The Lesser-Known Protest that Kicked Off Gay Liberation in Los Angeles
Jon Wiener and Mike Davis on Gay Activism Before Stonewall
The crime: kissing at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1967; fourteen men arrested by the LAPD vice squad. The place: the Black Cat, a gay bar on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. The charge: “lewd conduct.”
Police raids on bars had been a familiar part of gay life for decades, but this one had a sequel that made history. Five weeks later, several hundred people—perhaps 500 or more—gathered in the bar’s parking lot to protest the raid. Marchers on Sunset Boulevard carried signs reading “No More Abuse of Our Rights and Dignity,” “Abolish Arbitrary Arrests,” “Stop Illegal Search and Seizure,” “End Illegal Entrapment,” and “Blue Fascism Must Go!” It was February 11, 1967, more than two years before the Stonewall Uprising in New York (June 28, 1969): the first gay rally against police violence in America, the earliest gay street demonstration, and the historic beginning of the gay liberation movement.
The demonstration had been called by PRIDE, a group founded in LA in 1966—the name was originally an acronym for “Personal Rights in Defense and Education.” They called their meetings “Pride Night” and the bar where they met “Pride Hall.” According to historians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, it was “probably the first application of the word to gay politics”—another “before Stonewall” moment.
The LAPD actions that provoked the first gay street protest in America were described in a leaflet circulated by Tangents, an LA gay magazine founded in 1966. That New Year’s Eve, 12 vice-squad officers—plainclothesmen—started beating patrons to the floor about five minutes after midnight. They did not identify themselves except by their weapons. After beating the patrons, the 14 to be arrested were laid face down on the sidewalk outside the bar. Five patrol cars, containing two uniformed officers each, were brought from a near-by side street where they had been parked for some time and the individuals arrested were taken to the newly opened Rampart St. Police Station. Three bartenders were among those arrested.
The LA Free Press immediately saw that the Black Cat Tavern protest was a transformative moment for gay people. “All over the city, homosexuals are determined that they will no longer ‘cop out’ to the lesser charge if they are arrested. And when someone else is arrested, they will come forward as witnesses, even though police may bring pressure on their employers.”
One more thing: the same night as the Black Cat protest—February 11—the Sunset Strip protests a few miles to the west were reaching a climax—80,000 leaflets had been distributed calling for a demonstration that night, which “saturated the clubs and made their way clandestinely through every high school in the county.” “One of the most interesting and pace-setting” developments in the Sunset Strip protests, the Freep noted, “came from homosexual organizations who are currently up in arms about New Year’s Eve police raids on a number of Silver Lake area gay bars.” PRIDE, while organizing its own protest for that night, also endorsed the February 11 Sunset Strip demonstration. The kids there carried one of the same signs as the gay demonstrators outside the Black Cat: “Stop Blue Fascism.”Two and a half years before the Black Cat Tavern protest, journalists were already reporting that something new and big was starting to happen in gay L.A.
PRIDE founder Steve Ginsberg explained PRIDE’s attitude in the Freep: PRIDE wanted to “take to the streets,” unlike the “prissy little old ladies of some of the older groups.” The “older groups” against which the new libertarians were rebelling started with the Mattachine Society, an LA LGBT organization founded by Harry Hay in 1950. Given the temper of the times, the Mattachine founders had had as their goal the quiet integration of gays and lesbians into the mainstream, not loud street protests confronting the cops. Hay himself was a member of the Communist Party and a talented organizer; he organized the Mattachine Society, named after the medieval French secret societies of masked men, into cells that did not know each other’s membership or leadership—a system he had learned from the Communist Party’s experience with fascism in Europe and now with the rise of McCarthyism in the United States. The Mattachine Society organized the first national movement of what they called “homophiles.” Starting out small and fearful, in the basement of LA’s First Unitarian Church, they took their first great leap forward in 1952 when the group challenged a vice squad arrest of Dale Jennings, a core member. They raised money for an attorney, who won an acquittal by arguing that Jennings had been entrapped—the first acquittal of an admitted homosexual charged with morals violations.
But as the group blossomed, the red-baiters went after Harry Hay. The LA Daily Mirror published a column in 1953 charging that Mattachine had Communist ties, and at the group’s convention that summer, Harry Hay and other founders, including his partner Rudi Gernreich (later a famous fashion designer), resigned when the convention denounced them as Communists “who would disgrace us all.” The irony was deep: Harry Hay had been expelled from LA’s Communist Party in 1948 because leaders feared gay party members could be blackmailed into informing for the FBI. As Dorothy Healey recalled: “I personally met with Harry Hay to tell him we were going to have to drop him from the Party rolls. I made it clear to him that this was not a moralistic judgment by the Party, and he could see the logic of the argument.” Nevertheless, she wrote in her 1990 memoir, expelling Harry Hay and other gays was “a self-inflicted wound” on the party in LA.
Mattachine “never recovered from the loss of its founders,” Faderman and Timmons report. The same convention that expelled Harry Hay also declared, “We do not advocate a homosexual culture or community, and we believe that none exists.” Meanwhile, the Mattachine group in West Hollywood took the opposite tack: in 1952 they launched the first national homosexual magazine in America. They called it ONE Magazine (the name came from a line of Thomas Carlyle, “a mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one”), and their fourth issue, published in 1953, featured on the cover the terrific mock-HUAC headline, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Homosexual?” In November they added the line “The Homosexual Magazine” to their cover, and soon they were selling 5,000 copies a month, featuring cover stories on “Homosexual Marriage” and “Homosexual Servicemen.” Thus, Faderman and Timmons report, “ONE set a community agenda that would last for the next fifty years.”
But in August 1953, just seven months after publishing their first issue, ONE’s office in LA was raided and the magazine seized by postal officials as obscene. The ACLU, to its shame, refused to take the case, so it was left to a single attorney, Eric Julber, two years out of Loyola Law School, to appeal the initial conviction. He was in court for four years, and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. On January 13, 1958, the court declared that a magazine could not be declared obscene only because it was about homosexuality, and ruled that ONE could be sent through the US mail. “ONE Magazine has made not only history but law as well,” Don Slater wrote in the next issue. It “has changed the future for all US homosexuals. Never before have homosexuals claimed their rights as citizens.”
Two and a half years before the Black Cat Tavern protest, journalists were already reporting that something new and big was starting to happen in gay LA, and that LAPD repression was a key to understanding the changes. In 1964, Life magazine ran a two-part feature, “Homosexuality in America: A Secret World Grows Open and Bolder.” It reported on gay life in Manhattan, San Francisco, and LA, and the report from LA focused on the LAPD. They had arrested 3,069 men for homosexual offenses in 1963, but, Life reported, “the LAPD could not help but notice that a mini-revolt was already occurring on the streets.” LAPD inspector James Fisk explained: “The pervert is no longer as secretive as he was. He’s aggressive, and his aggressiveness is getting worse.”
“Homosexuals everywhere fear arrest,” Life reported. But “in Los Angeles, where homosexuals are particularly apparent on city streets, police drives are regular and relentless … Leaders of homophile societies in Los Angeles and San Francisco have accused the police of ‘harassment, entrapment and brutality’ toward homosexuals.” However, “there is no law in California—or in any other state—against being a homosexual. The laws which police enforce are directed at specific sexual acts.” The magazine also noted that it was a crime in California “to solicit anyone in a public place to engage in a lewd act. Under these laws, the police are able to make arrests. In many cases, a conviction results in a homosexual being registered as a ‘sex offender,’ along with rapists, in the state of California.” In LA, the Life article conceded, there was a “running battle between police and homosexuals” that had “produced bitter feeling on both sides.”If we do our part, perhaps the LA police will grasp this opportunity to stop police harassment.”
Two years after the Black Cat Tavern protest, the Stonewall Uprising got a lot of attention, and it has since been part of the historical canon; in contrast, the Black Cat Tavern protest was little known at the time and remains little known today. Some say the greater prominence of Stonewall explains why the gay liberation movement took off in New York City instead of LA. But in fact, the Black Cat Tavern protest broke the ground for many historic developments in LA. The first was the founding of the Advocate, today the oldest and biggest gay magazine in the nation, devoting regular coverage to the fight with the LAPD—again, before Stonewall. Second was the establishment, following another protest against the LAPD, of the Metropolitan Community Church in LA—eventually the largest gay church in the world. And finally, the demonstration presaged the first officially recognized gay pride parade in America—the result of a legal battle with the LAPD that ended in triumph for gay L.A.
Issue number one of the Advocate was dated September 1967. It had begun publication as the newsletter of PRIDE; the editors, Richard Mitch (using the pseudonym “Dick Michaels”) and Bill Rau (under the name “Bill Rand”), then turned it into a newspaper. The first issue led with the sequel to Black Cat—a meeting between vice squad head Charles W. Crumly and gays at the home of Jerry Joachim, one of the founders of the Advocate. But meeting with the cops was a two-way street: “PRIDE is asking you to think about something,” Joachim wrote, addressing gay men: “your conduct. It must be above reproach in public places … We are going to ask you not to cruise in public parks [his emphasis]. That represents an intolerable situation to the LAPD, and rightly so … Every effort will be made to persuade the homosexual in LA to confine his sexual activities to private places. We are asking you particularly to boycott Griffith Park. Show the LAPD that we can keep our word—obey the law … If we do our part, perhaps the LA police will grasp this opportunity to stop police harassment.” Joachim concluded asking readers to “remember there are arrests that are justified. Our skirts are not 100% clean, and you know it.”
Asking gay men to stay out of Griffith Park was huge. Jerry Joachim wasn’t talking only about furtive one-on-one sex in the bushes late at night; Griffith Park was widely known as a place where “wild orgies involving scores of men were common … even in daylight.” John Rechy told historian Lillian Faderman that “he knew of no other city in the 1960s that had a daytime scene as thriving as Los Angeles did in Griffith Park.” The LAPD, Faderman and Timmons report, “could not keep up” with “the exuberant gay male eroticism there.” It seems clear from Rechy’s account that the request in the Advocate had no effect on sex in the park.
But the next page of the Advocate’s first issue took a different tack in dealing with the LAPD. In a column with the byline “Mariposa de la Noche,” the paper noted that “summer is beach time,” and said that “cruising the beach studying the regional ‘wildlife’ ” was part of gay life—including “such little sea-beasties as crabs—a markedly unpopular subject; chicken-of-the-sea—constantly in great demand; and fish—popular mainly among biologists and dikes. Always a favorite study is anatomy. In fact many a bronzed body has been inspected and dissected on location, then picked up for further homework.” The paper recommended a “noteworthy Pacific playground catering to our royal society … Santa Monica State Beach, affectionately known as ‘Fag Beach.’ Whatever that means. Located cruisingly close to Chautauqua Blvd., State Beach offers much to the gay sea set … the attire is rather unrestricted.” But those cruising the beach had to be on alert for the LAPD: “The adjacent bathhouse is a definite no-no,” the column reported. “The Vice Squad has a fetish for tearooms, especially the one at State Beach.”
Instead of boycotting Griffith Park, as Jerry Joachim and PRIDE requested in the first issue of the Advocate, a different group of activists—the Gay Liberation Front—declared the park the site for the first “Gay-In,” on May 30, 1968. The park had already been the site of a “Be-In” in February of the previous year, a public celebration of the counterculture—including a performance by the Doors. Now, instead of keeping the park the secret site of gay sex, it would become the public site of gay celebration. “Come and Cavort!” the leaflet said, “at the Gala Los Angeles Gay-In.” It identified the sponsors as the Los Angeles Advocate, One Incorporated (the publisher of ONE Magazine), Tangents, and a couple of lesser-known groups. And it called the event a “historic first, a gay day in the park.”
Griffith Park is huge—4,000 acres—so the question for organizers was where to hold the Gay-In. They chose what one called the “stunningly liberationist” merry-go-round. The organizers intended the Gay-In as a “challenge to the police policy that effectively banned any public gathering of gays and lesbians.” Thus the Gay-In featured speeches and music and dancing, as well as booths where “professionals and activists offered free legal advice and other services designed to help gays and lesbians come out at work and home and fight … firing, eviction, or improper treatment by doctors and psychiatrists.”
The Advocate reported that “more than 1,000 Gays, and a number of startled straights, paid a visit to the event.” The group was “as diverse as gay life itself … There were the long-haired love children, leather queens, a huge blue jean brigade, baskets at attention, everyday businessmen, college kids, streetwalkers, transvestites, lesbians in Levis, and bare chests were everywhere in abundance.” A guerilla theater group presented “a modern day fairy tale” that involved “good fairies and an evil, old, closet queen who saw the light and learned to live outside of her closet.” The Advocate reporter was particularly enthusiastic about the “Kiss a homosexual” booth, and by the fact that five couples were married at the Gay-In—three female and two male. The LAPD arrested only one person at the Gay-In, and not for sex-related activity: a fifteen-year-old boy with an American flag painted on his face was charged with “desecrating the flag,” and they “hauled him off in handcuffs. A large crowd followed, jeering and demanding his release.”
From Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener. Top photo via the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, USC Digital Library