The West Coast LGBTQ activism that predated Stonewall

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By Julia Wick

It’s simple and powerful to say that the gay rights movement began 50 years ago today, when the first brick was thrown in the early hours of June 28, 1969, outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

Movements are unruly, with ragged edges and a penchant for flaring and sputtering in many directions. But the weight of history has a way of condensing things. And the spin cycle of time will slough off the footnotes and find the linear narrative.

The three nights of rioting sparked by a routine police raid at a New York City gay bar and the even more routine police harassment of the gay community were unbelievably important and symbolic. But they also followed years of organizing and numerous previous eruptions against police harassment in community spaces. Much of that groundwork was laid in California, particularly in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“The spark of Stonewall goes exponentially beyond what the actual events created,” Terry Beswick, the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society and museum in San Francisco, explained over the phone earlier this month. “At least in the popular culture, [Stonewall] swallowed up a lot of the very real and even more significant organizing that was happening for decades before that — and afterwards.”

In San Francisco, police raided a 1965 New Year’s costume ball organized by the newly formed Council on Religion and the Homosexual. Officers sought to photograph all the attendees and made two arrests. The event galvanized organizing in San Francisco’s gay community and helped draw broader attention to the police harassment gay people faced.

“That was really what most of the pre-Stonewall real spontaneous actions were about — police harassment of our gathering places,” Beswick said.

“In the 1960s and back into the ’50s, gay bars were our community centers,” Beswick said. “They were where we found each other. They were where we found fellowship and emotional support, as well as sex.”

In Beswick’s view, those bars were “like homes,” sometimes “even more so” than the places where their denizens actually lived. “For police to invade those spaces really fought against the notion of any kind of self-determination and safety for us,” he said.

Two and a half years before Stonewall, the Black Cat bar in Silver Lake was raided just after midnight on New Year’s Day 1967. Police beat patrons and arrested more than a dozen people. Several weeks later, hundreds peacefully gathered outside the bar in a protest — a demonstration that was considered a seminal turning point in the early gay rights movement.

[Go deeper: “Before Stonewall, the Queer Revolution Started Right Here in Los Angeles” by Jason McGahan in Los Angeles Magazine]

And nearly a decade before Black Cat, a group of transgender women, lesbians and gay men fought back against police harassment in what turned into a melee outside Cooper Do-nuts in downtown Los Angeles. That was May 1959, and it’s believed to have been the first LGBTQ uprising against police harassment.

“Stonewall, at least in the rear-view mirror, has become a place of demarcation for historians, where we can sort of measure our progress,” Beswick said.

“But it’s important for us to resurrect those stories around other events. It’s important for the pride of LGBT people in San Francisco to know that the New Year’s Day ball event happened and that Compton’s [Cafeteria riot] happened,” Beswick said, and he didn’t stop there. He listed off the names like a litany of early organizations and leaders and places that have been turned into symbols by virtue of what happened there.

“The same kind of stories can be told all around the country, in Philadelphia and D.C. and Chicago,” he said.

 

From Joe:

What marks the Stonewall Riots as most significant in the Gay Rights Movement is that it became a catalyst for more action. The next year was the first gay pride parade and there has been one ever since. Activists in California may have laid the groundwork for Stonewall, but Stonewall lit the fire that became the Gay Rights Movement and we can’t let that be slowed down. Pete Buttigieg did us proud in the debates last night. He’s my frontrunner candidate. He’s eloquent and always has an answer. I have yet to hear him give an answer to interviewers or moderators question that I did not agree with him 100 percent. He is obviously a brilliant man and one that we need as president. If Biden wins the nomination, as I suspect he will, he would be fortunate to have Pete as his vice-president.

 

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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