With June comes national LGBT Pride Month — commemorating the June 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. The riots that night lasted for several days, kick-starting a movement that blossomed in big and small cities across the U.S.
There’s no doubt that Stonewall and the community’s reaction to it was a huge catalyst for community organizing. In the few years following the riots, more community organizing took place than in probably the previous two decades combined. And Stonewall brought us a community-wide tradition — our annual Pride parades and festivals — which began with the very first Christopher Street Liberation Day March in June 1970, marking the first anniversary of Stonewall.
But Stonewall certainly wasn’t the first iconic or historic LGBT rights demonstration or event. Several important events of note preceded Stonewall, themselves laying a groundwork for future mobilization and organizing. Here’s a look at two of them…
The Annual Reminder
Organized on July 4, 1965, the Annual Reminder began first as a simple protest. Early homophile organizations led by early activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings wanted to publicly demonstrate for their equality — right on the most meaningful day in America’s civic calendar and at the very spot where the equality of all mankind was declared: Independence Hall.
Their 1965 protest became the first public demonstration for gay and lesbian equality in the U.S. and, with 40 protesters, the largest demonstration for gay rights in world history, hailed today as the “beginning” of the LGBT civil rights movement by those organizing the 50th anniversary celebrations of the protests in Philadelphia, Penn., this year. (Learn more about the celebrations at lgbt50.org.)
The one-time protest in 1965 became an annual event, adopting the name the “Annual Reminder.” The last event was held on July 4, 1965, just days after the Stonewall Riots. The next year, organizers picked up their protest signs and moved to New York City to join in on the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March.
Compton’s Cafeteria Riot
Overshadowed in LGBT history by the larger Stonewall events, the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in August 1966 is regarded as one of the first recorded demonstrations for transgender rights in the U.S. The cafeteria, located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, was a popular late-night hang out for drag queens, transgender community members and others, including street hustlers, the homeless and other members of the LGBT community.
On one late night, police came in and began to harass trans customers, as was common. But one trans customer had simply had enough. She threw hot coffee at the police officer and fighting broke out. The next night, others joined in a picket at the cafeteria, which by then was vowing never to allow transgender customers back into the establishment.
The riots at Compton’s Cafeteria didn’t spawn the kind of nationwide organizing that Stonewall did, but it had a tremendous effect and legacy in San Francisco, including the creation of a network of social groups, mental health groups and support services. In 1968, the organizing culminated in the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit. Police behavior also changed in the wake of the riot, with law enforcement harassment of transgender people in the city reducing.
A common thread: Police harassment
In recent years, our contemporary politics have been rocked by repeated reports of police harassment and killings of unarmed black men. The renewed attention and focus on the disproporinately poor treatment by police of people of color have rocked friendships and created divides. Many LGBT people of color and their allies have insisted the issue should be heralded by LGBT organizations. And a look at LGBT history shows a common thread in our own early activism — when police harassment was an everyday fact of life for LGBT people.
Of 23 documented pre-Stonewall actions and protests, the earliest were solely focused on police harassment and the most iconic almost always focused on police raids at gay bars. Of course, the most famous of all riots — Stonewall — was itself a reaction to police abuse, raids, wrongful arrests, violence and harassment. : :