How one pivotal moment in 1966 turned NYC bar Julius’ into a national LGBTQ icon

Julius’ was declared an NYC landmark in December 2022 for its contribution to LGBTQ history. Photo credit: The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

At first glance, Julius’ appears similar to dozens of low-key gay bars in New York City. There are rainbow flags out front and inside, cold pints of beer, a convivial wooden bar, and a crowded wall of historic black-and-white photos.

But Julius’ isn’t just any other bar—it’s one of the city’s oldest and longest running bars, and NYC officially declared it a landmark last year.

“Julius’ is historically authentic when you walk in,” says Ken Lustbader, co-founder of The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, a group that documents the history of LGBTQ sites across the city. “It looks as it did in the early 20th century. It’s unusual for an NYC commercial establishment to have that historic patina. In some ways, you can step inside and time travel a bit.”

Today, this one-of-a-kind bar remains one of the few LGBTQ establishments that also serves food in the city. But many people don’t know the history that led to it becoming an LGBTQ icon. Read on to learn how Julius’ became a pivotal place for advancing queer rights.

Julius’ early history

A black-and-white photo showing the exterior of historic NYC LGBTQ bar Julius’.

There’s been a bar in continuous operation at Julius’ current location since the 1860s, though it didn’t get this name until the 1930s. Photo credit: NYC Municipal Archives

A bar has been in continuous operation on the corner of Waverly Place and West 10th Street since the 1860s. Little is known about its early days (it was a grocery story in the 1840s), according to Lustbader, but the space survived two World Wars and Prohibition, when it became a speakeasy. 

Julius’ didn’t get its current name until the 1930s, when it operated as a sports bar and attracted celebrities such as famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell. And it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became a destination for the LGBTQ community.

It was illegal for bar owners to serve openly homosexual people at the time, so even though Julius’ wasn’t explicitly an LGBTQ establishment, it was known to be one of the few safe spaces for gay people to meet.

“It was a straight bar that tolerated gay people,” Lustbader says, a rarity in days when most gay bars were private clubs. The bar was thrust into the national spotlight in the 1960s when a man was arrested there on charges of soliciting sex with other men. 

The Julius’ sip in

The arrest prompted the LGBTQ community to fight back. The Mattachine Society, one of the country’s first gay rights groups, hosted what it called a “sip-in” at Julius’ in 1966, when it was still illegal to serve gay people. 

The group announced the April 21, 1966 protest to the press and decided to go to Julius’ after the first bar they went to had a sign on the window that read, “if you’re gay, stay away.” “This was a pre-Stonewall action,” says Lustbader, referring to the historic LGBTQ march that kickstarted the modern gay rights movement. “People were taking risks to be openly gay and lesbian.” 

Julius’ refused to serve the activists, which in turn led to the very first coverage of a gay rights protest by leading publications including The New York Times and the Village Voice. A now-famous photograph showing a bartender covering a drink with his hand to prevent the activists from drinking later helped overturn the discriminatory policies and established a more open LGBTQ bar culture in NYC.

This didn’t stop police raids (see: the Stonewall Uprising in 1969), but it did empower the LGBTQ community to gather more freely in public spaces and proudly proclaim certain bars as their own. 

Julius’ as a proud gay bar

The wood-clad interior of historic NYC LGBTQ bar Julius’ featuring a rainbow flag and photos on the wall.

Julius’ remains a place for older and younger LGBTQ people to connect and learn about their history. Photo credit: The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

Following the sip in, Julius’ firmly established itself as an LGBTQ destination. Current owner Helen Buford and her late husband purchased the space in 1999 and continued to operate it as a proudly queer space. 

“Prior to us owning it, Julius’ was more like a cruiser bar [in the LGBTQ community, the term ‘cruising’ typically refers to casual, anonymous hook-ups], and now it’s a gay neighborhood bar,” Buford says. “A lot of people call it the gay Cheers. It’s a great place to go and have conversations, food, and it’s inclusive to everyone.”

Food remains central to the experience at Julius’—a rarity for LGBTQ establishments in NYC—which has been grilling burgers in the same spot since 1932. “It’s a bar that has always served food, and it’s cooked right there,” Lustbader says. “It’s highly unusual.” 

Even today, diners park themselves on a bar stool, meet up with friends and acquaintances, enjoy a full meal or a snack, and celebrate Julius’ place in American history. Buford says her bar has gained a worldwide following after the historic designation last year. Regulars now include college students (Gen Zers love the space, Buford says), plus older customers who have been coming since the sip-in era or before.

“Our elders are the history keepers,” Buford says. “Young people can talk to them and hear about coming to the bar throughout the years. They’re a living history of the bar.” 

Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in Brooklyn, where she lives with her wife and rescue dog. You can follow her on Instagram @melissabethk and Twitter @melissabethk