Gay bars at the time, such as Greenwich Village’s the Stonewall Inn, were mostly owned by the Mafia. While police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, officers quickly lost control of the situation at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. Tensions between New York City cops and the LGBTQ residents of the Village erupted into more protests the next evening and again several nights later. Within weeks, Village residents organized into activist groups demanding the right to live openly regarding their sexual orientation, and without fear of being arrested. The new activist organizations concentrated on confrontational tactics, and within months three newspapers were established to promote rights for gay men and lesbians.
In the late 1960s, The Black Cat Tavern was one of a dozen gay bars along a one-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard ending at Sunset Junction in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
On New Year’s 1967, at the Black Cat Tavern, gay men were kissing in celebration, but they didn’t know that plainclothes police officers had positioned themselves in the crowd. The cops beat the patrons and arrested 14 people, charging them with lewd conduct for same-sex kissing and dancing together.
Six weeks after the raid, brave LGBTQ people publicly protested the police raid outside the bar. This was two years before The Stonewall Riots, a most famous day in American LGBTQ Rights History.
It was the first time that LGBTQ Americans had organized a protest against police persecution.
The demonstration was planned by a group called P.R.I.D.E. (Personal Rights In Defense And Education). A Hollywood bar owner agreed to let the organizers meet in the bar during hours when it was closed.
They suggested protests for other minority communities at the same time, with a strategy to spread police forces thin with demonstrations across various parts of the city.
Jim Kepner, curator of the National Gay Archives:
“The Black Cat attack outraged gays and many others as well. On February 11, a protest was organized outside the bar by PRIDE, the first gay organization largely oriented toward the bar community, and coordinated with similar protests on the Sunset Strip, where cops were beating hippies nightly for the 6 o’clock news. The overall coordinators howled at the word ‘homosexual’ on our leaflets, so, under pressure, we avoided mentioning our name during the rally, but swore that ‘the love that dared not speak its name’ would never again be silenced. 200 of us (and 50 incredibly armed police) participated in the rally in the lot east of the bar. We passed out 3,000 leaflets, chiefly to persons driving by who promised to join us next time.“
Two of those arrested, Charles Talley and Benny Baker, were convicted of lewd conduct and filed an appeal. They had both been seen by the cops kissing other men, Baker while wearing a dress. Their case made its way through the courts. The Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal, but their attorney, Herbert Selwyn, set a precedent by arguing that they should have been granted equal protection rights under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Alexei Romanoff was not at The Black Cat that night, but he was there at the protest in 1967. Romanoff and his family immigrated to the USA during World War II from Ukraine. He settled in Los Angeles in 1958 where he became an early activist for Gay Rights. He was arrested several times for civil disobedience, protesting the police treatment of queer people. Romanoff helped start the Santa Monica Bay Coalition for Human Rights. In the 1980s, Romanoff fought for funding of research and assistance programs for people facing the plague.
“We were very orderly at the protest. If so much as a leaflet dropped to the ground, it was quickly snatched from the ground to avoid offering any excuse for police to start cuffing protesters. It was an angry demonstration… but orderly.“
The Los Angeles Gay Pride began when Morris Kight, founder of the Gay Liberation Front, Reverend Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church; and Reverend Bob Humphries joined together to plan a way to express gay visibility. They decided on a parade down Hollywood Boulevard. They named their organization Christopher Street West, thinking it would seem rather innocuous. When the group applied for a permit for their parade, Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis told Perry:
As far as I’m concerned, granting a permit to a group of homosexuals to parade down Hollywood Boulevard would be the same as giving a permit to a group of thieves and robbers.
The Police Commission granted their permit for a fee of $1.5 million. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit and the police dropped the fee, but asked for $1,500 for police protection. That was dismissed when the California Supreme Court ordered the police to provide protection as they would for any other group. They ordered the police commissioner to issue a parade permit citing the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.
The parade organizers and the participants knew they probably would face violence. Kight received death threats. The event, with about 1000 marchers, was very quiet, but it was not just a protest march; it was a full parade down world-famous Hollywood Boulevard.
The site of The Black Cat Tavern was designated a historic and cultural monument by the City of Los Angeles in 2008, just as passage of California’s Prop 8 was leaving the LGBTQ community reeling. The building now has a plaque that reads:
The Black Cat
Site of the first documented LGBT civil rights demonstration in the nation
Held on February 11, 1967
Historic Cultural Monument No. 939
Cultural Heritage Commission
City of Los Angeles
Romanoff’s husband, David Farah, said that word went out in the LGBTQ community that The Black Cat was being dedicated as a historic site. But besides Romanoff, the only person they could find that had been at that first demonstration was Aristide Laurent, who was too sick to attend the dedication. Laurent passed in 2011.
The Black Cat has had many changes through the decades. In the 1990s, it was Basgo’s Disco, home of the notorious Club Fuck!, which, ironically, was raided by the police in 1992. In the aughts it was Le Barcito, a gay Latino bar. In 2012, it was renovated and reopened with its original name. You should make a pilgrimage when you are in Los Angeles.
It has been 52 years since that first protest. LA Pride is still organized by Christopher Street West.