By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Rainbow pride flags can be found year-round on nearly every surface at Julius’, a bar in the West Village. Photographs of patrons and celebrities that have come throughout the years and pieces of gay history, like magazine covers and newspaper clips cover its walls. It’s a welcoming space for everyone who visits — making it difficult to imagine that many years ago, three gay men were refused service there.
The building, located at 159 W. 10th St., has been through several iterations. It was a grocery store until the mid-1800s before becoming a permanent home for Julius’ Bar. For more than 100 years, people have found a safe space to gather at Julius’. In the 1960s, Julius’ became a go-to meeting place for members of the LGBTQ community, although they weren’t open about their sexual identities. During that time, gay people were considered “disorderly.” Bars like Julius’ were not allowed to serve them, if they did they could be fined or worse, the bar could be shut down.
“[On April 21, 1966] members of the Mattachine Society, which was an early gay rights group, organized what was known as the Sip-In,” says Helen Buford, the current owner of Julius’. “They went ahead and challenged the New York State Liquor Authority’s (SLA) regulations that crack down on bars and shut them down if they were serving gay people. [They thought] gay people had a right to go out and have a drink just like everybody else.”
The plan was for the members of the Mattachine Society to go to different bars, identify themselves as gay and ask to be served a drink. They eventually made their way to Julius’. The men, who were dressed in suits and appeared poised, identified themselves as members of the LGBTQ community and attempted to order. However, they were refused service. The bar had been raided days before and the staff didn’t want to risk Julius’ being shut down.
The Sip-In was covered by the New York Times and the Village Voice. It also drew the attention of the New York City Human Rights Commission, which stated that gay people had the right to be served in a bar and that viewing gay people as disorderly was discriminatory. This paved the way for gay men to freely and openly patronize bars.
Today, Julius’ is known as New York City’s oldest gay bar. Buford, who purchased the bar 23 years ago with her husband, is honored to be the owner of such a historic place. While she isn’t a member of the LGBTQ community, she can relate to their struggles.
“I feel honored because I’m also someone who was not accepted for my choice in life. I feel a camaraderie with the LGBTQ community because I was married to a person of a different race,” she says. “I wasn’t accepted by some people in my family and then various people in my life at the time. I understand the feeling of being alienated from family for my choices. Mine was a choice, but for the LGBTQ community is not a choice, so I am proud to be able to provide a safe space.”
Buford’s husband passed away 10 years ago, and she has been the sole owner since. She is grateful for the community the bar has provided her. During the pandemic, it was Julius’ loyal clientele and neighbors that kept the bar afloat.
Buford also continued to pay her 21 employees, plus the bar’s rent. While she received some government assistance and financial support from the Gill Foundation, what truly kept her afloat was the money donated to the GoFundMe campaigns she started. One campaign was solely to support her employees, while the other was to help cover Julius’ operating expenses. Together the campaigns raised more than $150,000.
“That help from donations of people because they loved the bar — whether they were gay or straight — people were saying ‘We love this place, we want it to survive.’ That is what kept me going,” Buford says. “There were days where I would think, ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing this anymore.’”
Ricardo Walton, 58, first came to the bar when he was in his 20s when visiting from D.C.
“At that time, there were no young people around. Anybody here that was young was basically a rentboy. It was very funny,” he says. “Now it’s become more of a regular New York bar, but it still has the same atmosphere. Almost everything in here is practically the same as when I first came.”
Walton has long since become a regular at Julius’.
“When you come here you get your money’s worth,” he says. “When you go to most places in Manhattan you’re taken for granted. They’ll give you $10 worth of something and charge you $40 for it. Here you get your money’s worth.”
Marty Fisher, 83, has known about Julius’ for more than four decades, but just recently decided to visit. His favorite thing: meeting new people.
“I decided [Julius’] is a nice place to come in the late afternoon and get a drink,” he says. “You get to meet interesting people and have good conversations. [I would tell others to] come to a friendly place and have a drink, then leave, go home and take a nap.”
After all these years, Julius’ remains a welcoming and safe space for all.
“[Julius’] was the beginning of the gay civil rights movement and it has a history that is important to New York as well as everywhere else,” she says. “It’s a friendly place and we welcome everyone. We want everyone to come in, explore and don’t be afraid. Everyone is welcoming and friendly.”
You can visit Julius’ at 159 W 10th St. in Manhattan. The bar hosts a Mattachine Party on the third Thursday of the month where they honor a queer icon each month, and an after-dark party on the last Saturday of the month. Stay updated on events via Instagram.