This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, and, for that reason, this is the weekend that the cities of San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, Paris, and London all ring in LGBT Pride every year. But it isn't really fair or accurate to credit the Stonewall Riots with spearheading the larger LGBT civil rights movement, given that events and individuals in Los Angeles and San Francisco played enormous roles in building a grassroots movement starting in 1950a full 19 years before that group of fed-up gay men, lesbians, and trans women decided to fight back against a police raid, and made national headlines. Here are some of the most important historic moments in the early fight for LGBT rights in California.
Harry Hay, born to pretty wealthy parents in England, moved to Los Angeles to become an actor in 1932 after studying briefly at Stanford. He had grown up partly in L.A., and spent the 1930s and 40s frequenting the underground gay scenes of both San Francisco and L.A. He was open about his sexuality to himself and others from an early age, and with a nod to far-leftist and Communist dogma, and influenced deeply by The Kinsey Report, he founded the Mattachine Society in 1950 with a group of other self-identified "homophiles" in L.A.
The Mattachine Society, which set about to improve the rights of homosexuals and to help other homosexuals who were being victimized, expanded with chapters in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and D.C. Throughout the 50s and 60s, Hay continued doing this work, even though the group itself disbanded in 1961. Hay famously said, "I wasn't impressed by Stonewall, because of all the open gay projects we had done throughout the sixties in Los Angeles. As far as we were concerned, Stonewall meant that the East Coast was catching up."
Pioneering San Francisco lesbians Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were the first gay couple to be married by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004, founded the Daughters of Bilitis together with four other lesbian couples in 1955, forming the first national lesbian political and social organization in the country. The organization was named for a fictional lesbian character created by Greek poet Sappho, and the Daughters of Bilitis would go on to publish the first lesbian magazine, The Ladder, from 1956 to 1972.
Jose Sarria, who died last year at the age of 90, is most famous for founding the Imperial Court System and naming himself Empress I, The Widow Norton in 1965. But long before that, as a cocktail waiter and performer at The Black Cat in San Francisco's North Beach, Sarria rallied local gay men both to avoid arrest for dressing in drag on Halloween and ultimately to fight back against the legal system. Sarria had been arrested himself, early on, on a morals charge, and the fact of the arrest and the way it destroyed the possibility of a teaching career enraged and motivated him to become an activist for gay rights. As SFist noted in this obituary, San Francisco probably avoided having a Stonewall Riot of our own in part because of Sarria's work. One of the most brilliant things he did was to campaign to get more gay men to plead not guilty when they were arrested on frivolous charges for being in a gay bar, forcing a court trial, and thereby overloading city courts and causing prosecutors to have to seek more evidence against them. The subsequent caseloads caused hire-ups in the SFPD to stop making so many of these raids and arrests. In 1961, Sarria would become the first openly gay person ever to run for political office in the U.S., losing a bid to get to on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
In 1966, San Francisco did have a Stonewall-esque event known as the Compton's Cafeteria Riot. It was part of a chain of cafeterias, and the riot took place at one at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets in the Tenderloin that was frequented by trans people and sex workers. The actual night of the incident went unrecorded, but it happened in August 1966, months after members of Glide Memorial Church had helped form the country's first organization for LGBT youth, called The Vanguard, some of whose members frequented Compton's. There had been tension between the trans clientele and the cafeteria's management going back a number of years, and on that night, the police were called to deal with a raucous crowd. One police officer was known to be rough with the trans women, and when he went to touch one of them, she reportedly threw hot coffee in his face, sparking the riot. Windows were smashed, and a newsstand outside was set on fire. The next night there was a protest outside the cafeteria attended by many more LGBT people in the area, including hustlers and trans women, and some newly replaced plate glass windows were smashed again.
On New Year's Eve 1966/7, there was a similar riot at the Black Cat Tavern in Silverlake, in Los Angeles, after police raided the place during a New Year's party and arrested people for kissing. (Two of the men arrested were later convicted as sex offenders. They tried appealing their case, but it was never accepted by the Supreme Court.) The event sparked a riot that spread to other nearby gay bars, and led to a large civil demonstration two days later organized by an organization called PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education), which helped to launch The Advocate newspaper.
And one of the first symbols of the movement, the purple handprint, emerged in San Francisco just after Stonewall. On Halloween night, 1969, San Francisco Examiner employees dumped a bunch of purple printer's ink out an office window onto about 60 protesters from the Gay Liberation Front, who were there protesting the paper's homophobic slant. The well-stained and -inked protesters then went around town making purple handprints on buildings and surfaces, creating one of the first visible signs of the growing movement.
In June of 1970, San Francisco and New York simultaneously had the first Gay Freedom Day marches to commemorate Stonewall, which grew into the Pride celebrations we know today.
Here ends your LGBT history lesson for the week. Have fun this weekend, everyone...