Fifty years ago, on February 11, 1967, a mass demonstration protesting police harassment of LGBTQ people took place at the Black Cat Tavern, located at 3909 West Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction neighborhood in Los Angeles. It preceded New York City’s Stonewall riots by over two years.
The bar had recently been established in November 1966. Just past midnight of New Year’s Day 1967, several plain-clothes LAPD police officers infiltrated the tavern, and started beating patrons as they were ringing in the New Year. The police arrested 14 patrons for kissing as they celebrated the occasion, on charges of “assault and public lewdness.”
Police used deliberate and excessive force to carry out explicitly homophobic state legislation that prevented gay people from kissing and/or engaging in any sexual acts, and wearing clothing that did not match their socially prescribed gender role. One bar patron was aggressively beaten in the head by an officer wielding a pool cue.
A riot ensued in the immediate area that expanded to include the New Faces bar across Sanborn Ave., where officers knocked down the owner, a woman, and beat two bartenders unconscious.
In response, a few weeks later, on February 11, a civil action attracted somewhere between 300 and 600 demonstrators to protest the raids. The demonstration was organized by PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) and the SCCRH (Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile). The protest was met by squadrons of armed policemen.
Two of the men arrested for kissing were later convicted and registered as sex offenders. They appealed, asserting their right of equal protection under the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept their case. However, significant fundraising efforts on behalf of the Black Cat patrons reached across the country, indicating a new willingness to step forward for LGBTQ equality, dignity and rights.
It was from this event that the publication The Advocate began as a newspaper for the queer community of L.A. It also contributed to the 1968 formation in Los Angeles of the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church.
The raids and the subsequent protests at the Black Cat Tavern can be understood within the context of the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots that took place earlier in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, when violent police raids of gay bars were commonplace. The 1967 protests turned into a platform to discuss intersectional issues relating to the criminal justice system.
On November 7, 2008, the Black Cat Tavern site was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Since then, the LGBTQ movement has made progress that could only have been considered visionary 50 years ago: Marriage equality, child adoption, inclusive hate-crime laws, acceptance in the armed forces, and widespread, though still far from universal LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.
The current administration is preparing to pass national legislation allowing “religious freedom” as permission to discriminate. The LGBTQ community will clearly not remain silent as Trump, Pence and the GOP roll back its gains and force it back into the closet. Today, in the place of bar raids, homophobic bigots are determined to legitimize their hate as law. If such legislation passes, as it has already on the state level in several places, the rights to fire LGBTQ Americans from their jobs, deny life-saving health care, and force children into conversion therapy to “cure” them of their sexual identity or gender identity will soon again become sanctioned.
One of the best accounts of the Black Cat riot can be found in Gay L.A.. A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons (University of California Press, 2006). Timmons, an activist scholar of the LGBT movement, recently died at the age of 60 from the longterm effects of a devastating stroke. Novelist Steve Neil Johnson based a mystery thriller on the Black Cat episode, reviewed in People’s World.
Source: Wikipedia and Equality PAC.