The Stonewall riots in New York City in June 1969 are commonly regarded as the spark that ignited the gay liberation movement, but some queer and trans protests occurred earlier in the U.S. – both organized demonstrations and spontaneous bursts of rage.
Leave those Queens Alone!
Perhaps the first unplanned protest happened in May 1959 at Coopers Donuts, an all-night hangout in downtown Los Angeles frequented by young hustlers and drag queens. According to author John Rechy, police tried to arrest a few patrons, prompting others to throw food and tableware. The officers retreated to their car and summoned reinforcements, who closed the street and arrested several rioters.
A similar event occurred in August 1966 at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. In the 1960s the Tenderloin was the territory of transgender people, drag queens, hustlers, and homeless queer youth. Compton’s, at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets, was a popular all-night hangout — “our own little fairyland,” in the words of former patron Tamara Ching.
In the spring of 1966, new management began to discourage young queens and hustlers who spent long hours, but little money, at the diner. Harassment by hired security guards and local police increased. Among its first actions, the newly formed queer youth group Vanguard — considered by many the nation’s first gay liberation group — held pickets to protest discrimination at Compton’s and other venues.
On a warm night in early August — no one seems to recall the exact date — Compton’s erupted in a riot after a cop tried to grab a young queen. She threw her coffee in his face, and soon about 50 enraged patrons were overturning tables and hurling dishware. Police tried to grab people as they exited, leading to a melee on the street as queens kicked officers with high heels and beat them with purses. Outside the diner a police cruiser was destroyed and a newsstand was set on fire.
According to Susan Stryker, who produced the documentary Screaming Queens, the Compton’s riot was “the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history.”
Politeness Doesn’t Pay
Even before Compton’s, the first organized gay and lesbian (not yet bi or trans) demonstrations in the U.S. protested antigay discrimination in the military and federal employment — showing that the LGBT quest for mainstream inclusion is nothing new.
In the mid-1960s these demonstrations typically took the form of polite pickets with men in suits and women in dresses (though car-happy Los Angeles sometimes preferred motorcades). Many pioneering LGBT activists participated in such actions including Barbara Gittings, Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, and Craig Rodwell.
But by the late 1960s, the country was in the grip of militant protest by activists espousing countless causes, gay liberation among them. March 1968 saw a “gay-in” in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, bringing together queers and hippies with a multi-issue agenda. Around the same time, activists began protesting at Barney’s Beanery, a local diner that posted a sign reading “Fagots — Stay Out.”
Meanwhile in San Francisco, in the spring of 1969, young queer activists demonstrated for weeks outside the offices of States Steamship Lines to protest the firing of gay activist Gale Whittington, who was sacked after he and his lover Leo Laurence appeared in topless embrace on the cover of the Berkley Barb.
Can We Drink in Peace?
Police harassment of gay bars was common in many cities and spurred some of the earliest protests before Stonewall. Soon after midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1967, police raided the Black Cat Tavern on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, arresting several people for lewd conduct. A riot erupted outside and spread to another bar across the street. Cops beat patrons and bartenders — some to the point of unconsciousness — and the unrest continued for days.
The following year, in August 1968, police raided the Patch bar in the same city and arrested several patrons. Owner Lee Glaze took to the stage shouting, “It’s not against the law to be homosexual!” Enraged patrons then bought out the florist across the street and marched to the nearby Harbor Division police station, where they pelted the building with flowers. Rev. Troy Perry, who was at the bar and saw his boyfriend arrested that night, said the raid made him decide to start the Metropolitan Community Church.
The Stonewall Riots, of course, erupted when police raided the Stonewall Inn on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. Angry patrons, queens, and queer youth who hung out in the neighborhood had their fill and fought back. Frightened cops retreated into the building as rioters uprooted parking meters to use as battering rams. The riot — and further altercations over the next few nights — ultimately gave rise to the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and the many queer activist groups that followed, and the first Pride marches marked its anniversary.