For the majority of the Joe Q public, if they care at all generally believe the Stonewall riots were the beginning of the modern day gay freedom campaign, but that would be a slap in the face to so many whom came and fought during those dangerous and often devastating early days. As part of SPY’s attempt to find and document our unsung heroes, some of those brave souls can be traced to a single dramatic event with a singularly memorable name and point in time:
No we are not talking Stonewall or the Mattachine Society, (although we will at another time) today we are talking about the almost forgotten first, second and third documented Gay riot, rally’s. Grab a cup of joe and lets revisit a time in America under the watchful eye of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy who threw fear help ignite the so-called “Lavender scare”. The movements real beginning was the first known documented riot in American LGBTQ history, the Cooper Donuts Riot in 1959. Any one for a sweet bun with your discrimination?
“Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” — Ernest Gaines
Entrapment was common: Attractively dressed vice cops would cruise gay bars, bathrooms and hook-up spots, pick up tricks and arrest them as soon their target leaned in for a kiss. In other cases, plainclothes cops would wait outside of gay hangouts, trail two men as they walked home and burst into their residence to catch them in the act.As bad as gay men had it, trans people had it worse:
With laws against cross-dressing on the books in California, police kept an eye out for them entering or leaving gay bars—any excuse to raid and shut the place down. (Many gay hangouts rejected trans folk for this very reason.)Many in the trans community couldn’t get decent jobs (hell, they still can’t) and some resorted to hustling, giving the whole community the reputation of being prostitutes. The media often conflated homosexuals with cross-dressers, drag queens and trans people, making gay men and lesbians resent trans visibility even more.
So what better place to kick back than Cooper’s Donuts, an all-night eatery on Main Street in downtown L.A.? Smack dab between two gay bars—Harold’s and the Waldorf—Cooper’s become a popular late-night hangout for trans folk, butch queens, street hustlers and their johns. (Sounds like a gas, actually).
Rechy was in fact one of three people the police tried to arrest that night in May of 1959, when the patrons of Cooper’s had had enough.
A large group of transgendered women and others pelted the officers with donuts, coffee, and paper plates until they were forced to retreat and return with larger numbers. Rechy managed to escape, but when the police returned a riot ensued that shut down Main Street for an entire day.
That night is widely considered to be the first gay uprising in modern history, seven years before the Black Cat Riot in L.A.’s Silverlake neighborhood, and ten years before the Stonewall Rebellion.
Two cops entered the donuts shop that night, ostensibly checking ID, and arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out. As the cops packed the back of the squad car, one of the men objected, shouting that the car was illegally crowded. While the two cops switched around to force him in, the others scattered out of the car.
From the donuts shop, everyone poured out. The crowd was fed up with the police harassment and on this night they fought back, hurling donuts, coffee cups and trash at the police. The police, facing this barrage of [pastries] and porcelain, fled into their car calling for backup.
Soon, the street was bustling with disobedience. People spilled out in to the streets, dancing on cars, lighting fires, and generally reeking havoc.
They also closed the street off for a day.The Cooper’s Donuts riot often gets confused with the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot some years later:
There were similar political circumstances leading up both riots. And like Cooper’s, Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district was a popular all-night hangout for trans people (called “hair fairies” at the time), hustlers and assorted sexual renegades.And both stories involve coffee cups.
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” ~ Dr. Seuss
It was after the bars had closed and well into the pre-dawn hours of an August morning in 1966 when San Francisco cops were in Gene Compton’s cafeteria again. They were arresting drag queens, trans women and gay hustlers who had been sitting for hours, eating and gossiping and coming down from their highs with the help of 60-cent cups of coffee.
The 24-hour eatery was a local favorite. It was centrally located — adjacent to the hair salon, the corner bar and the bathhouse — and provided a well-lit and comfortable haven for trans women performing in clubs or walking the streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
From Compton’s “you could walk to Woolworth’s to buy [fake] eyelashes, and it was two blocks from the airline bus terminal,” where Tamara Ching says many drag queens and trans women would go to change from male to female clothes. Ching is an Asian-American transgender woman who grew up in San Francisco. She frequented the Tenderloin during the 1960s and has lived there since 1992. “Everybody that lived in the Tenderloin ate at Compton’s,” Amanda St. Jaymes, a transgender woman who ran a residential hotel nearby, said in a documentary, Screaming Queens, which chronicles a confrontation with police that marked the start of a movement toward LGBT rights.
Compton’s management didn’t want the cafeteria to be a popular late-night hangout for drag queens, trans women and hustlers. Workers would often call the police at night to clear the place out. The Tenderloin, where sex work, gambling, and drug use were commonplace, was one of only a few neighborhoods where trans women and drag queens could live openly. Yet they were still regularly subject to police harassment and arrested for the crime of “female impersonation.”
A view of Gene Compton’s cafeteria In San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. In 1966, the eatery was the site of landmark confrontations between police and transgender activists. i
A view of Gene Compton’s cafeteria In San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. In 1966, the eatery was the site of landmark confrontations between police and transgender activists.
And when a policeman in Compton’s grabbed a drag queen, she threw a cup of coffee in his face. The cafeteria “erupted,” according to Susan Stryker, a historian who directed Screaming Queens. People flipped tables and threw cutlery. Sugar shakers crashed through the restaurant’s windows and doors. Drag queens swung their heavy purses at officers. Outside on the street, dozens of people fought back as police forced them into paddy wagons. The crowd trashed a cop car and set a newsstand on fire.
“We just got tired of it,” St. Jaymes told Stryker. “We got tired of being harassed. We got tired of being made to go into the men’s room when we were dressed like women. We wanted our rights.”
If the famous Stonewall riots in New York City were the origin of this nation’s gay rights movement, the Tenderloin upheaval three years before was “the transgender community’s debut on the stage of American political history,” according to Stryker. “It was the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history.”
Stonewall is often thought of as an uprising of gay men. In reality, “it was drag queens, Black drag queens, who fought the police at the famous Stonewall Inn rebellion in 1969,” wrote lesbian novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman in a 1985 novel. “Years later, a group of nouveau-respectable gays tried to construct a memorial to Stonewall in the park across from the old bar. The piece consisted of two white clone-like thin gay men and two white, young lesbians with perfect noses. They were made of a plaster-like substance, pasty and white as the people who paid for it.”
“We didn’t think this was a big deal,” Ching told me. “It was a natural thing for people to do back then, to protest.”
Besides memories of police and patrons who were there that night, the only record of the riot that survived into the present is a short article by gay activist Raymond Broshears.
He wrote it for the program of the first San Francisco gay pride parade, in 1972.
Decades later, Stryker found his account and began to seek out the whole story.
Her search for people who had been in the Tenderloin back then who spent time at Compton’s or took part in the riot led her to Ching, St. Jaymes and another trans woman named Felicia Elizondo.
Ching grew up in San Francisco. She recalls hanging out with beatniks on Grant Avenue and began doing sex work as a teenager, in 1965. “My mom was an alcoholic and she let me run the streets and do my own thing.”
Ching wasn’t at the riot that night, but she knew Compton’s well. “It was good to go and be seen and talk to people about what happened during the night. To make sure everybody’s OK, everyone made their coins, everybody’s coming down off drugs and didn’t overdose, and that you didn’t go to jail that night,” she said.
“Compton’s nourished people. People would sit there for days drinking a cup of coffee. I would buy a full meal. I don’t cook and I loved eating at Compton’s — it was like downtown.”
The Tenderloin in the 1960s was a red light district and a residential ghetto. Stryker told me that the neighborhood was a particular destination and home to “young people who maybe had been kicked out by their families and were living on the street. And trans people who could lose a job at any moment or not be hired, who wouldn’t be rented to, who had to live in crappy residential hotels in a bad part of town, and who had to do survival sex work to support themselves.”
“We sold ourselves because we need to make a living but we sold ourselves because we wanted to be loved,” Elizondo says in Stryker’s film. Ching told me sex work in the Tenderloin empowered her. She had a job with the government but still worked the streets at night.
Whether for survival, pleasure or some combination of both, sex work left women vulnerable to violence and put them in closer contact with police. But even those who weren’t hustling had frequent encounters with law enforcement. St. Jaymes, who ran the residential hotel, told Stryker she was arrested frequently, even though she wasn’t a sex worker. “If we had lipstick on, if we had mascara on, if our hair was too long, we had to put it under a cap. If the buttons was on the wrong side, like a blouse, they would take you to jail because they felt it was female impersonation.”
“The police could harass you at any time,” Ching told me. “They would ask you for pieces of ID. You had to have your male ID if you were born male and didn’t go through a sex change. They would pat you down, and while they’re patting you down, of course they’re feeling you up,” she continued. “They would arrest you and put you in the big van, Big Bertha, and drive you around town. When they turned a corner they turned sharply, so people would fall. They’d go over a bump, fast down the hill and make you look a mess by the time you got to the booking station.”
Police relations with the trans, drag and gay communities in the Tenderloin reached a boiling point in 1966. Across San Francisco resistance was in the air. Local anti-war protests were gaining momentum. Civil rights activists and religious leaders at a Tenderloin church organized to bring government anti-poverty resources to the neighborhood. A group of radical young queers calling themselves Vanguard started pushing back against discrimination by police and business owners.
After Compton’s management started kicking them out of the restaurant, they picketed outside on July 18, 1966. Viewed in the context of 1960s activism, identity politics and anti-poverty efforts, the riots that occurred a few weeks later seem inevitable.
Though it can take decades to understand motivations for a particular riot or movement of militant resistance in the streets, there are plenty of instances when a group’s anger and frustration over injustice is later celebrated as a civil rights victory.
We have a parade every year to commemorate the Stonewall riots — three nights when rioters burned down a bar and tried to overturn a paddy wagon.
Now that Bruce Jenner has told Diane Sawyer, “I’m a woman,” and Oprah interviewed Janet Mock, we can look at a charge like “female impersonation” and see the Compton’s riot as another act of resistance against injustice.
One day, history books, pundits and academics could very well talk about the recent unrest in Baltimore or Ferguson the same way.
Right after the Compton’s episode, Ching heard about what had happened. “To me, nothing was out of the ordinary,” she told me. “We lived to survive day to day. We didn’t realize we’d made history.”
RIOT NUMBER 3, THE BLACK CAT RIOT (1967)
February 11, 1967 is not a date that’s widely heralded as significant in the fight for LGBT civil rights. In the popular consciousness, it doesn’t rival June 28, 1969, the day of the famous Stonewall riot in New York City, which is widely regarded as the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. But in truth the 1967 Black Cat protest is the older sister — the Jan Brady to Stonewall’s “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” — of Stonewall. And in Southern California, its claws ran deep and left their own indelible mark.
It was the first time that LGBT people in the United States organized a protest against police persecution. The raid and the arrests that accompanied it inspired the first legal argument that gay people were entitled to equal protection under the law.
“We need a plaque to look at and go to,” said Alexei Romanoff, 77, one of the few known survivors of the 1967 protest that followed the raid. “I want some young person to go and say, ‘That’s where my civil rights started.’ ”
The Black Cat is at 3903 Sunset Blvd. at Hyperion Avenue. In the late 1960s it was one of a dozen gay bars along a one-mile stretch of Sunset ending at Sunset Junction.
“Most are beer bars, with pool tables, juke-boxes, coin-operated game machines,” gay activist Jim Highland wrote in a 1967 article in Tangents, a gay magazine published in the late 1960s. “The buildings housing the bars are shabby, the rents cheap, and business failures are common. But when one bar closes another soon opens.”
They may have been run down, but those bars were among the few places where gay and lesbian people could gather. Evelyn Hooker, a UCLA psychologist who studied homosexual men in Los Angeles during the 1950s and 1960s, described the gay bar as the central institution of the homosexual subculture of the time. The bar was a place where “the protective mask of the day may be dropped.”
Lillian Faderman, a co-author of ” Gay LA: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians,” recalled her bar experience in a 2008 speech.
“I came out in the 1950s, at a time when lesbians and gays were made to feel like outlaws by society, and especially by the Los Angeles Police Department,” she said.
“… That gay bar scene in the ‘50s was absolutely crucial for us lesbians and gays—because it was virtually the only place we could be who we were in terms of our sexual identification. It felt like the bar was our little piece of the world… Except that we were often reminded that it wasn’t a safe little piece of the world. Raids were frequent in L.A. gay bars …This was the situation in gay bars throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s, in Los Angeles and big cities throughout the country.”
That was the case on New Year’s Eve 1967, when a dozen undercover vice officers positioned themselves in the crowded Black Cat.
Highland described the scene in a gay magazine called Tangents: “Midnight came. 1967. ‘Happy New Year!’ A bartender pulled a string and the balloons showered down. The Rhythm Queens yelled a jazz-rock version of “Auld Lang Syne.” Noisemakers squawked. Confetti flew. Kissing is a New Year’s Eve tradition. Did it happen here? If so, it didn’t go on for long,” he wrote.
“Witnesses report: An officer who had been standing next to the Black Cat’s short-order cook suddenly grabbed the cook’s arm and tried to lead him out the back door. It was locked. He turned and steered the cook through the crowd toward the front. Alarmed, a man in woman’s clothes clutched for the front door. The butt-end of a pool cue felled him, one ear split and bleeding …
“[A bartender] went quietly … Maybe not so quietly, but others went too. A dozen of them. For the most part they were the transvestites. The police were trying to build a case. If drag is no longer illegal, juries tend to think it should be. To the public mind it suggests degeneracy. A youth in taffeta, forced to bend across the hood of a patrol car, tore the paper leis from his neck and dropped them into the gutter. They were for happy times and this was not.
“A stout man in a red wig, second-hand movie-star gown and high-heel shoes that were a dazzle of crushed sequins, tried to look inconspicuous. He woke on his stomach on the floor. An officer knelt on his back. Handcuffs clicked. The raid was over. It had taken ten minutes.”
Two of those arrested, Charles Talley and Benny Baker, were convicted of lewd conduct and filed an appeal. Vice cops had seen them kissing other men, Baker while wearing a white dress. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal, but their attorney, Herbert Selwyn, set a precedent by arguing that they should have been granted equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Romanoff wasn’t in the Black Cat that New Year’s Eve. But he was one of the people who, in the wake of the raid, decided it was time to fight. He may be the only person from the protest still living. Romanoff’s husband, David Farah, 55, said that word went out in the community back when the Black Cat was dedicated as a historic site. Besides Romanoff, the only person found was Aristide Laurent, who was too sick to attend the dedication and who died in 2011.
“We would love to know anyone else, too,” Farah said.
Reports vary on the number of people who attended the protest. Romanoff estimates there were 300 to 600 people there.
“We were very orderly,” Romanoff said. If so much as a leaflet dropped to the ground, it was quickly snatched from the ground to avoid offering any excuse for police to start cuffing protestors. “It was an angry demonstration—but orderly.”
The demonstration was planned by a group called P.R.I.D.E. (Personal Rights in Defense and Education). A Hollywood bar owner agreed to let P.R.I.D.E. organizers meet in the bar during hours when it was closed. A phone tree was set up, with each person calling 10 or 20 others.
People were nervous and feared further violence from the police. That’s why the protest didn’t happen until weeks after the New Year’s raid.
That’s also one reason protests were planned in communities other than the LGBT one. The organizers tried to coordinate simultaneous rallies in black, Latino and other minority communities. The strategy was to spread police forces thin with demonstrations across various parts of the city.
A letter signed by Jim Kepner, curator of the National Gay Archives (now the ONE Archives), mentions the simultaneous rallies.
“The Black Cat attack outraged gays and many others as well,” Kepner wrote. “On February 11, a protest was organized outside the bar by PRIDE, first gay organization largely oriented toward the bar community, and coordinated with similar protests on the Sunset Strip (where Sheriffs were beating hippies nightly for the 6 o’clock news), Watts, Pacoima and Boyle Heights.
The overall coordinators howled at the word ‘homosexual’ on our leaflets, so, under pressure, we avoided mentioning our name during the rally, but swore that ‘the love that dared not speak its name’ would never again be silenced. Forty people marched in the picket line, and two hundred of us (and fifty incredibly armed police) participated in the rally in the lot east of the bar.
In a newsletter for the Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile, Kepner described the scene in court where Baker, Talley and others were on trial.
“The defendants and several supporting witnesses claimed that police, in sports clothes, had not identified themselves as officers, had dragged two of the defendants (bartenders) across the bar onto the floor, and had injured several defendants,” he wrote. “The court steadily maintained that this was not relevant to the case, limiting defense questions to whether the kissing had taken place, how the officers were dressed, and whether kissing constituted willfully lewd and dissolute behavior in a public place, under the statute.”
“[The jury] found all the defendants guilty, except one young bartender, who’d had the foresight to spend the recess in the hallway, in view of most of the jurors, kissing a young lady.”
“There is really nothing new about this story – to homosexuals, or African Americans, or Mexicans, or juveniles, or alcoholics, or others whom some policemen regard as scum. What is new is that homosexuals, who have always been dependably meek, are fighting back …
The fight continues, but in the decades since the Black Cat demonstration in 1967, LGBT people have been winning to a degree that probably would surprise some of those present at that raid. The cat didn’t run away. Indeed, to quote from Harry S. Miller’s song: “The cat came back. We thought he was a goner, but the cat came back. It just couldn’t stay away.”
Under pressure, we avoided mentioning our name during the rally, but swore that ‘the love that dared not speak its name’ would never again be silenced. Forty people marched in the picket line, and two hundred of us (and fifty incredibly armed police) participated in the rally in the lot east of the bar.
We passed out 3,000 leaflets, chiefly to persons driving by who promised to join us next time.
RIOT NUMBER 4, THE STONEWALL RIOTS (1969)
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, a group of gay customers at a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn, who had grown angry at the harassment by police, took a stand and a riot broke out.
As word spread throughout the city about the demonstration, the customers of the inn were soon joined by other gay men and women who started throwing objects at the policemen, shouting “gay power.”
Police reinforcements arrived and beat the crowd away, but the next night, the crowd returned, even larger than the night before, with numbers reaching over 1000.
For hours, protesters rioted outside the Stonewall Inn until the police sent a riot-control squad to disperse the crowd. For days following, demonstrations of varying intensity took place throughout the city.
Not long after the riots the Gay Rights movement began to take shape. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance were formed and began to bring the gay community together through political action.
These groups took their fight to the streets and captured the country’s attention with a movement that would only continue to gain momentum. The first Gay Pride parade was held a year later in June 1970 to commemorate the events of Stonewall.
The men and women who stood up against police harassment at Stonewall that night sparked a revolution. Even at a time when few establishments welcomed openly gay people, homosexual sex was illegal in nearly every state, and there were no laws protecting gay me or women from losing their jobs if their sexuality was discovered, they fought back and defended their rights.
While the journey is not over, the changes that have occurred throughout the country in support of gay rights in the last 43 years are a testament to the success of the Gay Rights movement that had precipitated from the riot.
The legacy that the Stonewall Riots left is a powerful message; a legacy of acceptance, hope, and determination for the LGBT community.