last year, Julius’ was granted landmark status by the city.
"Let this designation serve as an important reminder to everyone that LGBTQ+ history is New York City history," Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement.
"Like Julius’, the City of New York will always serve as a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people to be safe and feel safe."