Before Stonewall, the Queer Revolution Started Right Here in Los Angeles

L.A. gays launched the movement (and the battle cry) that shook the world

This June marks the 50th anniversary of New York’s Stonewall uprising, the rebellion against police harassment widely celebrated as the turning point in activists’ struggle for gay rights in the United States. People around the world pay homage to Stonewall every June when they mark international Pride Month, which arose as a commemoration of the gay community’s riot against the police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. This year’s anniversary celebration is expected to draw 3 million visitors.

Stonewall is so synonymous with gay pride that it obscures the fact that the movement for gay rights in the United States was born in Los Angeles. The city derided as a sun-drenched Land of the Lotus-Eaters, not serious or cerebral enough for the cognoscenti of the Bay Area or the East Coast, has been the driving force of gay culture in America since the dawn of the Hollywood movie colony at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1967 the aftermath of a brutal police raid on the Black Cat Tavern, a Silver Lake gay bar, became the impetus for unprecedented resistance among the gay community and most visible example of the city’s simmering gay rebellion. But long before that incident, Los Angeles had been the site of dozens of “firsts” in gay history. It was home to the earliest known lesbian publication (Vice Versa, 1947), first official gay rights organization (the Mattachine Society, 1950), first homosexual magazine (ONE Magazine, 1953), first gay motorcycle club (the Satyrs MC, 1954), first Supreme Court decision in favor of gay rights (One Inc. v. Olesen, 1958), and first mention of a gay riot in response to police harassment (Cooper Do-nuts, 1958).

cooper do-nuts los angeles gay rights
Downtown’s Cooper Do-nuts in 1958 was the scene of the first gay riot over LAPD harassment

Courtesy the National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries

Amid the social upheaval of the 1960s, Los Angeles remained at the vanguard of queer culture in America, boasting the country’s first PRIDE organization (Personal Rights through Defense and Education, 1966), first gay parade (by the ad hoc Los Angeles Committee to Fight Exclusion of Homosexuals from the Armed Forces, 1966), first national gay newsmagazine (The Advocate, 1967), first gay church (the Metropolitan Community Church, 1968), first public same-sex marriage (by the MCC’s Rev. Troy Perry, 1968), first Gay-In festival (Griffith Park, 1968), and first gay occupation of a police station (the LAPD Harbor Division, by the owner and patrons of the Patch nightclub, 1968).

So while Stonewall is enshrined as the enduring symbol of gay liberation, the 50th anniversary of the Black Cat uprising went largely unnoticed. But if Stonewall was the crowning achievement of gay militants of the 1960s, the Black Cat was its precursor—the first time in American history that the gay community laid claim to the right to equal treatment under the law. Without the rich gay history of Los Angeles and the hard-won gains of the fledgling gay rights movement here, there would be no Stonewall, and no PRIDE Parade. As surely as Hollywood in the Golden Age queered the style of straight America, L.A. made the fires of Stonewall instantly visible to the gay community of America and modeled the word that defined the new state of mind: Pride.

Protesters swarmed the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake after a New Year’s Eve raid by police in 1966 turned bloody

Courtesy the Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries

In the early 1950s, John Rechy stepped out of a Greyhound bus from Manhattan into downtown Los Angeles for the first time. An hour later the 20-something future novelist was being interrogated by police in a small room inside a vast parking garage under Pershing Square. Rechy says he was picked up by police because his was a new face to the ever-watchful LAPD sergeant who was the neighborhood’s supreme authority. “He ruled the park and if he saw anyone there he hadn’t seen before, you went downstairs to this weird little room and he interviewed you,” Rechy says. “And without saying he suspected you of hustling or being a queen, he’d take you down there and hassle you.”

For decades Pershing Square had been an illicit meeting place for members of L.A.’s gay and trans communities. By the 1950s it was past its prime, but to Rechy it seemed like paradise. In his groundbreaking 1963 autobiographical novel, City of Night, he described “the world of Lonely-Outcast America squeezed into Pershing Square.” “It was a gathering of denizens of every type,” recalls Rechy, now 88 and the author of 18 books. “The gospel people would preach; the hustlers would hustle; the queens would camp. It was an incredible array of society.”

It was the era of televised hearings in Washington in which Sen. Joseph McCarthy (and his closeted gay aide Roy Cohn) blasted homosexuality and communism as “threats to the American way of life.” Rechy, born in El Paso, Texas, and having served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, was part of a national gay exodus to Los Angeles, a phenomenon he attributed in part to the paranoia that was gripping the gay community in America. L.A. had been the most roaring of boomtowns during the Second World War. Legions of soldiers disembarked at the military posts and a vast army of able-bodied men and women migrated to jobs at shipyards and aircraft factories. Many were gay and living on their own for the first time, and for them the city offered the chance to find one another at the teeming gay pickup spots in Pershing Square, West Hollywood, and Venice.

Then, as now, Los Angeles could seem like a world apart. To the many thousands of gay men and women who migrated west after World War II, L.A. was a city of fallen angels far from the prying eyes of home, a “queertopia” glimpsed in Kinescope recordings of sunshine, palm trees, and glossy images of tanned, blond California-boy beefcake in the pages of Physique Pictorial. L.A.’s population grew 65 percent between 1940 and 1960, and the gay community blossomed along with it.

L.A.’s unprecedented opportunities for gay experiences were accompanied by unrelenting police harassment. Nancy Valverde remembers it like it was yesterday. The 87-year-old moved to East L.A. from New Mexico as a girl during the war when her father got a job building ships in Long Beach. Later as a teenager in the 1950s, she used to venture alone to the Pink Glove, a fancy lesbian bar on the Westside. (“I never left alone,” she says with a laugh.) Women got in free. Straight men paid a $5 cover to sit at a separate bar and look through a trellis that ran down the middle of the bar and watch the lesbians drink and play songs on the jukebox. “I don’t know what they expected us to be doing,” she says.

Valverde also spent more weekends than she’d care to recall at the Lincoln Heights jail. An 1898 city ordinance that banned “masquerading” on All Fool’s Night was a tool frequently used by the LAPD to prosecute gay men and women who wore gender-inappropriate clothing. Valverde kept her hair short and sported tailored men’s slacks and shirts over her slender, boyish frame. She says the police repeatedly arrested her on Fridays when she was on the way home from barber school downtown. After she was jailed, they confiscated her clothes, made her wear a gray convict dress, and held her until her court appearance the following Monday. “Sometimes the female cops put me in a padded cell completely naked,” she says.

The duality of gay life in Los Angeles knew no boundaries. Even in Hollywood where homosexual men and women enjoyed unusual power and prestige, the thriving queer culture had to constantly hide itself and cover its tracks. “To say that being a Hollywood star in the studio system gave you a free pass or exempted you from the persecution or harassment that regular non-Hollywood people experienced, I think is a misunderstanding,” says filmmaker and Vanity Fair writer Matt Tyrnauer.

Tyrnauer’s 2017 documentary, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, tells the story of Scotty Bowers, an enterprising male hustler who claims to have filled a niche by discreetly arranging homosexual trysts for some of his era’s most iconic (closeted) movie stars—including Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Spencer Tracy, Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, and Sir Laurence Olivier. The 95-year-old Bowers, a marine veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima, says he bartended at more than one gay private party where the LAPD showed up uninvited. “I knew quite a few people back in those days that lost their jobs because they were at a party that was raided,” Bowers says. “I let people out the back door or out the back window. They crawled over the ground and up the hills to get away.”
He also says that Confidential, the lurid 1950s tabloid that specialized in outing gay stars, made him three cash offers to confirm stories of gay sexual escapades in Hollywood. Bowers declined the entreaties “even though the stories were true,” he says.

Gay Angelenos who couldn’t afford to hire a trustworthy middleman like Bowers risked roustings, fingerprintings, beatings, and blackmail at the hands of the police. Undercover cops wearing tight clothes and sneakers prowled the streets and bars trolling for entrapment. At a club for gays and lesbians in Topanga, a flickering of the lights told same-sex dance partners to switch to hetero pairings because the police were outside.

gay history los angeles
Founded in L.A. in 1950, the Mattachine Society was one of the rst gay organizations in America

Courtesy the Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries

Being gay wasn’t technically against the law—unless you were a teacher, a government employee, or, ironically, a licensed hairdresser—and the prohibition against cross-dressing ended in 1950. But vague charges like “loitering with intent” or “lewd conduct” were frequently used by police in their anti-gay sweeps. L.A. gays bitterly described them as “catchalls that catch all.” LAPD arrests for “sex perversion” crimes, mostly involving gay men, increased almost 133 percent, 1,659 to 3,858, from 1947 to 1969. “What could anyone do?” asked a self-described queen who was at the Black Cat the night of the riot in 1967. “We were gay and therefore guilty.”

On rare occasions, tensions with police boiled over. Rechy claims he took part in the earliest known gay uprising in American history, not at Stonewall in New York in 1969 or at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, but at Cooper Do-nuts in downtown Los Angeles in 1958. The shop was a well-known gay hangout, says Valverde, who went there often for five-cent pastries. Rechy recalls that one night at the shop in May 1958, after bars closed at 2 a.m., “two cops, ostensibly checking ID, a routine harassment, arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out.” One of the hustlers, he says, was him. One of the others objected, shouting that five men was too many to fit in one squad car. “People began coming outside to see what was happening,” Rechy says, “and then other people from the bars did, too.

“It blurred into a kind of melee,” he says. “People started throwing things at them—debris and stuff from the doughnut shop. Before you knew it, more squad cars came and blocked the street. People were running around and shaking the squad cars. You think, ‘My God, the papers are going to have this,’ but there was nothing, absolutely nothing.” Valverde recalls that a lesbian friend from barber school told her about the riot. “It was all over town. I wasn’t there in person, but I heard about it right away.”

Sixty years later, Rechy’s recollection of the event, during a gay pride lecture in 2006, is the only known record of the uprising. “We were invisibly visible,” he says. “I mean we were everywhere, but we weren’t written about; we weren’t talked about. Everything could happen, and it seemed like nothing had happened.

“That’s the difference with Stonewall—there were a lot of writers in New York and they wrote about it.”

The activist movement for gay rights in America emerged out of an unusually brutal police crackdown on gay bars in the Silver Lake area during the first week of January 1967. That same week Ronald Reagan was sworn in as governor of California on a pledge to bring law and order to a state racked by riots, campus radicals, the hippie counterculture, and surging feminism. The previous month, L.A. County deputies had made the 6 o’clock news for brutally beating longhairs at a peaceful protest on the Sunset Strip. The rapid-fire timing and zeal of the January crackdown, coinciding with Reagan’s ascension, struck the gay community as a particularly bad omen.

The tension between the gay community and the LAPD grew on pace with the increase in the gay population and the greater openness of L.A. gays. “The pervert is no longer as secretive as he was,” complained an LAPD inspector to a reporter from Life Magazine in 1964. “He’s aggressive and his aggressiveness is getting worse because of more homosexual activity.”

In no part of the city was the proliferation of gay life less hidden than along the one-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake that was home to a dozen or more gay bars. On consecutive Saturday nights officers from the LAPD’s newly opened Rampart station made 45 arrests of patrons and staff at the Black Cat and New Faces, as well as at Ramm’s Head and the Stage Door in nearby Westlake.

“Anger,” said the 83-year-old gay rights activist Alexei Romanoff when asked to describe the mood in L.A.’s gay community after the arrests. Busts in gay bars were routine. What seemed to catch the police by surprise was that gays were doing something about it this time. Gay men and women arrested for lewd conduct always settled the matter as quickly and quietly as possible to avoid the stigma of a court appearance. But many of those arrested at the Black Cat and New Faces hired lawyers, pleaded not guilty, and prepared for trial. The Tavern Guild of Southern California, which included gay bars among its members, put out a press release protesting the raids and raised thousands of dollars for the legal defense, including donations that rolled in from New York and San Francisco. Witnesses came forward to testify against the police despite the pressure the department could apply on their employers.

The Gay Pride parade on Hollywood Boulevard in 1975

The Bruce Torrence Hollywood Photograph Collection

The earliest known use of the word “pride” as applied to gay rights comes from the Los Angeles PRIDE organization, an overtly militant group founded in 1966. PRIDE’s leaders, like founder Steven Ginsberg, a 27-year-old landscape gardener who wore leather to meetings, flaunted their sexuality rather than hide it. PRIDE held open meetings, called Pride Nights, at the Hub, a West Hollywood gay bar affectionately called Pride Hall.

PRIDE organized call-in campaigns to local news outlets in an effort to break through the media’s long-standing aversion to covering gay issues. Its persistence paid off. The local TV news stations covered the aftermath of the raids. In keeping with a tradition of not criticizing the LAPD, the Los Angeles Times and Herald-Examiner, the city’s two biggest newspapers, ignored the incidents.

The Police Department was suddenly in unchartered territory; the gays who were forcing the cops to answer for their actions knew they would pay a price, but they did it anyway.

Midnight, New Year’s Eve 1966, Los Angeles. Behind the blacked-out windows of its Art Deco storefront, the Black Cat Tavern looked festive. At the stroke of midnight, balloons dropped from the ceiling, and confetti shot through the air. The Rhythm Queens, a trio of black drag queens, sang “Auld Lang Syne” while the revelers and bartenders exchanged the first kisses of 1967.

Their kisses lasted between two and ten seconds—at least that’s what the undercover police inside the bar would later testify. There were as many as 13 plainclothes officers in the Black Cat that night—by some reports, the entire vice squad of the Rampart Division was tipping back beers by the pool table. The cops wore tight pants and shirts and mixed in with the crowd.

Just as the New Year revelry began, the undercover officers yanked the plug from the jukebox, tore down the Christmas decorations, and turned the lights up full. Asked to show a badge, one of them instead pulled a gun. Uniformed cops appeared in the doorway, blocking escape. “The same emotion filled every homosexual in the bar—terror,” wrote a witness for the PRIDE Newsletter of April 1967. The cops began dragging the Black Cat staff and patrons out of the bar. One customer reportedly had his head slammed against the jukebox, another was struck from behind and knocked unconscious. The bartenders later testified that a burly officer named Thomas Duehring pulled them over the bar and onto the floor; one said the deep scars on his face and forehead were sustained when he was dragged across broken glass.

“Among the first persons attacked in the bar were two youngsters, one in female dress, who were observed kissing at midnight,” wrote veteran gay activist Jim Kepner of the incident. “Despite protests, the officers assumed both were male, and dragged them out and down to the [Rampart station] nearby—only to discover that they were actually, as they had been saying all along, brother and sister. It didn’t matter. The brother was still charged with public indecency.”

Before the police had a chance to begin lining up arrestees face down on the sidewalk, two unsuspecting holiday revelers—one in drag, the other in a suit—strolled into the Black Cat, saw the police activity and ran out. Outside the bar, plainclothes officers Richard Stanton and Michael Butler called for the pair to stop and chased them to New Faces, tackling them in the doorway of the crowded bar where a New Year’s Eve celebration was in full swing.

The bar’s owner, waiter, and manager were brutally beaten in the doorway when they went to investigate the commotion. The owner, Lee Roy, a divorcée and single mother dressed in an evening gown to emcee the night’s drag pageant, was thrown to the ground, breaking her collarbone. Robert Haas, the 120-pound waiter, was beaten and kicked by five officers and sent to County General Hospital in critical condition with a ruptured spleen. Police charged him with a felonious assault on an officer. William Morgan, the manager, was beaten and left bleeding on the ground.

After the Black Cat and New Faces raids, the LAPD steadfastly admitted no wrongdoing and claimed officers were attacked without provocation. “We get assaulted every day,” said Inspector Sid Mills about the cops reportedly injured in the raid. “It’s all in a day’s work. Public morals, decency, and the law must be maintained.” An internal affairs investigation found the officers not at fault.

New Faces subsequently became the target of frequent and intimidating visits by cops and closed within 20 days of the beatings. “The threat has been well circulated,” stated the January issue of CONCERN, a gay newsletter, “that any attempts to publicize or prosecute this case will result in the closing of every gay bar in town.” The Black Cat had its entertainment and liquor licenses suspended, and it closed for good May 21, after the state liquor board rejected its appeal.

Alexei Romanoff is believed to be the last living member of the original PRIDE organization. He was an organizer of a rally scheduled for 9 p.m. Saturday, February 11, 1967, to protest the Black Cat raid. Romanoff has a vivid memory of the long car ride from Santa Monica to Silver Lake. “It was so quiet,” he says, “a car full of people and almost no one talking or saying anything.”

The police attacks in Silver Lake had served to unify and bring the city’s gay community into the open as never before. The Los Angeles Free Press, the city’s only newspaper to cover the Black Cat protest, proclaimed it was the birth of a civil rights drive demanding “equal treatment for sexual minorities.” But no one was sure how the police would react, and many feared what the cops were capable of.

The court cases in the wake of the New Year’s Eve raids had not turned out as the activists had hoped. The most important case involved 11 men from the Black Cat charged with lewd conduct. Four of them pleaded no contest and did not appear in court. The remaining seven were tried en masse, and Judge Philip M. Newman ruled out defense testimony charging police brutality, declaring that whatever took place after the arrests had no bearing on the case. Michael Butler, of the Rampart vice squad, testified in court with his arm in a cast and sling; the cast reportedly came off once the jury left the room.

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The “Fagots” sign at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood was finally taken down in 1985

Courtesy the Gay and Lesbian Archive at the USC LIbraries

At the end of the five-day trial, a jury of four men and eight women convicted six defendants, but they could not reach a verdict on the seventh, a married bartender who reportedly spent time during court recess making out with a woman in full view of the jury. The judge finally dismissed the charge against him. Two of the six men convicted were required to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives: Charles Talley allegedly kissed a man on the mouth for three to five seconds, and Benny Baker allegedly kissed three men and was wearing a white dress that night. City Attorney Roger Arnebergh argued that gender, mode of dress, and the venue placed their actions “out of the realm of a normal kiss.”

Herb Selwyn, a straight attorney in Los Angeles who worked closely with the ACLU, stepped forward to defend Talley and Baker on appeal. In an unprecedented strategy, Selwyn invoked the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution to claim equal protection under the law for gays. His argument was years ahead of its time; the U.S. Supreme Court, on appeal, declined to hear the case.

Police presence was heavy at Hyperion Avenue and Sunset the night of the PRIDE protest—as many as 50 LAPD officers were on hand, and squad cars passed by every few minutes. Vice squad cops and the sergeant who led the attack at the Black Cat mingled with protesters. Romanoff says he was so focused on not giving the police a pretext to stop the demonstration that the sheer volume of gay and straight demonstrators arriving at first escaped his notice. The event was part of a citywide protest of “police-harassed minorities” planned for the Sunset Strip, East L.A., Venice, Pacoima, and Watts. In keeping with the unified theme of police brutality—and to spare the fellow protesters any stigma—PRIDE leaders agreed to refrain from using “gay” or “homosexual” on signs or leaflets.

PRIDE organizers had to keep the approximately 40 pickets moving in front of the Black Cat to avoid being charged with obstructing the sidewalk, and they instantly picked up leaflets discarded by passersby to prevent the demonstration from being shut down for littering. As many as 600 protesters attended the rally at a vacant lot near the Black Cat. It was the largest gay civil rights protest in American history. In a speech during the event, Kepner said, “The time has come when the love that dared not speak its name will never again be silenced.”

The Black Cat demonstration inspired PRIDE member Richard Mitch to turn the group’s newsletter into a small periodical, The Los Angeles Advocate. In 1969 it grew into The Advocate, the first national gay newsmagazine. As Mitch told historian Mark Thompson, the Black Cat protest convinced him that the gay community needed “some way to get the word out about what was happening.” Two years later his magazine provided extensive coverage of the Stonewall uprising in New York. While The New York Times peevishly described the gay rioters as “ ‘Village’ youth,” The Advocate dispensed with the euphemisms and cursory, condescending coverage to declare that Stonewall was a watershed event in gay history. By then the magazine’s circulation had swelled to 23,000.

The PRIDE demonstration, as the Black Cat protest would become known, was the first domino to fall in the cascading momentum of gay rights. A newly unified gay vote made waves in 1969, ousting a Silver Lake councilman who referred to gays as “molesters and troublemakers.” Juries grew increasingly reluctant to convict gays arrested in bar raids; in 1974 City Attorney Burt Pines announced his office would no longer prosecute activity in gay bars that would be considered acceptable in straight bars.

The first march to commemorate Stonewall in 1970 was named “Christopher Street Liberation Day.” But leaders of the gay rights movement, in a nod to its origins in Los Angeles and the profound act of resistance at the Black Cat in 1967, eventually—and accurately—renamed the commemoration PRIDE.

Photo collage reprinted from We Are Everywhere by Matthew Reimer and Leighton Brown.

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