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).
NEXT:The riot kicks off!
One night in May 1959, the cops showed up to check IDs and arrest some queers:
Two cops entered the donut shop that night, ostensibly checking ID, and arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out. As the cops packed the back of the squad car, one of the men objected, shouting that the car was illegally crowded. While the two cops switched around to force him in, the others scattered out of the car. From the donut shop, everyone poured out. The crowd was fed up with the police harassment and on this night they fought back, hurling donuts, coffee cups and trash at the police. The police, facing this barrage of [pastries] and porcelain, fled into their car calling for backup. Soon, the street was bustling with disobedience. People spilled out in to the streets, dancing on cars, lighting fires, and generally reeking havoc. The police return with backup and a number of rioters are beaten and arrested. They also closed the street off for a day.
The Cooper’s Donut riot often gets confused with the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot some years later: There were similar political circumstances leading up both riots. And like Cooper’s, Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district was a popular all-night hangout for trans people (called “hair fairies” at the time), hustlers and assorted sexual renegades. And both stories involve coffee cups. In August 1966, a cafeteria worker called the police when some transgender customers at Compton’s became unruly. When a police officer attempted to arrest one trans woman, she threw a cup of hot coffee in his face. Within moments, dishes were broken, furniture was thrown, the restaurant’s windows were smashed and a nearby newsstand was burned down. Trans people, hustlers and disenfranchised gay locals picketed the cafeteria the following night, when the restaurant’s windows were smashed again. Unlike the Stonewall riots, the situation at Compton’s was somewhat organized—many picketers were members of militant queer groups like the Street Orphans and Vanguard. Also, the city’s response was quite different from the reaction in New York: A network of social, mental and medical support services was established, followed in 1968 by the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, overseen by a member of the SFPD.  Directors Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker’s recount the historic two-day incident in their 2005 film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (above).  
NEXT: Have LGBTs declared war on queers?

While the current struggle for LGBT equality is taking place in the mainstream, the first soldiers in the battle for our rights weren’t paid political spokespeople, celebrities or even so-called respectable folks. They were trans people, sex workers and their johns—outright fruits and queers reviled by both homophobic mainstream society, who saw them as freaks, and the larger gay community, who resented them as “bad examples.”

It’s an important distinction to make, especially now when queer sexual identity (in its older political context) seems at odds with the larger LGBT equality movement. Queers question laws dictating sexual and gender norms; they seek to dismantle sex- and genderphobic institutions rather than just try to find a place for the LGBT community within such oppressive systems.

In the early 1970s, San Francisco’s The Society of Janus put it this way:

“All too often there is a tendency to be concerned with the rights of homosexuals as long as they somehow appear to be heterosexual, whatever that is. The masculine woman and the feminine man are looked down upon…but the Janus Society is concerned with the worth of the individual and the manner in which she or he comports himself.

What is offensive today we have seen become the style of tomorrow, and even if what is offensive today remains offensive to some persons tomorrow, there is no reason to penalize non-conformist behavior unless [there] is direct antisocial behavior connected with it.”

Even today, you needn’t look look any further at this divide than the spat between sex columnist Dan Savage and The New Civil Rights Movement’s David Badash to see the political and cultural differences between “queers” and LGBT activists.

Badash thinks that Savage aids our anti-gay foes and sets back the marriage-equality movement when he publicly endorses open relationships. But Savage refutes Badash by saying that the fight for marriage equality shouldn’t rest on whether or not non-promiscuous people deserve to get married, especially when many married straight and long-term gay couples participate in sex outside of their primary relationships.

Some trans people, sex workers and queers still have to resort to sex work after being disowned and denied housing and work. Rather than disparaging them, they have a lot to teach us about bravery, survival, and the willingness to fight for our own dignity. They’re very much a vital, resilient part of our community and deserve our recognition, support and respect.

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  • Shannon1981

    Thank you for this. Since the classrooms do not recognize our history, we have to! Totally tweeting this link. Feel free to follow @proudgqdyke.

  • Little Kiwi

    there’s also the Black Cat Tavern riots 🙂

    while Stonewall wasn’t the “first” it did end up being the iconic ‘last straw’ of the time.

  • Mr. Enemabag Jones

    I’m really loving these historical posts, Daniel. Far too many gay people–both young and old–have forgotten our history, and our struggles.

  • Little Kiwi

    @Mr. Enemabag Jones: the sad irony of it is that it’s those people who “don’t know the history” who actually need it most. They’re the ones who complain most about “the community” and exhibit such resentment and reluctance about being gay.

    knowing your queer history is a way to actually realize that there’s MUCH to be Proud of. i am proud to be a part of this community and culture. i’m incredibly moved by the selflessness and bravery of the men and women who came before me, who opened the doors for us all by Coming Out in a time far more unforgiving and dangerous than today.

    we owe them our lives.

  • Shannon1981

    @Little Kiwi: Time for my history lesson! You know I love spreading the LGBT love as much as you do. I told my classmates in my IT conference today to watch Milk.

    I was used as an example of an internet presence that you might not like potential employers seeing. My response? I told the IT director of the school that I am an out and proud genderqueer dyke, human rights activist, and that I WILL NOT work for a company, no matter the pay, that tries to force me into a closet or deny what I feel to be the part of my identity that has shaped my life and being the most: my gender identity and my sexual orientation. While that class full of rednecks might not have agreed, they applauded me. Standing O. How’s THAT for changing minds?

  • magnetic

    this was news to me, thanks for the enlightenment. I absolutely adore the fact that there is so much I still don’t know about queer history…will have to seek out Screaming Queens.

  • Michael Bedwell

    Your interest in increasing the knowledge of others about our history is greatly appreciated, but: “major uprisings … that paved the way for what happened in June 1969”??????? BALDERDASH! It takes NOTHING away from those who spontaneously said they weren’t going to take it anymore to say that the connection you assert didn’t exist because

    1. there is no evidence that a single person at Stonewall knew about them….or even that anyone at Compton’s knew about the earlier event at Cooper’s. “Pave” suggests a continuous “road” but you provide no evidence that one existed between LA and SF in this way, let alone from either city to NY. By contrast, New York and DC’s later Mattachine groups clearly took their name, and SOME of their ideas, after the creation of the first Mattachine group in Los Angeles.

    2. neither earlier event led to any politicizing of the Community REMOTELY comparable to what happened after Stonewall. I hasten to add that there’s much mythology associated with it, too; an apparent subconcious belief that those who rioted there were the ones who went on to establish the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance who, in turn, inspired the rapid creation of similar groups all across the country. In fact, only a few, such as Sylvia Rivera, became involved in political advocacy at all. So, again, even with Stonewall, there was less of a “road” than an inspiration.

    Your related, but worst claim is that: “the first soldiers in the battle for our rights weren’t paid political spokespeople, celebrities or even so-called respectable folks. They were trans people, sex workers and their johns—outright fruits and queers….”


    The “first soldiers,” both in Europe and the United States, WERE by all outward appearances “respectable folks” while the “outright fruits and queers” of their days, such as the Mollies in Great Britain, were simply trying to stay one proverbial step ahead of the authorities not battling them.

    1. Austro-German Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who first wrote a defense of same sexual orientation in 1862 that was confiscated by the police, and also on theories of sexual orientation, was a law student and journalist who worked as a secretary to various civil servants and diplomats, and had been an official legal adviser for the district court of Hildesheim in the Kingdom of Hanover.

    2. Hungarian Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who coined the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” and published pamphlets calling for abolishing sodomy laws and declaring that being homosexual was inborn, was a respected travel writer of some 25 books, and friends with Heinrich Heine, George Sand, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm.

    3. German Magnus Hirschfeld, who founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin in 1897, creating a huge movement across Europe for the acceptance of homosexuals and abolishing antigay laws, was a medical doctor.

    4. Brit John Addington Symonds, author of some of the earliest essays in English in defense of homosexuality and legal reform, including 1883’s “Male Love-A Problem in Greek Ethics,” was a respected biographer and writer on the Renaissance—and married with children.

    5. Brit Edward Carpenter, author of the highly influential “The Intermediate Sex” in 1908, was a widely respected author, and instrumental in the foundation of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party.

    6. Inspired by Hirschfeld, German emigre Henry Gerber founded the first gay rights group in the United States in Chicago, the Society for Human Rights, in 1924, and the first known American gay-interest publication, “Friendship and Freedom.” He, too, was neither “trans/sex worker/outright fruit or queer” but employed by the post office, founding the SHR between fighting for the United States in WWI and, again, in WWII. The group’s president was an African American clergyman, and its quick demise was caused by the WIFE and mother of the two children of one of its other directors who, after finding out about the group, reported it to a social worker who alerted the police who arrested her husband, Gerber, the minister, and another man. Gerber was fired by the post office and went broke defending himself successfully through three trials.

    Thank you.

  • WillBFair

    Thank you Daniel. This was long awaited.
    I am so tired of those dratted NY queens hogging all the credit.

  • Little Kiwi

    @WillBFair: what do you specifically mean by that? genuinely. regardless of what happened before there is no denying that it ended up being the riots at the Stonewall Inn that galvanized the Movement and got more people paying attention.

    I just don’t understand your apparently resentment and bitterness toward, uh, “NY queens”

    NY isn’t “hogging credit” – the reality is that what happened at Stonewall got the attention of the greater public to a degree that the previous events didn’t. That doesn’t mean “NY Queens” hogged credit.

    please keep your ego in check. this doesnt’ need to be a gay-version of a EastCoast/WestCoast rap war.

  • CBRad

    @Michael Bedwell: I (basically) knew about those guys, but thanks for the reminder. Made me re-reappreciate them. (And most of them had some incredible straight allies, too, from H.G. Wells to Emile Zola).

  • the crustybastard


    Absolutely badass.

  • WillBFair

    @Little Kiwi: Can’t you take a joke?

  • WillBFair

    @Little Kiwi: I’m sorry. There’s just a long-time, comic bitch fight between NY and SF. It’s not serious. It’s just another round of camp.

  • WillBFair

    @Little Kiwi: And I’m not one who complained about you.

  • Ginasf

    You’re leaving out the Dewey’s Cafeteria protest in Philadelphia in 1965 by 150 ‘gender variant’ people.

  • Ogre Magi

    Where can the documentary be seen?

  • missanthroep

    @Michael Bedwell:

    Thanks for reminding us of the hegemony of the middle class gay male narrative, clearly we owe you everything.

  • Michael Bedwell


    Tsk. Tsk.

    My list did not pretend to be all-inclusive, nor implied that no other types would have liked to rebel. But if you have documentation of any non-“middle class gay males” who played roles in advocating for social and legal change both as early and as significant as those I listed, I’ll celebrate learning of them. BTW, Gerber hardly qualified as “middle class” given his post office job only paid enough to rent one room in a boarding house. If it makes you feel any better still, at his first trial, the police introduced a powder puff they claimed they’d found there as proof of his “effeminacy.”

    While resources can be no more perfect than their human authors, might I respectfully suggest for those interested in something other than just exercising their perpetually self-righteous victimology:

    “The Myth of the Modern Homosexual” by Rictor Norton.
    “Homosexuality & Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany” by Harry Oosterhuis & Hubert Kennedy.
    “Before Stonewall: Trailblazers and Founders of the Gay and Lesbian Movement” by Vern L. Bullough.

  • MarieM

    I teach a course on sexuality in 20th century America, and we recently covered this very topic! For my students, I uploaded to Google Docs a summary of a longer sociological article which details WHY we remember Stonewall as “the first”… even though there were similar events before. If you are interested in the history of what was called the “Homophile” Rights movement at the time – or social movements, generally – I think you’ll find it a fascinating read!

  • Pete n SFO

    Loving the historical pieces… please keep’em comin’

    (MUCH) Less so, the comments.

  • Shannon1981

    @the crustybastard: Thanks babe 🙂

  • chpinnlr

    add my thanks for the historical posts! While they may not be as inclusive as some posters think they should be they are great Starting points for people that want to learn more about LGBT history. I wasn’t familiar whith these events, until today, but I intend to learn more about them. Keep them coming!

  • Laughriotgirl

    I also appreciate the history posts. I think it is generally sad that so many LGBT folks really don’t know our history or the history of the movement. I know I’m an odd duck, in that I LOVE history but the level of simply not knowing or caring in the community baffles me.

    I was watching Paris is Burning with 3 gay men and they honestly thought it was about “Before Stonewall” and didn’t understand why there was no riot at the end… sigh

  • No One

    This was a really great post. I wish there was more like this out there. It’s important for us to connect our history and intersections and learn from them.

    Great job, keep up the excellent work!

  • Zoe Brain

    Don’t expect this article to be popular.

    The narrative accepted by many (not all, not most, but many) at Qweerty is that Trans people are Johnnies-come-lately, recently battened on to the gay movement “like ticks” (to quote one Qweerty commenter), hanging on gay coat-tails and dragging them down.

    Facts such as these contradict that narrative; so must be suppressed. Otherwise there’s no excuse for situations like Mass, NY, NH etc where gays have won rights, but deliberately left T’s behind. It makes them look bad.

  • Marlene

    I had a chance to watch Screaming Queens a few years ago when the trans support group I was with invited Susan Stryker to come lecture about the riot.

    There’s a long history of transfolk in myth, legend, and first person narrative.

    I have a timeline of events relating to the trans rights movement, as well as legends like Mulan and Heracles, to the modern day. It’s there should you want to expand your horizons outside of the narrow lesbian and gay view.

  • Little Kiwi


    gotcha 😀 i’ve never understood the Coast Wars, myself 😉

  • Kenneth

    Love the info and found this in June 2012 during Pride month. My only complaint is that the picture you have of Cooper’s Donuts is actually a coffee house in Long beach about 40 miles from where Cooper’s would have been. sorry to nitpick LOL

  • damsavage

    nice use of dan savage as a model queer with a significant history of sexism, racism, cissexism etc. what a disgusting way to end such a good article.

  • tovangar2

    Great article! (and BTW it’s wreaking, not “reeking” havoc)

  • tovangar2


    There’s a photo of the right shop here: but I think that article gives the wrong address. The riot Cooper’s was at 215 W Main St (the author may have confused it with another Cooper Do-nuts at 316 E 5th St)

Comments are closed.