LGBT HISTORY MONTH

Before Stonewall, There Was The Cooper’s Donuts And Compton’s Cafeteria Riots

October is LGBT History Month. All throughout the month we’ll revisit stories that shed light on lesser-known moments in LGBT history.

While many think of the Stonewall riots as the beginning of the modern gay movement, there were numerous incidents and organizations that paved the way for what happened in June 1969. Two major uprisings broke out years before and some 3,000 miles away: The 1959 riot at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles and a 1966 riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco.

Though knowledge of both has faded over the years, they provide an important illustration of where trans folk, queens and sexual outlaws figure into the modern LGBT rights movement and what led them to finally stand up to abuse and discrimination.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Los Angeles cops made a habit of screwing with queers: They would raided gay bars, marching the queers out in a line and arresting anyone whose perceived gender didn’t match what was on their ID. Occasionally, they’d even single out a few lucky victims for special attention in the form of insults and beatings. Entrapment was common: Attractively dressed vice cops would cruise gay bars, bathrooms and hook-up spots, pick up tricks and arrest them as soon their target leaned in for a kiss. In other cases, plainclothes cops would wait outside of gay hangouts, trail two men as they walked home and burst into their residence to catch them in the act.

As bad as gay men had it, trans people had it worse: With laws against cross-dressing on the books in California, police kept an eye out for them entering or leaving gay bars—any excuse to raid and shut the place down. (Many gay hangouts rejected trans folk for this very reason.)

Many in the trans community couldn’t get decent jobs (hell, they still can’t) and some resorted to hustling, giving the whole community the reputation of being prostitutes. The media often conflated homosexuals with cross-dressers, drag queens and trans people, making gay men and lesbians resent trans visibility even more.

So what better place to kick back than Cooper’s Donuts, an all-night eatery on Main Street in downtown L.A.? Smack dab between two gay bars—Harold’s and the Waldorf—Cooper’s become a popular late-night hangout for trans folk, butch queens, street hustlers and their johns. (Sounds like a gas, actually).