“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
– Oscar Wilde –
Before the Stonewall riots there was The Black Cat riot. The Black Cat was a gay bar on Sunset Boulevard in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles in the 60s, and its patrons rioted on New Year’s Eve in 1967, two and a half years before Stonewall.
The riot at The Black Cat in 1966-1967 is a point of pride for gay Angelenos: Before Stonewall, the persecuted gays of Los Angeles stood up to police abuse and fought back. They were there first. It was the true birth of the gay rights movement.
Reality is a little different, but when you say the name of a gay bar + riot gays nowadays immediately assume a protest. There WAS a protest–that much is well documented–but there probably was no riot.
Here is what happened. On New Year’s Eve 1966, the bar was crowded with patrons celebrating the new year. Around midnight, as the new year began, police raided the bar–as police around the world did so often in those days–and started arresting and beating patrons–as they did so often in those days.
If a riot took place that night it was very possibly the police who were rioting–as they did so often in those days. Of course, the police side of the story was different: the patrons rioted and so it was necessary to use force to suppress them. We will never know exactly who started what in such a chaotic scene but police in the 60s, and later, have been known to use excessive force on the public only to claim that they were merely defending themselves against out-of-control citizens. Given the long history of police to kick down the doors and beat the visitors to gay bars there is plenty of reason to believe that if anyone was rioting it was the police, or perhaps their heavy-handed tactics caused violent resistance. It was perhaps inevitable that frequent harassment of gay bars would eventually lead to resistance, especially in the turned up 60s.
On February 11, a little more than a month later, a demonstration attended by 200 people took place. The demonstration was organized by a group called PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) whose newspaper ultimately inspired The Advocate. The incident at The Black Cat did not kick off the gay rights movement, then, but it certainly contributed with what became the most well-known gay publication for decades.
The Black Cat has changed over the years. For a time it was a busy (and hot and sweaty) Latin bar called Le Barcito, which I visited a few times and which I miss. More recently it was renamed The Black Cat and turned into a mostly straight restaurant. Lately it seems closed, possibly one of many victims of Covid. There is a plaque on the wall commemorating the events of 1966-1967. You can see it if you visit LA’s remaining gay leather shop, Rough Trade, which is rigg next door.