The Queer Riots Before Stonewall
History generally speaks of the Stonewall Inn Riots as the first queer riot and turning point for LGBTQ liberation but before June 1969, two other riots broke out years before and some 3,000 miles away: The 1959 riot at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles and a 1966 riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco.
Though knowledge of both has faded over the years, they provide an important illustration of where trans folk, queens and sexual outlaws figure into the modern LGBT rights movement and what led them to finally stand up to abuse and discrimination.
In the ’50s and ’60s, Los Angeles cops made a habit of screwing with queers: They would raided gay bars, marching the queers out in a line and arresting anyone whose perceived gender didn’t match what was on their ID. Occasionally, they’d even single out a few lucky victims for special attention in the form of insults and beatings. Entrapment was common: Attractively dressed vice cops would cruise gay bars, bathrooms and hook-up spots, pick up tricks and arrest them as soon their target leaned in for a kiss. In other cases, plainclothes cops would wait outside of gay hangouts, trail two men as they walked home and burst into their residence to catch them in the act.
As bad as gay men had it, trans people had it worse: With laws against cross-dressing on the books in California, police kept an eye out for them entering or leaving gay bars—any excuse to raid and shut the place down. (Many gay hangouts rejected trans folk for this very reason.)
Many in the trans community couldn’t get decent jobs (hell, they still can’t) and some resorted to hustling, giving the whole community the reputation of being prostitutes. The media often conflated homosexuals with cross-dressers, drag queens and trans people, making gay men and lesbians resent trans visibility even more.
So what better place to kick back than Cooper’s Donuts, an all-night eatery on Main Street in downtown L.A.? Smack dab between two gay bars—Harold’s and the Waldorf—Cooper’s become a popular late-night hangout for trans folk, butch queens, street hustlers and their johns.
One night in May 1959, the cops showed up to check IDs and arrest some queers:
Two cops entered the donut shop that night, ostensibly checking ID, and arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out. As the cops packed the back of the squad car, one of the men objected, shouting that the car was illegally crowded. While the two cops switched around to force him in, the others scattered out of the car.
From the donut shop, everyone poured out. The crowd was fed up with the police harassment and on this night they fought back, hurling donuts, coffee cups and trash at the police. The police, facing this barrage of [pastries] and porcelain, fled into their car calling for backup.
Soon, the street was bustling with disobedience. People spilled out in to the streets, dancing on cars, lighting fires, and generally reeking havoc. The police return with backup and a number of rioters are beaten and arrested. They also closed the street off for a day.
The Cooper’s Donut riot often gets confused with the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot some years later: There were similar political circumstances leading up both riots. And like Cooper’s, Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district was a popular all-night hangout for trans people (called “hair fairies” at the time), hustlers and assorted sexual renegades.
And both stories involve coffee cups.
In August 1966, a cafeteria worker called the police when some transgender customers at Compton’s became unruly. When a police officer attempted to arrest one trans woman, she threw a cup of hot coffee in his face. Within moments, dishes were broken, furniture was thrown, the restaurant’s windows were smashed and a nearby newsstand was burned down.
Trans people, hustlers and disenfranchised gay locals picketed the cafeteria the following night, when the restaurant’s windows were smashed again. Unlike the Stonewall riots, the situation at Compton’s was somewhat organized—many picketers were members of militant queer groups like the Street Orphans and Vanguard.
Also, the city’s response was quite different from the reaction in New York: A network of social, mental and medical support services was established, followed in 1968 by the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, overseen by a member of the SFPD. Directors Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker’s recount the historic two-day incident in their 2005 film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.