On New Year’s Day in 1967, undercover officers arrested 14 patrons of the Black Cat tavern, one of a number of gay bars that lined Sunset Boulevard at the time. The bar attracted a largely working class clientele and was nestled among a number of businesses friendly to gay men and lesbians.
According to Tangents – a local gay newspaper – “The Black Cat was happy and hooping” before undercover police arrived and started beating patrons as they were ringing in the New Year: “There were colored balloons covering the ceiling … and three glittering Christmas trees” Moments later, “all hell broke loose.”
That night the Black Cat was packed, the barroom strung with Christmas lights. A trio called the Rhythm Queens was performing, and when the costume contest concluded at New Faces
The clock hit twelve. Balloons tumbled from the ceiling. The Rhythm Queens belted out “Auld Lang Syne,” and for a moment there was time to grab a kiss. But not all the revelers were there for the same party. At five minutes after midnight, plainclothes policemen began swinging clubs and pool cues, dragging patrons out the door and into the street. They pulled the bartender over the bar, lacerating his face on broken glass. Two patrons ran across Sanborn and took cover in the crowd at New Faces, where Circus of Books now stands. Officers followed, breaking one bartender’s nose, leaving another with a ruptured spleen. Sixteen people were arrested that night—six of them charged with lewd conduct, also known as kissing.
Two of the men arrested for kissing were later convicted under California Penal Code Section 647 and registered as sex offenders.The men appealed, asserting their right of equal protection under the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court did not accept their case.
On February 11, 1967 hundreds of people; gays, lesbians, bisexuals, drag queens and straights gathered outside the tavern to protest police antagonism, harassment, and violence toward the city’s LGBT community.
Witness accounts indicate the demonstration was peaceful, if not a little tense because of heavy police monitoring.
While Stonewall is the milestone that we commemorate and remember to mark of our liberation. There are lesser remembered protests and pickets that happened before June 28,1969 that were just as important to out visibility and our fight that should be remembered.
Some of these include:
May 1959 – Los Angeles: Gay men clashed with police at Cooper’s Donuts, a hang-out for drag queens and street hustlers who were frequently harassed by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Police arrested three people, including John Rechy, but other patrons began pelting the police with donuts and coffee cups. The LAPD called for back-up and arrested a number of rioters. Rechy and the other two original detainees were able to escape.
September 19, 1964 – New York City: Organized by activist Randy Wicker, a small group picketed the Whitehall Street Induction Center after the confidentiality of gay men’s draft records was violated. This action has been identified as the first gay rights demonstration in the United States.
December 2, 1964 – New York City: Four gay men and lesbians picketed a lecture by a psychoanalyst espousing the model of homosexuality as a mental illness. The demonstrators were given ten minutes to make a rebuttal.
December 4, 1964 – San Francisco: The Council on Religion and the Homosexual held a costume party at California Hall on Polk Street in San Francisco to raise money for the new organization. When the ministers informed the San Francisco Police Department of the event, the SFPD attempted to force the rented hall’s owners to cancel it. At the event itself, some of the ministers and ticket takers were arrested, creating a brief riot.
April 17 & 18, 1965 – Washington, DC: Gay activists picketed the White House on April 17th and 18th after learning that Cuba was placing homosexuals in forced labor camps.
And there are many more.
While the Stonewall Riots will always be the benchmark of our LGBT liberation these early and forgotten protests are just as important and those who were invoked are the true and forgotten heroes of the LGBT community.