‘Stand Up, Fight Back’: A Brief Timeline of the Violent Fight for LGBTQ Rights
When it comes to queer riots, Stonewall is hardly the only one that made history! For the last 60 years, LGBTQ people have been raising hell and fighting back against abusive cops.
Whether resisting violent police raids or demanding action from callous Republican officials, some of the community’s most important victories have been won through queer riots and civil disobedience.
Here’s a brief timeline of queer riots through American history, each of which contributed to the LGBTQ fight for civil rights:
May 1959, Los Angeles: Cooper Do-nuts Riot
The first of the queer riots on our list, history suggests this was the first time a group of self-identified queer people rose up in resistance to the police.
Cooper Do-nuts was an unassuming late-night cafe in Downtown Los Angeles, a hangout for police during the day, and at night a popular hangout for people who today might identify as transgender. (Obviously, terminology was very different back then.)
One night in 1959, a group of cops decided to walk in and harass some of the patrons, attempting to arrest a group of drag queens and sex workers. This was far from the first time cops had decided to bother queer people just for having the nerve to exist in public; according to those who were alive at the time, it was part of a long-standing pattern of harassment from the LAPD.
But on this night, the crowd fought back. Patrons began pelting the police with food, coffee cups, and garbage until they fled into the night. That was followed by a short tumult in the street until a larger group of police arrived to conduct even more arrests.
Read more about the Cooper Do-nuts Riot here.
August 1966, San Francisco: Compton’s Cafeteria Riot
Similar to the L.A. riot in 1959, this incident occurred at a late-night hangout frequented by gender-nonconforming people and sex workers. Police frequently bothered transgender individuals, and they were joined by the management of the business, which had implemented a surcharge for trans customers.
On one particular night, the police arrived to harass customers and attempted to arrest one woman. She threw coffee in his face, after which the entire place erupted in a destructive fight. Numerous people were forced into police vehicles, but the next night they gathered again — this time to protest and picket.
As a result of the unrest, queer people in the neighborhood began to organize and advocate for their interests, forcing police to leave them alone at last.
Read more about the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot here.
February 1967, Los Angeles: Black Cat Riot
Police chose to conduct a raid on New Year’s Eve, infiltrating The Black Cat Tavern with plainclothes officers and waiting until midnight to see who would kiss. But the cops couldn’t resist instigating violence, beating patrons as they arrested them. Two of the arrestees were forced to register as sex offenders — just for kissing.
A month later, neighbors gathered to protest the police violence, organized by a newly formed group that represented LGBTQ interests. Police responded to the peaceful protest by sending armed cops.
Read more about the Black Cat Riot here.
June 1969, New York City: Stonewall Uprising
This was the big one, of course. New York cops regularly extorted bribes from bars in exchange for leaving them alone, but on one night in 1969 they decided to conduct a raid. The usually peaceful patrons didn’t put up much of a fuss at first, but then as more arrests occurred, people started growing rowdy until finally they exploded in anger at the police.
That was followed by several nights of rioting and unrest in Greenwich Village, with cops continually out-maneuvered by locals who knew the layout of the streets better than they did.
Peaceful protests had been staged for years before this time, but the following year organizers decided to put on a more rowdy march and demonstration — and so Pride was born.
May 1979, San Francisco: White Night Riots
After Harvey Milk was murdered by Dan White, the San Francisco police rallied behind Milk’s killer. Cops raised thousands of dollars for Dan White’s defense and wore T-shirts in support. Tension between the queer community and the police was already high, but this only made things worse.
When Dan White was given the most lenient possible sentence, the city erupted. A crowd of furious protestors marched to City Hall, where they were met by violent police. Clashes ensued, and police cars were burned. In retaliation, cops marched through the Castro, beating residents.
Local LGBTQ leaders refused to apologize, forcing the police to back away from their harassment and abuse of the community.
March 1987, New York City and around the world: ACT UP
The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was founded by a group of queer people who were furious that government officials were doing nothing in the face of an epidemic. Their tactics were often confrontational, storming Wall Street to demand more access to medication and blocking access to FDA offices until their demands were heard.
As a result, government agencies began moving faster and including members of the community in decision-making. ACT-UP likely saved untold thousands of lives by forcing their way in front of news cameras and forcing politicians to take action.
Read more about ACT UP here.
March 1990, across the United States: Queer Nation
This group evolved out of ACT UP, in response to violent discrimination and hate crimes. Their slogans included “Dykes and Fags Bash Back,” and the famous “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” chant.
Their actions were definitely attention-grabbing; they organized flash mobs long before that term even existed, staged kiss-ins at the Oscars, and organized mass marches in Texas.
February 2014, Idaho: Add the Words
One of the most recent disruptive protests from LGBTQ activists took place in Idaho, one of many states that does not protect people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, a group was formed called “Add the Words, Idaho,” with the mission of fixing the state’s human rights act.
After several years of pushing for reform with no success, they took a more confrontational approach. Members blocked entrances to the Idaho Senate for two hours, with dozens arrested. They returned a few days later to march, and on a third day to pressure legislators to make the change.
A fifth event saw protestors blocking entrances again, with even more arrests taking place. Finally, the House moved the bill forward — but Republicans blocked its passage.
The lessons from these queer riots of the past are clear: Queer liberation often requires confrontational action (and the removal of Republicans from office). It’s important to keep this in mind when we think about and discuss how the LGBTQ community and other groups go about their fight for rights.
Were you previously aware of these queer riots from years past?
Featured image at top by Leonard Fink
This article was originally published on June 11, 2020. It has since been updated.