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).
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).
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.