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Arts and Entertainment

A Landmark Gay Rights Protest Happened 50 Years Ago In Silver Lake

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December 31, 1966. It's New Year's Eve. A group of revelers—most of them gay men—are gathered at The Black Cat in Silver Lake. They are drinking, dancing, carousing, all the usual things that people do during the twilight minutes of a passing year. Once the clock ticks to midnight, some of the patrons hug and kiss as a gaggle of balloons rain down on them from above.

Unbeknownst to them, the bar had been infiltrated by undercover LAPD officers. And it was just a few minutes into the new year that these officers would announce themselves, with other uniformed policemen storming the premises. The scene turned violent—several patrons reporting significant injuries afterward. And several men were arrested, with two of them later convicted for "lewd conduct" for kissing other men, which also meant they had to register as sex offenders—a mark that would remain with them for the rest of their lives.

On Saturday, The Black Cat (now a restaurant, after the space went through several iterations over the decades) will look back at that tumultuous incident. The event, scheduled to kick off at 8 p.m., will include guest speakers, a demonstration march, and good ol', all-purpose partying (set "to sounds of the 60’s and contemporary anthems," according to planners).

As suggested by the festive Facebook page, the focus won't be on the strife and confusion and violence. Rather, the event will commemorate the defiant response that was launched six weeks after the raid; members of Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE) staged a peaceful protest outside of the bar on February 11, with more than 200 people taking to the sidewalks to hand out leaflets and brandish signs.

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"I think I'm safe in saying that the Black Cat was the first demonstration in which hundreds of gay people appeared on the streets to demand that they be treated like American citizens."

The action was one of the first organized demonstrations for gay rights to have taken place in U.S. history. According to Lillian Faderman, who co-authored Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians with the late Stuart Timmons, small-scale rallies for gay rights had taken place before, but the protest outside the Black Cat was a first of its kind. "I think I'm safe in saying that the Black Cat was the first demonstration in which hundreds of gay people appeared on the streets to demand that they be treated like American citizens," Faderman said to LAist.

Certainly, it's hard to truly appreciate what had taken place half a century ago. Today, Angelenos may see protesting as a necessary act of recourse. But this was 1967 we're talking about. Cary Harrison, an advisor to The Lavender Effect, an organization that archives LBGTQ history, told KPCC that this was a time in L.A. when "the cops would come up and look at your driver's license. And if you didn't match the description on your driver's license; maybe your hair was combed a little too neatly, for whatever your gender might or might not say you are, they would beat you up and arrest you. This was common."

Alexei Romanoff, one of the last living participants from the protest, also recalled the unabashed violence that police had been exacting on innocents. Regarding the Black Cat incident, he said in L.A. A Queer History, a documentary, that some patrons from the tavern ran over to the nearby New Faces bar (which later became Circus of Books) in search of shelter from the assault. Policemen soon walked in and, mistaking a woman for a man dressed in drag, "grabbed her and beat her and they broke her collarbone." Romanoff added that they "pulled the bartender over the bar and they ruptured his spleen."

Which is to say that the Black Cat demonstrators weren't just facing the possibility of retaliation—any sensible person might think it was imminent, and yet hundreds had showed up to address an injustice.

The demonstration, as it turned out, managed to skirt violence. “We were very orderly,” Romanoff said in an interview with WeHoVille. “It was an angry demonstration—but orderly.” There was a prevailing sense of circumspection, too, as the specter of law enforcement loomed. For instance, a dropped leaflet would be snatched up immediately, so as to avoid giving officers any reason to arrest people. PRIDE members also refrained from revealing the group's name, and the demonstrators made a point of sticking to the sidewalk.

While The Black Cat served as the hub, other protests around the city were also planned to happen simultaneously; demonstrations were slated for Venice, Watts, Pacoima and Boyle Heights. According to WeHoVille, the attempt to stage multiple rallies was done to spread out the police force, so that no single protest would face the full brunt of punishment. These efforts are all the more impressive when you recall that the '60s were a long way off from Mark Zuckerberg; organizers had to roll up their shirtsleeves and take part in a "phone tree," meaning one person would call ten people, with the responders calling another ten each.


(Courtesy of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries)
The response went beyond the demonstration. There was also the case of Charles Talley and Benny Baker, the two men who were convicted after the raid. They would appeal their cases based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—a daunting task, as even the act of obtaining legal counsel was a big hurdle. "In those days, for a lawyer to represent gays, people would think they were gay, and that frightened a lot of lawyers," Herb Selwyn, a (heterosexual) lawyer who represented the pair, told the L.A. Times.While a groundswell of support raised a lofty sum for the men's legal fees, and while the men had landed an attorney willing to represent them, and while the case got sent to the highest court in the nation, it all fell apart at the crucial moment: The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it. "Unfortunately, the court wasn't ready for that," said Selwyn.

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The effort wasn't in vain, however. As historian David Farah (he's also Romanoff's husband) told Thirsty In LA, the court case, much like the demonstration, had set a precedence.

“That was the first time in the history of the U.S. that gay men, homosexuals, stated in a court case that they were equal under the Constitution. Before that you would pay it off on a lesser charge, or say you were trapped, or ‘we didn’t do it.’ This is the first time that they actually defended—and lost—but defended, saying the Constitution of the United States applies to gay men equally as it does to straight men. That had never happened before." [Actually, as Faderman tells LAist, the court case involving ONE Magazine in 1958 was probably the first time the constitution was used to argue for the rights of homosexuals. While that case was based on the First Amendment, Talley and Baker's case likely marked the first time that the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection) was used in defense of gay men.]

Considering all the trail-blazing that had gone on at The Black Cat, it's curious that the incident isn't as well-cited. Many point to the fact that the Stonewall Riots, which happened two years later in New York City, is more popularized as the flashpoint for gay rights protests. The History Channel says that the incident is "regarded by many as history’s first major protest on behalf of equal rights for homosexuals."

What happened at the Stonewall Inn bar was that, on June 28, 1969, policemen stormed into the establishment with an order to bust the owner for not having a liquor license. The patrons felt that the order was largely a ruse, and that gay bars had been unfairly targeted in a series of stings. As the officers began arresting people, a revolt broke out, with patrons throwing objects at the policemen, and passersby joining in on the fray. In a moment of stark irony, some of the officers were forced to take shelter in the Stonewall Inn. The riots would last almost a week.


(Courtesy of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries)
On the surface, it seems as if many of the details are similar to the Black Cat incident. So why is Stonewall more prevalent in our collective consciousness? Perhaps it had to do with the Stonewall incident being more outwardly dramatic—what with the constant barrage of thrown objects, and the days-long resistance—and thus easier to package as a tale of rebellion (it was, indeed, turned into a 2015 Roland Emmerich movie that was, uh, problematic). Which is to say that it's easier for people to remember a riot than a peaceful demonstration.

As Romanoff told Thirsty In L.A., there was a reason why the demonstrators had stuck with a (comparatively) quiet protest, rather than stage a more forceful pushback. "After what had happened to the anti-war demonstrators three months earlier on the Sunset Strip, we didn’t want to give them any ability to attack us, because they would at that point," said Romanoff. "[Police] felt, we’ve got Ronald Reagan in the state mansion as governor and we’d be free to do anything. And that’s what gave the emphasis to that."

Faderman also believes that the layout of L.A. was a major factor in shaping the Black Cat event. "I really think the topography of Los Angeles, compared to Greenwich Village, has a lot to do with it," said Faderman. "You just have more people walking in Greenwich. So Stonewall starts, and you have a few people throwing copper pennies at the police, and then another person throws a brick. And there are other people walking by, and there are other people in nearby gay bars, and they all come join." This, says Faderman, was why Stonewall was able to swell into an prolonged fervor of chaos and resistance. Such an impromptu and concentrated reaction is less likely to take place in a "driving centered" city like Los Angeles. "Even when the hundreds of protestors had taken to the sidewalks, they were handing out leaflets to mostly motorists," said Faderman.

Because the Black Cat demonstration was less theatrical, the Stonewall Riots have come to the forefront in the narrative of gay rights in America. Faderman says that "the Black Cat has been virtually forgotten outside of Los Angeles," adding that Barack Obama, in his second inauguration address, mentioned Stonewall alongside Seneca Falls and Selma.

Whatever the reasons for the Black Cat's relative obscurity, the history has been preserved throughout the decades in the sun-dappled spread of Silver Lake. In 2014, the restaurant was fitted with a plaque that commemorated the protests. Inside, framed photos of the demonstrators are hung on the walls. And, according to co-owner Lindsay Kennedy, Romanoff drops by the restaurant twice a year to educate the employees on the history of the space. "I've heard him tell the same story a dozen times, and I never get tired of it. It's always moving and poignant," Kennedy told LAist.

The preservation of the history is significant in more ways than one; not only does it keep alive the spirit of the demonstrations, it also recalls a Silver Lake that was once a major hub for L.A.'s gay community. The gay bookstore Circus of Books (formerly New Faces) is gone, and so are the legions of gay bars that had once covered the neighborhood. Much of Silver Lake's past, then, lives on in lore. "We sort of serve as caretakers for the stories," said Kennedy, speaking on the 1967 protest. "I feel it's our obligation to let everyone that works here, and ideally everyone who dines here, to know what had happened. And the pictures tend to spark conversation. People ask us what they're about."

Will the Black Cat protest ever gain the wider attention it deserves? It may seem unlikely, as it's already been 50 years, we still haven't gotten that Roland Emmerich movie (not that we want one). But for many familiar with the protest, its footnote status doesn't detract from the fact of its existence. "The Black Cat certainly needs to be remembered, because it was the first time that that many people stood together in public for gay rights. They said 'We're not taking this anymore. This is not right. We are American citizens. We protest,'" said Faderman.

The Black Cat is at 3909 Sunset Blvd, Silver Lake, (323) 661-6369.