Many point to the Stonewall riots in New York City as the birthplace of the gay rights movement. Little do they know the movement first took hold in Los Angeles, at a local donut shop where patrons of every sexual and gender persuasion gathered and fought back against police brutality and oppression.
This month marks the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots — a landmark event in the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality. But a decade before New York City’s now-legendary resistance movement took off, a lesser-known gay uprising took place in Los Angeles.
In the spring of 1959, a group of drag queens and hustlers in downtown L.A. clashed with police at a Main Street donut shop. Fights broke out and patrons threw plates, coffee and donuts at the officers, enraged that they were arresting their friends for legally gathering at Cooper Do-nuts, a popular gay hangout.
“They started throwing things at the cops, and it led to riots,” says LGBTQ history scholar Lillian Faderman. “It went on for hours and into the next day.”
Faderman, who spent most of her adolescence living in Boyle Heights, documented the Cooper Do-nuts riots in her book “Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians.” She co-authored the book with L.A. journalist Stuart Timmons.
“That night in May, a patrol car circled the block a few times, parked, and two police officers entered Cooper’s, demanding to see identification from those seated at the long rectangular counter,” the book reads. “As usual, the police stated no reasons for their harassment. … [They] ordered the men into their squad car. But just as would happen a decade later and a continent away at the Stonewall Inn, that night in Los Angeles the crowd rebelled.”
Among those who were nearly arrested was legendary author John Rechy, who later documented the event in his pioneering 1963 gay novel, “City of Night.” He was able to escape detention thanks to the chaos that ensued. Faderman says that according to Rechy, what transpired that night was a small riot, but it was extraordinary in that the cops had to call for backup, and the street was cordoned off.
It’s worth noting that the LAPD had a reputation in the ’50s and ’60s for targeting — and brutalizing— gay residents, a practice that continued well into the ’80s.
Faderman, who is 79 years old, was living in Los Angeles around the time of the Cooper Do-nuts era. She came out to the gay community in 1956. “It was, of course, too dangerous to come out publicly then,” she says.
As a teenager, she frequented gay bars like Open Door, F Club and an upscale club called Laurel up in the Valley. “If I had been in a police raid, that would have been a huge disaster,” Faderman says. “I look back on it now and how irresponsible it was of me. I was a minor with a phony ID, and, of course, if that had been discovered, I probably would have been sent to juvey — as it was called in those days — and the bar where I was found would have been shut down.”
While Faderman was never arrested at a gay nightlife joint, she was stopped by a policeman for walking alongside a butch-appearing woman. The cop made her climb into his patrol car, and reprimanded her for who she was spending time with. “He felt free to intimidate us,” Faderman says. They were both let go but were shaken up by the experience.
Despite the LAPD’s oppressive presence in the 1950s, a burgeoning underground gay rights movement was taking form, helmed by a number of extremely brave gay men who called themselves the Mattachine Society. The organization was led by communist and labor activist Harry Hay as he set out to raise awareness on social justice issues pertaining to the community.
Hay’s groundbreaking activism is detailed in Faderman and Timmons’ book, which Out Magazine described as “a meticulously researched book that positions Los Angeles — and not New York — as the most influential gay city of modern times.”
That’s a sentiment Faderman can get behind. “The first homophile magazine in the country, One Magazine, happened in Los Angeles in 1953,” she says. “And there were many other firsts that happened in Los Angeles. In the 1960s, Troy Perry, who had been a Baptist minister, decided that he would try to form a gay church. And he did that in Los Angeles — the Metropolitan Community Church. And the first gay synagogue emerged in Los Angeles. So it was certainly a place of many, many firsts.”