Before the Stonewall Riots, the Gay Rights Movement Was Born in Silver Lake

A demonstration outside City Hall in June
A demonstration outside City Hall in June
Brian Feinzimer/L.A. Weekly

This month will mark the 50th anniversary of the first gay rights demonstration in the United States. It wasn't New York's Stonewall Uprising of 1969. It was the lesser-known Black Cat protests of 1967.

Following a New Year's Eve celebration at that Silver Lake tavern, undercover cops arrested 14 people and cited men for lewd conduct because they were kissing, historians say. Weeks later, in February 1967, LGBT protesters based in Silver Lake, Echo Park and beyond fought back with demonstrations outside the bar, launching the gay rights movement in the United States. The protests inspired the founding of The Advocate , the nation's premier LGBT publication.

On Feb. 11, LGBT activists will celebrate the movement's 50-year anniversary at the site of the original protests.

"L.A. has been at the forefront of the gay rights movement, but it hasn't gotten the attention it deserves for it," anniversary organizer Daniel Henning says. "Almost every single person I've told the Black Cat story to has never heard it."

Why has Stonewall dominated the narrative? UCLA history professor Eric Avila blames "writers and journalists" who buy into "a New York–centric view of the world."

The Big Apple has laid claim to the first graffiti art, even though Mexican-Americans have been writing on walls in L.A. since the early decades of the 20th century. And histories of U.S. electronic dance music often point to Brooklyn's Storm Raves as stateside pioneers when Brits in L.A. were producing raves before those, in the late 1980s. New York has even tried to challenge Southern California supremacy when it comes to skateboarding history.

The activists planning to congregate outside the Black Cat next weekend, who will be using the hashtag #BlackCat67 to mark the occasion, aren't going to let New York claim the origins of the LGBT revolution.

"Los Angeles and the 13th Council District have been ground zero for some of the most important events in LGBT history, especially the watershed Black Cat protests that took place right here in Silver Lake 50 years ago," City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell said in a statement. "It wasn't that long ago that people like me were targeted by the police for being true to ourselves. Lives were ruined, and a whole class of people was marginalized."

UCLA's Avila says via email that before West Hollywood or San Francisco's Castro district became synonymous with gay communities, Los Angeles "already supported a thriving and self-aware gay community."

"This community organized itself publicly, in opposition to police harassment and oppression," he says, "and in doing so initiated what was later recognized as the modern gay civil rights movement."

Feb. 11's festivities start at 8 p.m. and are scheduled to include a dance party and performances by Celebration Theatre and activist Michael Kearns.


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