Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 29 December 1997

Happy New Year to an Old Comrade!

By Jack Nichols


Though he was a Kentucky-born pioneer of Manhattan's gay movement, Dick Leitsch, for nearly a decade the executive director of the Big Apple's first gay liberation group, receives little publicity today other than mentions in gay histories he usually discovers by accident.

This is not to suggest that Leitsch is a non-reader. Quite the contrary. His Upper West Side apartment is stacked to the ceilings with literally thousands of books, mostly histories. Leitsch is, perhaps, a leading authority on the McCarthy era, a dark anti-gay period in our nation's history he's been studying assiduously for as long as I can remember.

I first met Dick Leitsch in 1964 when he was Vice-president of The New York Mattachine Society, Inc. I'd seen him once or twice beforehand when he'd made early gay-movement TV appearances. We'd corresponded on occasion because I was Vice-president of The Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. Our senses of humor jived and I became, he says, a person with whom he was able to work comfortably.

In those days Leitsch was among the movement's foremost militants, pressing ahead in significant ways to dislodge New York's fuddy-duddy gay conservatives who refused to insist, as he did, that homosexuality is certainly no illness.

He led a group of activists into the first "sip in" at Julius'—in Greenwich Village. The sip-in challenged outdated legalisms that denied "firewater" to faggots. Thanks to Dick Leitsch and New York Mattachine, gay men and lesbians are now able to order—without worry-- cocktails in Manhattan.

In the mid-60s Leitsch introduced me to a number of radical luminaries whose historic significance even then I began to appreciate. They included Paul Goodman, the great neo-anarchist thinker whose writings earned him the title "Father of the New Left" prior to his untimely death.

Leitsch remained, between 1965 and 1970, one of the movement's most outspoken personalities. It was not until 1969, immediately following the Stonewall riots (about which he provided the most thorough and exciting account) that he began to step back from the liberation movement he'd helped shape and to write in seclusion rather than hobnobbing with members of newly formed post-1969 organizations like The Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front.

Naïve GLF radicals, suddenly eager to establish their own "authority" and lacking any historical perspective with which to judge Dick Leitsch, attacked him as a representative of the "old" gay movement, one which they assumed—incorrectly—to be inferior and conservative.

The Mattachine president, a proud man, was not accustomed to such rancor and withdrew from what he regarded as movement divisiveness. It was during this period, when Lige Clarke and I were editing GAY, America's first weekly gay newspaper, that Leitsch agreed to contribute a regular column to the paper.

Lige Clarke, also a Kentuckian, responded to Leitsch's contributions enthusiastically. Though neither Clarke nor I always agreed with Leitsch's positions, and though I found myself recoiling at times from his harsh criticisms of early 70s activism, we knew instinctively that the former activist was a boon to our paper. Clarke later explained to me—following our resignation from GAY-- that he considered Leitsch's style the most outstanding among the regular columns we'd published.

There were times when Leitsch attacked post-Stonewall movement strategy head-on and when GAA members approached GAY to request that we remove Leitsch from our paper's masthead. If he was, in fact, as conservative as these new activists insinuated, then the community that the newspaper served would become better informed because of our hosting of a variety of opinions, we replied.

Besides, while many movement "radicals" still reviled drag queens in the 1960s, it was Dick Leitsch, prior to the Stonewall uprising, who first gave refuge through Mattachine to the transvestite community. I especially recall a pre-Stonewall 1969 Drag Ball at Manhattan's Riverside Plaza Hotel where Leitsch was a capable Master of Ceremonies.

He was little bothered by what others thought of such a Ball, and there were many Mattachine members who opposed it, believing that drag queens give gay males a bad name. Even so, as the giant chandeliers dimmed and Leitsch took the microphone, Lige Clarke and I— he invited us to sit at the judge's table—sat mesmerized as we witnessed a colorful parade of lovelies and would-be lovelies.

In an article we penned immediately, we told how we'd been caught up in the spirit of the Ball, how we felt saddened because we couldn't give prizes to all of those deserving belles. Questions we'd never bothered to ask before came to the fore as—under Leitsch's masterful touch—we beheld the unfolding spectacle.

"Could we be so heartless," our article asked, reflecting our change in attitude, "as to take the attitude of many fellow gays: namely that drag balls are a disgrace to the gay community?"

Our answer, thanks to Dick Leitsch's foresight, was "a resounding 'No!'

We said that The Ball Leitsch organized had brought us new realizations. "We decided," said our account, "to offer profound thanks to drag queens, female impersonators and both homosexual and heterosexual transvestites everywhere. We saw how, for many centuries, through long dark ages of ignorance and puritanical savagery, that the drag queen, although comprising only a small fraction of the total gay community, has enough balls (pun intended) to draw the attention of bigots, bluenoses and rednecks to him/herself. If it had not been for these genital males in women's clothing, the rank and file of the homosexual community might have endured more sophisticated kinds of social pressure, and homosexual 'witch hunts' would have extended into many vulnerable levels of society. As long as the homo-haters thought of us as effeminates, longing to get into women's duds, they were not likely to realize that we were actually the men next door."

Dick Leitsch's good humored militancy, not only about drag, but about many other issues, long pre-dated Stonewall and the emergence of the movement's 70s stalwarts.

Now, as New Years Eve parties beckon, I remember my old comrade-in-arms fondly, especially recalling how he threw another festive Mattachine banquet, one at which Lige Clarke and I were honored—in 1969-- as "newspapermen-of-the-year."

I think of Dick Leitsch, therefore, whenever I think of colorful festivities, and though we live well over a thousand miles apart today, I salute him. Happy New Year, Dick!

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