California resistance predated 1969 Stonewall Rebellion

Lavender and Red

This article by Leslie Feinberg, a lesbian transgender and Jewish communist and a managing editor of Workers World, was first published May 5, 2006, as part 62 of the series “Lavender and Red.” The 10th anniversary of comrade Leslie’s death will be marked on Nov. 15.

The 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in Greenwich Village in Manhattan was not the first time in history that [LGBTQIA2S+ people] physically fought back against brutal treatment at the hands of police and other reactionary forces.

Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, August 1966.

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 or walked.

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.

The 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.

In some 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.”

“Wilma Johnson” 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 was 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)

In blue-collar Buffalo, New York, 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 Gold)

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 resistance.”

And two-and-a-half centuries later, in California, people gathered in gay/trans bars and other establishments met police attacks with resistance — the social temperature was heating up.

In 1961, 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 public sympathies toward greater civil rights protection for homosexuals.”

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 23, 2006)

On the 40th anniversary of the rebellion this year [2006], 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 the 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 activists and human rights supporters from all walks of life rallied on Feb. 11 at Sanborn and Sunset to protest police brutality and arbitrary arrests and to demand homosexual rights. The rally swelled the membership ranks of a newly and quickly formed, more militant gay group called “PRIDE.” (Stephen O. Murray,

And within two short years, the collective anger that was bubbling up would break into a furious boil: Stonewall!

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