Calif. resistance predated 1969 Stonewall Rebellion
Lavender & red, part 62
Published May 5, 2006 8:45 PM
The 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in Greenwich
Village in Manhattan was not the first time in history that gay and lesbian (and
most certainly some bisexual), transgender and transsexual people physically
fought back against brutal treatment at the hands of police and other
Wherever same-sex love was criminalized under
capitalism, trysting spots which offered relative anonymity developed in
secluded public places in urban areas. Such meeting places often drew those who
were not easily “read” as being gay socially, who may not have
necessarily thought of themselves as “gay” or who feared being seen
going in or out of a gay/trans bar. Signals—from a glance to a color-coded
handkerchief—acted as a semaphore to indicate sexual interest. But men
looking for other men in those locations faced the danger of “sting”
operations—entrapment by “vice” cops.
The bars, on the
other hand, tended to draw into social networks those who were considered
“too obvious,” as well as those who were, or wanted to be, their
lovers. Since sexuality is only obvious when desire is communicated, being
considered “obviously gay” referred to gender
expression—lesbian and gay-cross-dressers, and those considered
“inappropriately” gendered because of the way they spoke or gestured
Historically, police raids on these gathering places were
systematic, relentless and brutal. So why did individuals go to places where
they would be in such danger? Because danger also followed them wherever they
went alone. In the bars and other gathering places, they could form
networks—social and personal. They forged communities.
composition of bar crowds varied based on region, economic classes,
nationalities, ethnicities and sexes.
Many bars catered to those from the
working class who were economically and socially marginalized.
cities in which Jim Crow segregation enforced apartheid conditions, the lesbian
and gay bars were some of the only integrated social gathering places.
Historians Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk wrote in their book “Gay by
the Bay” that “racial segregation of many public places made bar
culture more important for white lesbians and gays than it did for African
Americans and other people of color.”
described a network of private house parties in San Francisco in the early
1960s: “When we got there they had all these women that were dressed up in
men’s clothes. ... This group that I acquainted with really didn’t
go to gay bars. ... In San Francisco I don’t ever recall a bar that had a
majority of women that were Black. ... The majority of the women were always
white. ... But in the bars there was (mostly) one color and not the other. We
all got along, but the house parties were mainly Black. There were a few
Caucasians, but not a lot, just a few.” (Nan Alamilla Boyd, Oral History
Project of the Gay & Lesbian Historical Society)
Buffalo, N.Y., historians Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy wrote, “By
the mid-1950s groups of Black lesbians began to patronize Bingo’s and the
street bars in the downtown section, and soon after, whites went to the bars
which opened in the Black section of town, thereby ending the racial homogeneity
of the lesbian bar community.” (Boots of Leather, Slippers of
Fighting back, hand-to-hand
There were many police
raids on house parties and bars, and there were many acts of
resistance—courageous, whether large or small—which have gone
unrecorded in written history. Some episodes passed on as oral history only
lived as long as those who retold them.
However there is one early
historical example, from almost three centuries ago, which proves the truth that
sustained acts of repression inevitably lead to outbreaks of open struggle: In
1707 and 1730 in England, the repressive “Societies for the Reformation of
Manners” waged a campaign against “effeminate sodomites among the
London poor.” After more than 20 raids on clubs that drew what would today
be referred to as feminine gay males—“mollies” in the
vernacular of that time and place—some patrons were hanged or publicly
pilloried as a result. But when a Covent Garden molly house was raided in 1725,
the crowd, “many of them in drag, met the raid with determined and violent
And two-and-a-half centuries later, in Cali f ornia,
people gathered in gay/trans bars and other establishments met police attacks
with resis tance —the social temperature was heating up.
police in San Francisco carried out the largest vice raid in the city’s
history, arresting 89 men and 14 women at an after-hours club called the
Tay-Bush Inn. Stryker and Van Buskirk note, “After first allowing
‘respectable looking’ and politically well-connected customers to
depart without incident, the police booked the largely queer, working-class, and
dark-skinned remainder. Charges were dropped against all but two of the
defendants, and the blatant prejudice manifested by the arrests helped shift
pubic sympathies toward greater civil rights protection for
In 1966, “Compton’s Cafeteria Riot”
erupted in the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, when a
group described as transgender women and gay street hustlers fought back against
police harassment. Rebellion broke out after a trans customer in the all-night
cafe reportedly threw a cup of hot coffee in the face of a cop who was roughing
her up. Transgenders and transsexuals threw sugar shakers through windows,
overturned tables and torched a police cruiser. (San Francisco Bay Times, March
On the 40th anniversary of the rebellion this year,
community-organized events in San Francisco will commemorate this important
milestone uprising. The 1966 events are brought to new generations in the recent
film documentary “Screaming Queens”—written, directed and
produced by Victor Silverman, an associate professor of history at Pomona
College, and Susan Stryker, former executive director of the GLBT Historical
Society in San Francisco.
In another response to a police raid on two Los
Angeles’ bars in 1967, political organizers took their struggle to the
streets. That year, as the stroke of midnight ushered in the New Year at The
Black Cat bar in Los Angeles’s Silverlake neighborhood, the “The
Rhythm Queens” were singing Auld Lang Syne. Plainclothes cops who had
infiltrated the festivities began viciously beating and arresting patrons.
Several people tried to escape to the New Faces bar across street, where a drag
contest was taking place. Cops followed and raided that club also, assaulting
one of the workers so violently that his spleen ruptured. (The Gay & Lesbian
Review, March-April 2006)
In response, more than 200 gay acti vists and
human rights supporters from all walks of life rallied on Feb. 11 at San born
and Sunset to protest police brutality and arbitrary arrests, and to demand
homosexual rights. The rally swelled the member ship ranks of a newly and
quickly formed, more militant gay group called “PRIDE.” (Stephen O.
Murray, lgbtq. com)
And within two short years, the collective anger that
was bubbling up would break into a furious boil: Stonewall!
Stonewall means fight back!
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