Dick Leitsch, a gay rights activist who picketed homophobic New York bars years before the Stonewall uprising, died on Friday at age 83, NBC News reports.
Leitsch became synonymous with the "sip-ins" of the 1960s, modeled after the diner sit-ins challenging racial segregation in the South. Leitsch and a small group of men were protesting the practice of New York bars refusing to serve gay people; the directive came from the New York State Liquor Authority, which classified gay people as "disorderly" and threatened to revoke licenses for establishments that served LGBT people.
At Greenwich Village's Julius' Bar in 1966, Leitsch announced to the bartender, "We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service." When the bartender covered the drink, an infamous image was created.
Later, as president of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society -- the first gay rights organization of the modern era -- Leitsch threatened to sue over Julius's policy against serving openly gay people. The publicity forced the head of the liquor authority to deny an antigay policy existed, while courts later forced the authority to drop the presumption that gays were disorderly, which helped end the policy of licenses being revoked over who was being served.
Leitsch was front and center at the Stonewall uprising in June 1969, writing an account of the queer riot against police brutality for The Advocate:
"The first gay riots in history took place during the pre-dawn hours of Saturday and Sunday, June 28-29 in New York's Greenwich Village. The demonstrations were touched off by a police raid on the popular Stonewall Club, 53 Christopher Street. This was the last (to date) in a series of harassments which plagued the Village area for the last several weeks.
Plainclothes officers entered the club at about 2 a.m., armed with a warrant, and closed the place on grounds of illegal selling of alcohol. Employees were arrested and the customers told to leave. The patrons gathered on the street outside and were joined by other Village residents and visitors to the area.
The police behaved, as is usually the case when they deal with homosexuals, with bad grace, and were reproached by "straight" onlookers. Pennies were thrown at the cops by the crowd, then beer cans, rocks, and even parking meters. The cops retreated inside the bar, which was set afire by the crowd.
A hose from the bar was employed by the trapped cops to douse the flames, and reinforcements were summoned. A melee ensued, with nearly a thousand persons participating, as well as several hundred cops. Nearly two hours later the cops had "secured" the area."
Leitsch, who passed away from liver cancer at a New York City hospice, is survived by his brother, John Leitsch, and sister Joanne Williams. Leitsch lost his longtime partner Timothy Scoffield in 1989 from AIDS complications.