Legendary Author John Rechy Recalls L.A.’s Oft-Forgotten Gay Uprising

According to the 88-year-old, LGBTQ history is more complex than pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall

At 88 years old, John Rechy is the grand seigneur, or perhaps the grand outlaw, of Los Angeles fine letters—the author of 18 titles, whose name appears on many lists of banned books. In his late 20s, Rechy wrote the groundbreaking 1963 novel City of Night, a thinly veiled roman-a-clef about a gay male hustler adrift between New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Reviewers savaged Rechy’s debut novel, with one especially vituperative write-up in the New York Review of Books disparaging it as “Fruit Salad” and “Sodom on Five Dollars a Day.”

The novel rocketed to an unlikely place near the top of The New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for months, an unexpected crossover hit. Legendary gay writers James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and Frank O’Hara praised the unknown Rechy for his raw originality and unflinching depiction of the love that dare not speak its name. The book has since become a touchstone of gay literature and popular culture at large, inspiring cultural references ranging from Jim Morrison’s shouted refrain in The Doors song “L.A. Woman,” to filmmaker Gus Van Zant’s 1980s cult classic My Own Private Idaho.

Incredibly, Rechy continued as a sex worker for decades after attaining literary fame. Stories abound of the author’s leading the double life of an esteemed writing instructor at UCLA and a muscled (and often shirtless) habitué of gay cruising areas like Griffith Park and Hollywood Boulevard. He has said he did it partly out of habit and partly to maintain an authentic connection to the lives of the drag queens, hustlers, and johns who populate his books. An Angeleno since the 1960s, he belongs to the pantheon of L.A. novelists that includes Fante, Bukowski, Babitz and Didion, whose work has helped shape the city’s cultural identity. He has been called L.A.’s Jean Genet.

Rechy was born in El Paso, Texas, to parents who had migrated from Mexico. A veteran of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, he graduated from Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) on a journalism scholarship, and then moved to New York to pursue his studies in creative writing. He discovered Times Square, and chose to pursue the vagabond life of a hustler, telling The L.A. Review of Books that he wanted to be known as “a writer with a unique life who has transformed that life into literature.”

In City of Night, Rechy recounts the history of what he called the “world of Lonely-Outcast America.” The novel doubles as a lightly fictionalized chronicle of L.A.’s gay history. It is a firsthand account, written in a streetwise stream-of-consciousness style of a lost world of gay bars, hotels, and meeting places of all kinds, a community ominously referred to as a “homosexual underworld” whose existence was as ubiquitous as it was rarely acknowledged in print.

In a recent phone interview in advance of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, Rechy spoke about a life lived on the brink of panic on the streets, gay pride, the constant threat from LAPD and its vice squad, unheralded acts of gay resistance, and why he still bristles at the term post-Stonewall.

What was it like for you to be a gay man in Los Angeles when you arrived for the first time in the late 1950s?

My first time in Los Angeles, oh my god, I had hardly been here an hour when I was already being interviewed by the police. I arrived in downtown Los Angeles, and it was just a couple blocks from the Greyhound bus station to Pershing Square. I guess intuitively I found Pershing Square. I’d never heard of it, but there it was. Pershing Square was a gathering of denizens of every type, the gospel people would preach, hustlers would hustle, queens would camp. It was an incredible array of society. There was a cop there that ruled it, I mean as if he was the king. And he was a terror. And if he saw anybody there whom he had not seen, you went downstairs to a little place that was kind of secret. It was very, very weird downstairs, a little room where he would interview you without saying that he suspected you of anything. If it looked like you were hustling or the queens or whatever he would go there and hassle you.

Was that sort of aggressive treatment of gays by police common in Los Angeles at the time?

Yes, and from my point of view, it was linked to the political situation in Washington. That was the time of the un-American activities committee and that man, Senator Joseph McCarthy. And a lot of the people, the secretaries and office workers in Washington, for example, were gay. So there was this feeling of persecution. And many, many people then fled to Los Angeles. And as I see it, it worked like an exodus, that really made Los Angeles a bit of a gay capital because a lot of people were fleeing.

There was another problem that was created, however. Which is that some businesses would not hire gay people. If you were slightly obvious, for example, or dressed in a certain way, some of the work agencies might not take you. So it was a fraught atmosphere. And then the resentment by the cops, the persecution or prosecution, just arbitrarily stopping and stuff like that. I can talk about that at length.

“My first time in Los Angeles, oh my god, I had hardly been here an hour when I was already being interviewed by the police.”

I read a gay pride lecture you gave in 2006, where you recalled a gay riot around 5th and Main streets in downtown Los Angeles in 1958, which would make it the first known gay riot in American history. Can you talk about what you saw and why you think it is that the event has been difficult to corroborate?

I could give you a bit of an overview of the block of Main Street. On one side was Harold’s Bar and Nick’s was a movie theater and then the doughnut shop was in the middle and then at the end of the block was the Waldorf Bar. And each had a certain clientele.  Harold’s was mostly hustlers and people picking them up, no queens were allowed. And then the Waldorf had a lot of queens hustling. The doughnut shop was the gathering place of all the elements from Main Street and after two o’clock, when the bars closed, people went into a very democratic situation at the donut shop. So it was a kind of a place to relieve the tension of the evening.

Now the tactics that the police used that begat this was they would routinely go into the doughnut shop and they’d walk around the counter, it was like a horseshoe, and they would harass people, whatever they wanted, “Let me see your ID” and “What are you doing here?” It was really just a matter of frightening and annoying. And there was very often an almost jovial feeling, it was taunting.

So on a particular night what they would do is they would choose people, a couple people, and then just take them out. You were not handcuffed, unless they thought you needed to be. But they would take you outside in the street as a display. And they would leave the squad lights on, blinking or whatever the hell they did with it, and they would stand out there with their uniforms and they would be asking questions. Sometimes, often in fact, the people that they interrogated were let go. Other times they were taken [into custody]. They could do whatever they wanted. When we were being fingerprinted I objected that that was illegal, and something unusual happened. I was sent to talk to a supervisor, a sergeant, who then asked me if I was working undercover. That’s how rare it was that anybody would dare to speak out to the cops.

To be in drag was against the law. They called it masquerading, and lipstick or anything like that was masquerading or whatever they decided, that was it.

The horror that was possible was you could be sentenced up to five years in prison or more. And registering as a sex offender for three years, that was another horror.

But back to Main Street. After midnight, gay people of every persuasion and orientation got together at Cooper’s Do-Nuts. It was very democratic. Anyhow, on that particular night, it was summer, I think, spring, I really don’t remember the details. These happened so often and they just melded into one horizon on which you survived or not, ya know? So the cops came around and harassed people.

So they picked two of us to come with them, me and Chuck (I remember his name). We were not handcuffed or anything like this, but we were taken out. But there was a man there that I remember, he started heckling the cops. I think he was drunk or something. And he kept saying, “Take me, take me, see if you can take me.” And of course they wouldn’t bother him.

But that kind of set off everybody else. And then I think actually somebody sang a song or something, I forget what it was. But all at once people were making noise and protesting what was going on. And then while they were talking to us outside, people began coming outside to see what was happening. And then other people from the bars did too. So before you knew it—and it all blurred into a kind of melee—before you knew it, people were throwing things at them, some of the debris that collected. It was a shabby doughnut place. And somebody began throwing stuff. And the cops, I don’t think they were afraid, they were just stunned because, what the hell was happening?!

They were throwing things and then yelling at them and singing the song. And obviously we took advantage of that to split. And the police called for back up because it was really getting very rowdy. All along the street people were coming out of the bars that were closing. It was a lot of people. And then somebody was shaking the cop car. They were inside. And before you knew it, more squad cars. And then they blocked the street on one end and on the other end to stop people from moving around. And it was really quite a melee. And yelling at the cops and throwing things at the cops and rocking the cars.

But by then there was a whole—I don’t want to exaggerate, it was not an uprising, but in effect that’s what it was. And it was great. It was like all the terrible times that people had been exposed to were suddenly being vented. But it was quelled, of course it was quelled.

john rechy gay history

It stands to reason that if people were rioting and police closed off the street, a newspaper might have sent a reporter to cover the disturbance. Why is there no known record of the Cooper Do-Nuts Riot of 1958?

It’s so strange, in life, the many things that happen to you, such an enormous event that you think oh the papers must have an account of this. Because there were these squad cars, there were these people heckling the cops and running around and shaking the cars. And you think wow, the papers are going to have this. And nothing. Absolutely nothing, nothing happened. Because we were invisibly visible. I mean we were everywhere. But we weren’t written about, we weren’t talked about. Anything could happen and it seemed like nothing had happened.

What you’re describing sounds a lot like the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 in Greenwich Village in New York City. What was different about Stonewall?

There were a lot of writers in New York. [laughs] And they all wrote their accounts of it. And so Stonewall has become this landmark, which I think is so, so crippling to our history because it scrubs everything away, like these things.

You seem to object to the prominence given to Stonewall as perhaps the watershed in modern gay history? Why is that?

First of all, it chops off our history. When I first came to Los Angeles, which was pre-Stonewall, there was the Mattachine Society, the people who were going to jail for publishing One Magazine, which was not an erotic magazine, nothing erotic about it. It was an innocuous magazine that had articles about stuff going on around gay people and that was it. And the post office rejected sending it and the publishers were arrested. They went to jail.

All this was going on invisibly. Nobody really cared. Anyway, it really angers me very much because all this was happening in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, there was the Compton’s Cafeteria riot. Woo, that was a big one. And also the Black Cat protest in Los Angeles. I’m sure they had, in New York that all kinds of things were also going on too, and all over the country. OK, so now here comes Stonewall. All these things were going on and they have now been arrogated by a certain group of people. It really is a group of people that have arrogated that event, and it was a big event, no question about that. And the significance of it. But it’s as if you wanted to reduce world history to Waterloo and say this is where civilization began. You couldn’t because it’s one continuing stream.

What do you think of when you hear gay history divided into pre- and post-Stonewall?

I cannot tell you what it does to me to hear pre-Stonewall. And even in our literature, even in the art, pre-Stonewall, post-Stonewall. I wrote three books pre-Stonewall and a dozen more post-Stonewall. There’s no demarcation. Gay history is centuries and centuries from the Romans to the Greeks to Oscar Wilde to all kinds of outrages. And those seem to be put back and pre-Stonewall is passive. Post-Stonewall is brave and dignified. I actually have heard things like that. I’ve talked, I’ve lectured and I’ve been invited all the way from Harvard to USC. And I talk about what it was like, what we had to survive.

Look, pre-Stonewall produced Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Oscar Wilde, and I could go on. Post-Stonewall produced Bret Easton Ellis, who jumps out of the closet only now and then and then rushes back in, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, where we’re reduced to clowns for straight people. The husband of Mr. Buttigieg, he is so darling talking about the silver he’s going to be choosing for the White House. It embarrasses me, it embarrasses me very much because that’s what people expect a gay man to do, to be very precious, and that’s not what we are. A good solid queen I will protect forever, they are heroes.

A lot of people think that everything stopped, everything, all harassment stopped. Look, it’s still going on. It’s still going on, for god’s sake. The same tactics are often used in a different way.

“The husband of Mr. Buttigieg, he is so darling talking about the silver he’s going to be choosing for the White House. It embarrasses me because that’s what people expect a gay man to do and that’s not what we are.”

Listening to you talk earlier about all the examples of police harassment makes me wonder about the accounts from history books that L.A. was a quote/unquote “gay paradise” back in the forties and fifties and sixties. How do the two jibe when you’re talking about all this invasive police harassment, violence, arrests and the constant threat and this idea that Los Angeles was a safe place or a place where there was this gay community that people could be a part of. How do the two square?

It was a gay paradise because there were so many of us and because we carved our places and because there was Griffith Park, Venice Beach, the Carousel Bar on the beach. A gay paradise because there were places where you could go and meet other people.

And throughout America in smaller towns, and still the same thing, often it was impossible to have a life, really to have a life. I had a friend who was arrested in Twentynine Palms and he was held for psychiatric observation because the judge said he had to be crazy. He never again tried to connect with anybody, never again.

A paradise, my god, that’s what I have called Griffith Park. Griffith Park was a gay paradise. Wonderful, wonderful. A celebration of nature. Now I won’t say that there was no sex. However on weekends it became more social than any thing else. Gay men and women but mostly gay men would drive in, in miles of park, and would drive in and it would be hiking and people would talk. It was largely on weekends, it was social, there were a lot of people and friends met. So it was a very placid and rather friendly atmosphere.

And I tell you, yes, there were days that were grim because you stepped out knowing that you might be arrested for (one thing or another?). Yeah. Those were grim. However, you can’t underestimate the marvelous freedom of what I call the outlaw. And there was an exhilaration sometimes. I’ve said this many times, there was a wonderful exhilaration in being gay and not even knowing that you were being defiant but being defiant in order to live, to live your life. There were times with a lot of wondrous things—like dancing on the edge. You might fall but in the meantime you were dancing. And that’s very much how it was.

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