(This piece originally appeared in September of 2008)
It's nearly midnight on a Thursday in late July at Julius', New York City's oldest gay pub'turned'newest gay hipster hangout, and I'm down at the blunt end of the crowded bar with the longtimers: Richard, Kevin, and Tom. Richard Keat, a former World War II Air Force pilot, manufacturer, and (by many accounts) great beauty, won't tell me how old he is, but I've heard that he's had $1 million worth of plastic surgery. Kevin, a stout, sweet-natured former Social Security worker from Queens, says he's been coming to Julius' since 1965, when he was in high school. Tom Bernardin, tall and garrulous, moved to New York out of college in 1971 and gives tours of Ellis Island.
I ask the guys how they feel about the 100 or so gay men (and sprinkling of women and trans folk) -- most anywhere from their mid 20s to mid 40s and of the arty hipster persuasion (facial fuzz, partially shaved heads, eye glitter, droopy tank tops) -- packing the place and bobbing their heads to DJ-spun classic rock and '70s AM-radio pop. It's a most unusual sight at Julius', where on a good night a few dozen men hunch rather broodingly around the bar, like figures in a grizzled gay version of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, while watching a Yankees game and eating the greasy-delicious $4 burgers Julius' is famous for.
'I think it's just fine, but I'm glad it's only once in a while,' says Richard, glancing around the bar's scarred, ancient dark-wood landscape. The place looks more like an old Irish whiskey joint than a glossy gay bar, with its beer barrel stools, wagon wheel chandeliers, burger grill aroma, and (packing every square inch of wall space) dust-covered photos of everyone from 1930s jazz chanteuses to countless deceased patrons.
Does Kevin like the crowd? 'It's OK,' he says. 'Usually it's empty.' And all the new faces? 'They're nice to look at -- cute, friendly. The music's a little too loud, but I can deal with it.'
'This is what it was like in the late '70s,' says Tom. 'Not quite this crowded or noisy. But this is great -- it's rejuvenating the place.' He wasn't planning to stay this late, I remind him. 'You gonna shoot me?' he asks.
Richard, Kevin, and Tom kind of sum up the response of Julius' ever-thinning old guard to Mattachine, the monthly party thrown here by the actor-director-DJ John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) and his performer-DJ friends PJ DeBoy and Amber Martin. Since its kickoff in February, the party, which announces its dates via a private e-mail blast, has attained a quiet cult status within a certain arty genderfuck circle, attracting everyone from Justin Bond (of drag cabaret duo Kiki & Herb), actor Neil Patrick Harris, and Scissor Sister Jake Shears to Radical Faeries and 20-something art-heads from Brooklyn's Williamsburg and Bushwick.
Yet all comers share a conviction that old gay bars, the old gay men who frequent them, and gay history in general are to be embraced rather than shunned, especially at a time when gentrification is effacing New York's broader history and when gay life is leeching ever more into the mainstream.
The party's name is a bow to the Mattachine Society, the gay activist group of the 1950s and 1960s, which had one of its most pivotal moments at Julius'. The bar dates back to the Civil War period, and it attracted actors, jazz musicians, boxers, and all sorts of locals through Prohibition and World War II. By the mid '60s gay men were also gathering there discreetly. At that time New York's state liquor laws forbade establishments from serving openly gay men. There were more freewheeling gay hangouts, but they were mostly run by the mob and avoided raids thanks to police payoffs.
Julius' was not among them. 'It was not a place where anybody flamboyant or obvious would go,' recalls Randolfe Wicker, who was a Mattachine member. Then in April 1966 a handful of Mattachinists, including Wicker, decided to hit some gay haunts, declare their homosexuality, and demand to be served. They'd stage not a 'sit-in' but a 'sip-in.' Yet they were served, with a laugh, at their first two or three stops.
Finally, midday at Julius', they were denied service. (Hence the iconic Village Voice photo, which Mitchell and DeBoy used on the kickoff party's invite, of a Julius' bartender with his hand over a glass.) The case went to court, where it was ruled that denying openly gay people service violated their right to assemble. It was far from the end of police harassment against gays and gay establishments -- the Stonewall uprising occurred three years later -- but in many respects the openly gay bar as we know it was born that afternoon at Julius'.
Though aware of the bar's history, Mitchell and DeBoy don't feel they're hosting a nostalgia-fest. 'It was more 'Let's remember the past but think about the future and have a good time,' Mitchell says. 'The purpose was to have a place to hang out with our friends where we weren't caught in a K-hole of bad gay music.'
Mitchell, DeBoy, and Bond have lived near the bar and hung out there for years. Mitchell says that when he was preparing to play a hustler in a mid-'90s play, he'd hang out with the real-life hustlers who once (more overtly) frequented the bar. Says DeBoy of the bar, 'It's a no-attitude kind of place. It's just always been romanticized in my head. It's haunted but in a good way.'
Wicker, 72, attended the kickoff party as an honored guest and says he had a great time. Dick Leitsch, 73, another former Mattachinist who did the sip-in, says he hasn't heard about the party but would like to go. Is nostalgia for the pre-Stonewall era weird, I ask Leitsch? 'I had a good time in the '60s,' he says. 'There was a pressure [on us], but you learned to live with it and work around it.' Besides, he adds, 'everything becomes nostalgia after a while, doesn't it?'
Well after midnight the Mattachine 2.0 crowd spills out onto the sidewalk. I ask performance artists Joseph Keckler and La JohnJoseph and their friend Stephen Kent Jusick, an experimental filmmaker: Why are we getting all verklempt about a painful, dangerous time for gays?
'Danger is exciting,' says Keckler.
'I think a little homophobia goes a long way in keeping us strong and not soft.'
Joseph, who's sort of dressed like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan but with black lipstick, disagrees: 'As much fun as homophobia might provide us, there are kids in places who aren't as lucky as us. If they want to wear black lipstick, it's a hassle for them.'
'The assimilationists win -- that's what happening,' says Jusick.
Joseph takes offense. 'I am hardly the face of assimilation!' We're all interrupted when a huge, belching garbage truck backs up on the sidewalk. 'Dive in, dive in!' people start shrieking. A garbageman in a do-rag that reads PUETRO RICO scowls at us. It all feels very Old New York, with rouged nelly queens and surly trade mixing it up.
I wander back inside, where DJs PJ and Amber have jumped from Judy's 'Get Happy' to Cher's 'Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves' to Cheap Trick's 'He's a Whore.' I ask Aaron Korntreger, 27, a tall, good-looking architect, what it's like rubbing shoulders with guys older than his father. 'Just by being next to each other, even if you don't necessarily interact, you're sharing a space,' he says. 'It's an acknowledgment that they exist and that they're not parasites.' Hmm, a touch condescending? I think about what Mitchell had said to me: 'There's a lot of old guys there that grew up in a spirit of repression and are kind of sad. We want to cheer them up.'
Truth be told, nearly all the older guys except Richard, Kevin, and Tom had cleared out by about 11, just when things were picking up steam. I ask the trio: Do we younger guys just not realize how bad it was for gays pre-Stonewall?
They look at me incredulously. 'I don't think you realize how good it was,' says Richard. 'It was fabulous. It was absolute freedom for everything!' But you could lose your job for being gay then, I whine. 'Some people did, but I never had that kind of job,' he replies blithely.
Kevin pretty much says the same thing. 'You'd just hang out in a gay circle and ignore the whole straight society,' he says.
'I had a horrible time coming out of the closet,' Tom acknowledges. 'A lot of people struggled and still do. I think it's easier for kids now that we're assimilated and getting rights.' But, he continues, 'being part of a subculture is very attractive to me. I'd hate to be straight. And I'd hate to be your age.' (I'm 39.) 'I was born in 1948; it's the best fucking time to have been born. I've had more sex -- it was un-fucking-believable. All the baths!'
I think back to earlier that night, when I'd chatted with 23-year-old Albert, a cherub with a Mohawk and a hobo bag from Target who'd just moved from Detroit ('Just like Madonna!' he said) and was working three jobs while he tried to make it as a writer. Would he really have wanted to be gay here 40, 50 years ago? He said he thought that, regardless of how hard it was for gays elsewhere, the city had always been a special oasis. 'I imagine that in Manhattan, wasn't it just [that] everybody was everybody, and it didn't matter?' he said.
And now -- as we approach 2:30 a.m., as the filmmaker Stephen Winter and drag artist Glenn Marla dirty-dance to Chaka Khan's 'Ain't Nobody,' as Justin Bond makes out with a lushly tressed trans gal -- I realize: Albert's kind of right. Whether it's the closeted '60s, the hedonistic '70s, the AIDS-shadowed '80s and '90s, or the overgentrified, overassimilated aughts, when you're young and free in the capital of the world, you work around the temper of the times and make your own freedom. Let's sip to that.