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Dick Leitsch
Summer 1964

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.

I bravely 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.

Later that 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 farewell. 

-Denny Meyer, fmr USN, SFC USAR

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