The iconic Stonewall Riots, which set off a heroic call for gay rights and mass social change across New York and America are synonymous in the LGBT+ collective memory, despite the night not being the first uprising of its kind. But what was?
Indiana University academic Elizabeth Armstrong notes that the Stonewall story is “an achievement of gay liberation rather than an account of its origins,” explaining that the community success with the riots were down to the LGBT+ community finding Stonewall “commemorable” and the following Gay Liberation March “an appealing form for commemoration.”
“The parade was amenable to institutionalisation, leading it to survive over time and spread around the world.”
Two and a half years before the first brick was thrown at the Stonewall Inn, the homosexual community of Los Angeles celebrated the end of 1966 and the birth of 1967 in the Black Cat Tavern, embracing in excitement for what the New Year had to offer. Little did the LGBT+ patrons of the LA gay bar know that plainclothes LAPD officers had positioned themselves in the crowd that night.
What followed was a series of violent attacks from the police force, with 14 gay men arrested for conducting same-sex kissing. The night saw police officers following escaping gay men to the nearby New Faces bar, where they beat the (female) bar owner, the manager, and the bartender, but made no arrests. By the end of the night a waiter had been beaten in the parking lot badly enough to rupture his spleen.
Gay rights leaders told the Los Angeles Free Press that the horrific raids “shattered a two-year-long de facto truce between the Los Angeles Police Department and the city’s homosexual bars.”
In fury and frustration, the LGBT+ community of LA protested two months later on February 11th 1967 at the bar, following on from multiple raids across the city’s gay space.
The happenings at the Black Cat raid aroused anger and galvanised the homosexual community into action, with more than 400 demonstrators taking a stand against illegal police raids on gay people. Though colossal and imperative to the cause, the protests were widely overlooked and the bar closed due to increased police presence.
Early gay rights activist Jim Highland explained that the protests looked like what was needed to “weld the homosexuals of one city into a unit with the purpose and the strength to make their civil rights a reality. But the excitement passed. Time passed. People forgot.”
The event did not feel like a triumph when it happened and invoked a stronger feeling of helplessness, with the actions failing to change police practices.
But all hope was far from lost. The raid on the Black Cat allowed gay rights activist Dick Michaels to transform his existing queer newsletter into the first national mass circulation gay newspaper. By September 1969, The Advocate (which still exists now) had a circulation of 23,000 copies and distribution in Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington, Miami, and Los Angeles. Reporting gay news from around the globe, The Advocate was an important part of rallying the LGBT+ community before, during and following on from both the Black Cat and the Stonewall Riots.