Remember: the First Pride was a Riot Against Police Brutality
I know this is something I’ve written about before on this blog, but as we approach what would have been the weekend of the Pride Parade here in Seattle (and many other cities around the country)—while the world is engulfed in a pandemic, and many protests about police brutality and racial inequality—it is vital to remember that the first Pride was a riot. Or, rather, a series of riots the continued for several nights after that first uprising in response to yet another police raid on a gay bar. No one knows for certain why that night people started fighting back. I think it was simply that a bunch of those trans and gender-non-conforming women of color were simply fed up.
And no, the Stonewall riots weren’t the first time that queers had protested and rioted over police brutality of queer people.
In 1959 in Los Angeles, for instance, there was the Cooper Do-nuts Riot. Cooper Do-nuts was a 24-hour donut shop located about halfway between two of the city’s gay bars. It was a place where queer people often congregated at night. At the time it was illegal in California (and many other places and would remain so for many years after), for a person to appear in public wearing clothes traditionally worn by the opposite gender. Because cops liked having an easy excuse to harass queer people, the gay bars didn’t like lots of trans people and street queens to be inside. Cooper Do-nuts served everyone, so it was always full of not just LGBTQ patrons, but specifically trans people, drag queens, and other very obviously gender nonconforming people. So the cops routine showed up there, demanded to see people’s ID and would arrest anyone whose legal ID showed them to a different gender than how they were dressed.
And remember, at the time, that law meant it was illegal for women to wear pants.
Anyway, in May of 1959 a couple of cops came into the shop, demanded to see everyone’s ID, and then tried to arrest two drag queens, two male sex workers, and a gay man. As at least one of those being arrested protested, the crowd erupted, pelting the cops with donuts, trash, and in some cases hot coffee. The cops fled the scene without arresting anyone. Unfortunately, the cops came back with backup and blocked off the entire street. A lot of people wound up arrested.
In 1966 in San Fransisco the management of a Compton’s Cafe decided they didn’t like how many transgender people were hangin out in their cafe, and they started calling the police to get the customers arrested. This caused the community to organize a picket line outside the cafe. Cops were called to arrest the trans people again, and this time a riot broke out. The windows of the cafe were smashed, along with a lot of furniture and all the windows of the first cop car. Eventually reinforcements came in and the riot intensified, but a lot of the riots were beaten, shoved into paddy wagons, and thrown in jail.
While the riot didn’t inspire a national movement, it did motivate a lot of homeless queer youth and others to join an organization called Vanguard Street Actions which staged various mostly peaceful protests, and over time the city began to try making changes in policy to reduce police harassment of queer people.
On New Year’s Eve 1967, at a Los Angeles gay bar called the Black Cat Tavern, a busy New Year’s Eve party took place. The newspaper accounts later said the party was “hopping” and the crowd was happy. Right up until midnight, when couples all over the bar started kissing to ring in the New Year. And then a bunch of undercover police started beating and arresting those kissing couples. Fourteen people were arrested that night. There was no riot. Some weeks later there was an organized public demonstration, and organizations that were lobbying government officials for LGBTQ rights raised a lot of money for among other things to try to appeal the convictions of some of the arrested same-sex couples. The Advocate, which remains a leading queer news source, was founded as a newsletter as part of the organized protests because of the Black Cat raid.
Seven months later, at another Los Angeles gay bar called the Patch, police raided one night, and started arresting people. The owner of the bar, Lee Glaze, jumped up on stage and got the crowd to chant various slogans and tried to convince the cops to let the arrestees go. When they didn’t work, they did not riot. Instead, Glaze led the rest of the crowd up the street to a flower shop, where they bought every single flower in the shop, and then marched to the police station, handing out flowers and chanting as they went. The protested peacefully outside the precinct until everyone arrested made bail and was released.
One of the protesters was a formerly-closeted pastor (who had been kicked out of the church) named Troy Perry, whose boyfriend (Tony Valdez) was among those arrested. After making bail, Valdez told Perry that his jail experience convinced him that god doesn’t love queer people. Perry decided to stop trying to fit in at the established churches that looked at his queerness as a sin, and to found a gay friendly church, which is how the Metropolitan Community Church came into being.
And then the next year the Stonewall Riots happened in New York City…
So that night at Stonewall wasn’t the first time that queer people got fed up with police harassment and brutality, but it was the first time where the protests and rioting continued for many days afterward. And probably because one of the newspapers that tried to cover the events objectively, The Village Voice, was read by a lot of professional journalists and academics far outside of New York City, is why Stonewall seemed to kick off a more organized fight for LGBTQ rights. Within a year, chapters of the new Gay Liberation Front had opened in many cities around the country, and within a couple more years nearly every college town in the U.S. had a chapter.
Most of the people targeted by the police in all of those incidents were those who were gender-nonconforming and/or not white. The cops harassed any queers that they could, but those were the people who got singled out every time. And in most of the cases they were the ones who get fed up and fought back.
I’m an old, white-bearded, cisgender blue-eyed white gay guy who is college educated and work in the software industry. A lot of people think that the LGBTQ rights movement is about and for people like me. But the real heroes, the first leaders, were the trans women of color. And just as we should never forget that they only gave us rights because queers gave them riots, we should remember that it was those trans and gender-non-conforming people of color who started and inspired the riots by fighting back against police brutality.