The Black Cat Tavern was a gay bar at 3909 W Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles (which, according to my Google maps, is now a restaurant called Black Cat so that’s awesome). It had been around for about five minutes before it got raided by the LAPD. I mean, it was established in November of 1966 and on January 1 of 1967, a bunch of plain-clothes police officers entered the club. Not actually surprisingly, there were people in the bar celebrating the new year by kissing. I know, le gasp, right? The police responded by beating some of the partiers in the bar and arrested fourteen people for “public lewdness”. One of the bar’s patrons was repeatedly hit over the head with a pool cue — this was textbook police brutality.
And so there was a riot. Not like a Stonewall sized riot that lasted days and had hundreds and hundreds of rioters, but big enough that it spread into the bar across the street and the police beat up two of the bartenders there as well. The riot did dissipate, but instead of just going away, the LGBTQ+ community of Los Angeles came together and organized a protest. Saturday, February 11, 1967 they had simultaneous protests all across L.A. These protests, of course, were met with armed police but managed to stay peaceful. The demonstrations were organized by a group called PRIDE — Personal Rights In Defense and Education. After these events, PRIDE set up a newspaper called The Advocate — if that name sounds familiar, that’s because that’s the same The Advocate that’s still around publishing articles for the LGBTQ+ community today. This riot was also part of the inspiration for the founding of the Metropolitan Community Church, who have actually been a huge, influential part of our queer history since 1968.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)
Pretty much everyone knows about Stonewall, but the LGBTQ+ community has been rioting since a lot longer than 1969. Let’s talk about the Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot.
Picture it: It’s the end of the 1950’s. It’s a simpler time — but things are changing. Despite that fact, minorities — especially LGBTQ+ people — are still cowering in fear from police and never fighting back.
And boy are they fearful in Los Angeles. William H. Parker became the chief of the LAPD in 1950, and decided to make stamping out sexual perversion his number one priority. Arrests for homosexuality increased by more than 85% in the following decade. Because the police tended to target transgender people — who often stood out more — most LA gay bars had tried to stop the police from raiding them by banning anyone who’s perceived gender wasn’t in line with the sex on their driver’s license. That’s right — gay bars with no drag queens! Boring.
Now, on Main Street there was a 24 hour donut shop called Cooper’s Do-nuts. (Yeah, they hyphenated the word “donut” and yeah, I’m annoyed about it. Even though I’m sure it’s grammatically correct.) I haven’t been able to find the exact address which is a total shame because I really want to know what’s there now. During the day, it was a popular hangout for cops — but when the sun went down, it became a hangout for people who had nowhere else to go at night: mainly transgender people and sex workers.
One night in May of 1959 a few cops came by — or possibly stayed late, I’m not really clear on that — and decided to check everyone’s IDs to make sure their perceived gender matched their legal gender. One man present was a young gay man named John Rechy who would later include this incident in his novel City of Night. The police arrested two gay male sex workers, two drag queens, and a “young man just cruising”. One of those five people objected to having all five of them shoved into the back of one police car — and that was the spark that set it off.
The other customers of the donut shop went out into the street — hurling anything they could get their hands on at the police. Coffee cups, napkins, paper plates, donuts — yeah, donuts can be a weapon if you’re queer — and just general trash. The police escaped and came back with reinforcements. They shut down Main Street, but the protesters didn’t care — by this point the crowd had grown; they were simultaneously rioting and dancing in the street. Though the police made a lot of arrests, the street was still shut down for the better part of the day until the crowd dispersed.
This was the first time the LGBTQ+ community in the United States rioted. As we all know, it wouldn’t be the last.
(*Heavily* adapted from this Facebook post.)