I'm at that
tender old age when memories from long ago pop
up while reading the obituaries. So it was
in late June when news came of the death of Dick
Leitsch at 83, a lesser known pioneer of gay
rights history. Leitsch was one of the
founders and leaders of the Mattachine Society
in the 1950s and 1960s. Mattachine was one
of the first obscure advocacy organizations for
gay rights, during the days when the mere
mention of homosexuality was an unspoken taboo
topic. At a time when it was illegal for
homosexuals to gather in public places or to be
served in bars, Leitsch led a 'Sip-In'
demonstration at what is now one of the oldest
gay bars in the nation, Julius', which led to
the end that discriminatory policy. He was
also said to have been one of the ringleaders of
the legendary Stonewall Riot.
None of that
notoriety had anything to do with my long
forgotten memories that poped out of the depths
of my past when I read of his demise. Back
in the dark primitive days around 1964
when I was a terrified 15 year old who had just
discovered the I was gay, there was no internet
nor other means of finding out anything about
who I was, nor any gay center or other place
where a kid could get safe affirmative
counseling. Like nearly everyone else like
me, I was on my own to find my way in the world.
Then I read about the Mattachine Society in an
obscure little paperback book on gay life in New
York City. I looked them up in the phone
book, and called. A man answered!
Scary. I said, "Um.... I have 'a friend'
who thinks he might be ....um, you know, and he
was wondering if..... um....?" I really
had no idea what I wanted to ask. Dick
Leitsch, at the other end of the line, was used
to these calls from confused teenagers. He
was very kind and suggested that I tell 'my
friend' to visit their office in the City where
I could speak with a counselor. The
following Saturday, I emptied my piggy bank and
bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad from
my safe suburban enclave to the City and found
my way to the Mattachine in an office 5 floors
above Herald Square in a dowdy old office
building. The sleepy security guard in the
lobby wanted me to write my name in the
building's visitor book. Terrified, I made
up a name, on the spot, that I then used for
many years as a nickname.
entered the office, wearing sneakers, tight
white pants, and a tee shirt; I was 5'2" and
looked as cute as could be, at the time.
Several men working calmly at their desks all
looked up in surprise at the little boy who
seemed to have stumbled into their office by
accident. I was oblivious to all that,
being already too frightened to notice what was
going on. Dick Leitsch took over and
greeted me in a kindly voice, knowing exactly
why I was there without my having said a word.
He turned me over to their 'youth counselor'
Craig Rodwell who at age 26 was expert at
calming young gay teens frightened of who they
were. At the time, Rodwell had an older lover,
in his 30s, named Harvey Milk, a downtown stockbroker
whom no one had ever heard of at the time. Rodwell himself went on the his own fame a few
years later as one of the ringleaders of the
Stonewall Riot. Rodwell and others talked
to me, that day, and told me the most amazing
thing: "You seem to be a perfectly 'normal'
homosexual." I had not imagined those words
together in the same sentence. There was
absolutely no sense at all of anyone trying to
touch me, leer at me, nor in any way trying to
take advantage of my being there. I was
safer than I'd have been in a church. They
were extremely kind and caring, providing the
kind of 'safe space' counseling that would not
come to exist for decades until the founding of
the first gay centers with youth programs. At
the time, in 1964, this was all there was; and I
was so grateful that they were there.
That was my proper, 'official' coming out.
summer, a bunch of friends and I, all goofy 15
year olds, found a hole in the fence around the
1964 World's Fair in Queens. We went
several times per week all summer long, taking
train in from Long Island and in through our
hole in the fence. We always left around 4
PM, to get back out to suburbia in time for
dinner and our moms' meat loaf and mashed
potatoes. One afternoon Charlie and I
announced that we would stay at the fair into
the evening to watch the fireworks. Our
friends told us we were nuts and left.
Charlie and I walked for hours in the wonderful
evening breeze off Jamaica Bay as we strolled
through the dusk at the fair, arm in arm,
perhaps as John Philip Sousa and
Camille Saint-SaŽns had at the Panama
Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, as he told me a
long monologue about himself. Halfway
through I began to realize that he was coming
out to me; which was frightening because I had
still not come to terms with myself.
Finally, he concluded in his intentionally funny way, saying,
"So I'm a homosexual; do you want a blow job or
are you going to punch me in the nose?"
After a long pause, as the fireworks exploded
overhead, I said, "Charlie, you're not the only
one!" I'd never come out to anyone before.
Charlie and I became friends for life until
decades later in the early 1990s when I sat with
him by his hospital bed at St Luke's-Roosevelt as
he lay dieing of AIDS, sadly bidding him
fmr USN, SFC USAR