Happy Pride Month! All June long, we'll be sharing long reads, personal essays, and recipes from LGBTQ+ writers. This week: Khalid El Khatib on Julius', the oldest gay bar in New York City.
Before moving to Brooklyn in November, I lived in Manhattan for over 10 years. As any non-native New Yorker will tell you, one of the best and worst parts of living in the city is the constant onslaught of visitors.
Being from Iowa and having went to college in the midwest, I spent much of my 20s hosting old friends in tiny apartments with miniscule bathrooms. Ironically, it was by 30, when friends starting having kids and visitors waned, that I had my tour guide routine down to a science: We’d share small plates and have too many negronis outside at Via Carota; I’d become a member at MoMA for the $5 guest passes; I’d politely tell guests if they wanted to walk the ever-crowded Brooklyn bridge to do it alone; and I was a pro at satisfying everyone’s most popular request: to visit a rooftop bar.
Given my location—in the heart of the West Village—I was also able to offer guests something special, whether they liked it or not. (No, not a pilgrimage to Carrie Bradshaw’s townhouse, just three minutes from my last apartment.) I’d walk them through a square of the West Village containing The Stonewall Inn, where many credit the modern LGBTQ rights movement's inception, and which will play a big role in this year’s World Pride—celebrating 50 years since the Stonewall riots.
As someone who has both written about LGBTQ history and covered modern-day gay activism, I hoped that guests would feel the same awe and pride I do walking through a small block that’s catalyzed enormous progress in a single lifetime.
Just as a New Yorker knows what it means to play tour guide, most know the false sense of confidence we feel walking around the city. We take anecdotes we’ve heard from friends, bartenders, and cab drivers as truth. (“I heard Patti Smith wrote an album there”; “I think that’s where pastrami on rye was invented!”) A lot of times those brash declarations are wrong. But according to my research, most of what I knew about Stonewall was right. In 1969, riots broke out after a police raid. The uprising sustained for days and was one of the first LGBTQ actions to receive major media coverage, leading to the first pride parade.
Only recently did I learn that another landmark, just a few steps away, I’ve had all wrong: Julius', a bar located on West 10th Street, was a staple of my walking tour, but I was always a bit dismissive of it. “I think that’s the oldest gay bar in the world,” I’d say. “I think they serve food. It’s fun on Sundays!”
Turns out, Julius' played an enormous role in LGBTQ history, and if it were reported in textbooks like it should be, the bar’s citation would come before Stonewall’s.
Jay Shockley and Ken Lustbader work with the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, an organization that seeks to broaden people’s knowledge of queer history beyond Stonewall and to place that history within a geographical context. They have a helpful interactive map (that I’ll be using on all future tours) and have been instrumental in getting sites like Julius' on the National Register of Historic Places.
“There’s the misperception that the modern gay rights movement started at Stonewall,” Ken tells me. Stonewall was a key turning point, [but] Julius' was one of the bars that existed before Stonewall and the Sip-In itself was the first, actual documented and photographed way of showing discrimination in a bar by the State Liquor Authority.”
The Sip-In happened in 1966 when members of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, accompanied by reporters, went to bars throughout New York to announce that they were “homosexuals” and then asked to be served. Julius' was the third stop on their tour and the first that refused to serve them (as it had been raided previously). That refusal was covered in The New York Times and The Village Voice, forcing the State Liquor Authority to publicly disclose its policy and catalyzing a more open “gay bar culture.”
Jay and Ken got to know Dick Leitsch over the years, one of the members of Mattachine who participated in the Sip-In.
“Dick told me that in the sixties, the two biggest things were police entrapment and police harassment in gay bars,” Jay says. “Why [challenging] the second was so important, was because there was no other place in the world [gay people] could go.”
In talking to Jay and Ken, I realized other details about Julius' that I had dismissed in my quick walks past and minor pit stops. Yes, it serves food, and it has since the 1930s. Its menu primarily comprises burgers and other casual food at non-NYC prices. “It’s the closest thing New York has to a pub. You can go to have a conversation and a hamburger making it a multi-purpose space for meeting, socializing, and cruising,” Ken says. In New York, as the number of bars (LGBTQ and otherwise) that serve $20 cocktails skyrockets, that’s something special.
With my newfound knowledge, I popped in on the first Monday of June, Pride Month. I noticed for the first time the juxtaposition of the flamboyant windows, adorned with draping fake flowers, to its unmarked, brown, industrial door. It seemed an apt metaphor for a gay bar that was somewhat forced into becoming one.
I found a single seat at the bar and felt a little like Melissa McCarthy in last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? where she, playing Lee Israel, spent considerable screen time drinking alone at Julius. I was ready to tell anyone who started a conversation everything I know now, but only got a few friendly nods in the short time I was there.
It was packed with mostly male patrons of all ages. At first I was struck by this diversity. I wondered what disparities must exist between how the older men thought of the bar relative to their 20-something counterparts. But that quickly felt irrelevant as I thought about how all of us being in the same room, and that room being so packed on a Monday night at that, was a testament to the sacrifices Dick Leitsch and so many others made over 50 years ago.
In an era when LGBTQ rights are feeling more like a luxury than a certainty, it’s more important than ever that places like Julius', with its campy decor and its "oldest gay bar" superlative, are never taken for granted.
The next time I have a visitor, despite living eight subway stops away now, we’ll be stopping in the Julius' and I’ll be doing it justice in the information I share.
All the same, when my mom—who still lives in Iowa—asks for New York recommendations for a friend, I’ll encourage them to check Julius' out. I often leave queer spaces off those recommendation lists, but I now know how important it is that everyone knows its significance in queer history.
Oh, and I’ll tell them to order the fries. They’re exceptional.