"Where Perversion is Taught": The Untold History of a Gay Rights Demonstration at Bucks County Community College in 1968Roundup
tags: gay rights, sexuality, 1960s, Protest, LGBTQ history, Mattachine Society, Gay Liberation, Campus Protest, Richard Leitsch
Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University. He is the author of four books, including City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia (2000) and The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History (2019). His next book, Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism, will be published by the University of California Press in 2022.
On May 9, 1968, one of the largest gay rights demonstrations before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 took place at Bucks County Community College (BCCC) in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Newtown was located 31 miles northeast of Philadelphia and 14 miles west of Trenton. Approximately two hundred students rallied in a campus courtyard to protest the college president’s cancellation of a lecture by gay movement leader Richard Leitsch, president of the Mattachine Society of New York. Most of the protesters, students at a two-year college that had opened in 1965, were probably straight and did not think of themselves as gay rights advocates; they were motivated by a combination of support for student rights and opposition to antigay censorship. While historians have previously identified more than two dozen pre-Stonewall LGBT demonstrations, sit-ins, and riots, this one has been overlooked until now.
Invitation and Organization
The idea of inviting Leitsch to speak apparently originated with the newly-established Cultural Committee of the BCCC Student Government. The Student Government was authorized to allocate funds collected from student activity fees ($15/year per student) to campus clubs and organizations. It is unclear who specifically recommended Leitsch, but the student newspaper indicated that the Cultural Committee selected him “on the basis of returns from a questionnaire circulated among students seeking their preferences in topics for open discussion.”
According to a recent interview with Ralph Sassi, who was the Student Government President in 1967-68, a woman on the Cultural Committee submitted a proposal to fund the Leitsch lecture. “Why not?” he recalls thinking, adding that since all students paid student fees, all should have the right to propose speakers. Cultural Committee Chair Donna Saurman told a local reporter that “this was to be our first speaker.” Advance publicity described Leitsch as a “practicing homosexual” and the Mattachine Society as an organization “dedicated to improving the status of homosexuals” and “seeking to end job discrimination against homosexuals.” The student newspaper also referenced media reports about Leitsch’s recent successes in challenging antigay police practices in New York. Leitsch’s fee was reportedly $450 (equal to the fees collected from thirty students and equivalent to approximately $3400 in 2021). The title of the planned presentation was “The Problems of the Homosexual in Our Society.”
Leitsch (1935-2018) served as president of Mattachine New York from 1965 to 1971. He is perhaps best known today as the initiator of the 1966 Julius Bar Sip-In, an action undertaken by three gay men to challenge the New York State Liquor Authority’s policy against serving known homosexuals in bars. At the Julius Bar in Greenwich Village, the men asked to be served after identifying themselves as homosexuals. When they were denied, which they hoped would happen, they had the basis for filing a lawsuit that eventually succeeded in loosening (without fully overturning) the ban. Leitsch also is remembered today as a leader in the effort to end sexual entrapment by New York City police in the mid-1960s. During his years as a Mattachine leader, he was interviewed on multiple radio and television programs and was invited to speak at many colleges, universities, and community forums, as were activists Barbara Gittings and Clark Polak of Philadelphia and Frank Kameny of Washington, D.C. In 1969, Leitsch authored some of the earliest and most detailed gay media reports on the Stonewall Riots.