Gay rights pioneer Dick Leitsch dies aged 83

Dick Leitsch, an American LGBT rights activist

Early gay rights activist Richard ‘Dick’ Leitsch had died, aged 83.

Leitsch was President of the New York Chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group that was active in the 1960s prior to the Stonewall riots.

Inspired by the civil rights movement, the Society sought a policy of non-discrimination in New York City, and held a number of protests at bars seeking the right to be served.

During the 1966 ‘Sip In’ protests, activists attempted to challenge state policy that could see venues’ licenses revoked if they served gay people, who were deemed to be “disorderly”.

Dick Leitsch, Whose ‘Sip-In’ Was a Gay Rights Milestone, Dies at 83

The Mattachine activists would tell bar staff: “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.”

The protests came three years before the historic riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn, which is now often considered the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement.

Leitsch was the first gay journalist to report on the riot, filing a copy in a Mattachine publication that was later picked up by The Advocate.

He wrote: “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.”

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Recording the much-mythologised ‘first brick’ incident, he added: “Another police car came through Waverly Place, and stopped at the corner of Christopher. The occupants just sat there and glared at the crowd.

“Suddenly, a concrete block landed on the hood of the car, and the crowd drew back. Then, as one person, it surged forward and surrounded the car, beating on it with fists and dancing atop it. The cops radioed for help, and soon the crowd let the car pass.

“Christopher Street, from Greenwich to Seventh Avenue, had become an almost solid mass of people — most of them gay. No traffic could pass, and even walking the few blocks on foot was next to impossible. One little old lady tried to get through, and many members of the crowd tried to help her.”

Dick Leitsch with Alan Cumming at Julius’ Bar in New York City, 2016 (Creative Commons/Delorean08)

He added of the ensuing violence: “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.”

According to the New York Times, Leitsch died on Friday (June 22) at a hospice, having been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.

His partner of 17 years, Timothy Scoffield, died during the AIDS crisis in 1989.