What were some GLBT protests before Stonewall?

Liz Highleyman | June 27, 2007

The Stonewall riots of June 1969 are often cited as the start of the gay liberation movement, but several GLBT protests occurred during the preceding years, both organized demonstrations and spontaneous bursts of outrage.

Perhaps the first unplanned protest occurred in May 1959 at Cooper's Donuts, a Los Angeles hangout frequented by hustlers and drag queens. According to author John Rechy, who was present, police harassed a few of the patrons, prompting others to throw food and tableware; the officers retreated to their car and summoned reinforcements, who closed the street and arrested several rioters. A similar event occurred in August 1966 at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco. After a police officer tried to grab a young queen, some 50 customers hurled dishware and overturned tables, while outside a police car was destroyed and a newsstand was set on fire.

Police harassment of gay bars in Los Angeles also spurred early protests. Soon after midnight on New Year's Eve in 1967, police raided the Black Cat bar on Sunset Boulevard, beating patrons and bartenders and arresting several people for lewd conduct. Protests erupted outside the bar that night and continued for several days. A year later, police raided the Patch, another gay bar in the same city. After owner Lee Glaze shouted, "It's not against the law to be homosexual," patrons marched to a nearby police station and pelted the building with flowers.

The first organized GLBT demonstrations took place in the mid-1960s to protest antigay discrimination in federal employment and the military. Typically, these actions were small and polite, featuring men in suits and women in dresses. In 1964, about a dozen activists demonstrated against the military ban outside the Whitehall Induction Center in New York City. The following year, a small number picketed at the United Nations headquarters to protest ill treatment of gays in Cuba.

In the spring and summer of 1965, activists with the East Coast Homophile Organizations picketed the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Civil Service Commission in Washington, D.C. Also that summer, 40 protesters staged the first of four July 4 "Annual Reminders" at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. As participant Lilli Vincenz later recalled, "We exploded the myth that real homosexuals could [not] possibly look happy and proud and dignified and visible."

On Armed Forces Day (May 21) in 1966, activists with the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations demonstrated against the military ban in several cities; those in Los Angeles staged a motorcade that included Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay. Homophile activists also took on the psychiatric establishment, protesting at professional conferences beginning in 1968. Early gay liberation activists held a "gay-in" in Griffith Park in Los Angeles in March 1968, and in San Francisco, young queer militants demonstrated outside the offices of States Steamship Line for weeks in the spring of 1969 to protest the firing of gay activist Gale Whittington. The Stonewall riots that followed in June garnered more media attention than previous demonstrations and sparked intensified gay organizing across the country.

While the polite pickets of the mid-1960s may appear tame to contemporary activists, it took considerable courage for GLBT people to demand their rights at a time when homosexual conduct was illegal and gays were considered mentally ill. "Visibility has always been the keystone of our struggle for civil rights," early activist Barbara Gittings said in the 2004 documentary Gay Pioneers. "Today, we have visibility – oh, do we have visibility!"

For further reading:

  • Eisenbach, David. 2006. Gay Power: An American Revolution. Carroll & Graf.

  • Faderman, Lillian, and Stuart Timmons. 2006. Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (Basic Books).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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