Young Friends Offered Gay Rights Pioneer ‘Late-Life Renaissance’ | chelseanow.com

Young Friends Offered Gay Rights Pioneer ‘Late-Life Renaissance’

L to R: Paul Havern, Matt Allison, Derek McCormack, Alden Peters and Ricardo Guadarrama in the garden of St. Luke in the Fields, where Dick Leitsch was interred. | Photo by Andy Humm

BY ANDY HUMM | Dick Leitsch, who as president of the Mattachine Society, a pre-Stonewall gay group, participated in the first act of gay civil disobedience in 1966, died June 22 in Manhattan after a year-long battle with cancer.

It was at the West Village’s Julius’ — at the time a “raided premises” (due to the recent arrest of a gay man there) and fearful of losing its liquor license — that the men were denied service in view of the media, despite the establishment’s history of being a quasi-gay bar since the 1950s. While LGBTQ people had demonstrated and even rioted before this, the Sip-In was the first act of targeted gay civil disobedience and it was successful. The State Liquor Authority dropped its holding that serving gay people made an establishment a “disorderly premises” — and, in fact, denied such a regulation ever existed.

For the past several years, Leitsch — who also worked to end entrapment of gay men by the police, and wrote the first eyewitness report on the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion— was befriended by a group of gay men in their 20s who socialized with him at his West 72nd Street home and at Julius’ in the West Village. They were with him as he died in hospice care at the Mary Manning Walsh Home on the East Side on June 22. They gave Leitsch “a late-life renaissance,” according to Tom Bernardin, the historian of Julius’.

Paul Havern, 28, assistant director of admissions at Cooper Union, was friends with Leitsch for three years and said, “For a lot of us, Dick was sort of a bridge into a world that was really lost to an entire generation. For many of us he really provided us insight not only into how far our community has come, but also to how similar we all were despite our differences.”

Havern added. “He really was very humble about all of his actions. He continued to work at St. Mary’s [the Midtown Episcopal Church to which he belonged] until he could not leave his apartment.”

When asked why he kept up his volunteer work, Havern recalled, “Dick said, ‘Well if I don’t do it, who will?’”

That seems to have been the spirit that drove Leitsch in his pre-Stonewall activism as well.

Laurence Frommer, another friend of Leitsch’s, said, “Paul Haven, Ricardo Guadarrama, Matt Allison, and Alden Peters were all with him when he died.”

And they were all there for his funeral on June 28 at “Smokey Mary’s” — St. Mary the Virgin, an Episcopal church on West 46th Street, where most of the heads were gray.

Guadarrama, 27, Havern’s husband, said, “Dick always gave me hope,” even during his dying days. “It was inspiring for me, especially in this difficult time [in our country] to see someone who was positive and laughing” despite his illness.

“He was not afraid to be who he was,” Allison said after the service.

Allison, 29, an activist and senior campaigner at Purpose, a social impact agency, wrote, “During his life, Dick took many risks and made many sacrifices in the service of LGBTQ people to secure and advance our rights amidst incredible oppression. From an early age, Dick knew he was gay and never sought validation from straight people and society; he always knew deep down that being gay is perfectly natural and not something to hide, change, or ever be ashamed of. It was this deep, inner understanding that rooted Dick and guided his activism.”

L to R: Paul Havern with Dick Leitsch. | Photo courtesy of Paul Havern

Peters, a 28-year-old filmmaker, wrote in an email, “His charm was disarming, even at the end of his life. When I spoke with him on the phone after his terminal cancer diagnosis, he spoke about his life and perspective on dying. He said he’s older than dirt, nothing is new anymore, he feels ready, and that if he knew so many people would be calling and giving him attention, he would have died sooner. ‘If I knew dying was this fun, I would have done it years ago!’ Then he gave his unmistakable laugh you could recognize from across a crowded bar.”

Leitsch was dispensing his wisdom to the last, according to Peters, who wrote, “I told him that was an inspiring perspective to have. I had been so nervous to call him but his positivity made me, and everyone around him, comfortable with his inevitable departure. He guided us through the end of his life with the same joy and care that he lived his life with. When I told him he was inspiring, he apologized. ‘I didn’t mean to be. I’m just talking.’

“In that same phone call, Dick told me the most important part of life is to keep friends close. Lovers come and go, but friends stick around through the years. ‘What’s the secret to keeping those friendships for so long?’ I asked. ‘Well, we all threatened to sleep with each other, but none of us ever did.’”

“Dick Leitsch is the kind of person you don’t meet anymore,” Peters wrote. “He’s humble and witty. He makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room when you speak to him. But it goes deeper than that. Speaking with him makes you feel like your relationship with Dick is unique. So many of us felt so close to him because all of us thought, ‘Dick and I have something special that others don’t have.’ That something special was Dick Leitsch himself.”

Allison wrote, “I feel blessed to have been with him and surrounded by other members of his chosen family when he passed. As we held him in the final moment of his passing, it felt as if he had passed his life and legacy on to us to remember, gain strength and knowledge from, and carry forward.”