Many view the Stonewall riots, in June of 1969, as the starting point in the modern day fight for LGBT rights in the United States. It is such a famous historical event that countless books and movies have been made documenting it, and in some cases fictionalizing it. The site was made a national monument earlier this year.
While the importance of that action cannot be stressed enough, it was by no means the first important one in the fight for LGBT rights in America. The following are just some of the sit-ins, protests and spontaneous acts of rebellion which also stand as key moments where activists stood up and said enough is enough.
The beginning: 1959 – 1964
Finding places of community where LGBT people could feel safe to be themselves and be together without harassment was a constant challenge in the early days of the fight for rights. Late night diners and coffee shops often offered places of respite for those who had nowhere else to go. So when police would go after the customers of these establishments, sometimes with the aid of the owners or managers themselves, chaos could ensue.
One such incident occurred in May of 1959 in Los Angeles, Calif., at Cooper’s Donuts. When police began harassing gay men, some in drag, they fought back, throwing coffee cups and donuts at the officers. The Los Angeles Police Department called for backup and several arrests were made.
Another small scale riot took place in San Francisco, Calif., in December of 1964, when the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which joined gay activists and religious leaders together in the fight for LGBT rights, held a costume party at California Hall on Polk Street in San Francisco. When the San Francisco Police Department caught wind of the fundraiser, they tried to shut it down. When that proved unsuccessful, the San Francisco Police Department arrested some of the clergy present, as well as the ticket takers.
More organized protests also began happening at this time, such as what is considered to be the first gay rights demonstration in the U.S. In September of 1964, a small group of activists picketed the Whitehall Street Induction Center over the violation of the confidentiality of gay men’s draft records.
A few months later, several activists picketed a lecture by a psychoanalyst who was espousing the then popular view that homosexuality was a mental illness. The four demonstrators were given 10 minutes to make a rebuttal to this claim.
Growing more organized, leading up to Stonewall: 1965 – 1969
The first actions, both spontaneous and planned, woke up the community as to what was possible.
In April of 1965, protesters picketed the White House over the United States’ treatment of LGBT people, and the United Nations over Cuba placing gay people into forced labor camps. Protests continued in Washington in the coming years, with the last White House picket occurring in October 1965 after it was determined that doing so had begun to lose its effectiveness.
Also in 1965, the East Coast Homophile Organization (ECHO) organized a picket in Philadelphia, Pa., at Independence Hall, where both the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted. It would continue for the next four years and become known as the Annual Reminder. In 1970, they organized the Christopher Street Liberation Day, to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
The following year, simultaneous demonstrations took place for Armed Forces Day in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Also in 1966, the “sip-ins” took place in New York City, challenging a law that made it illegal for bartenders to serve known homosexuals. Activists went into bars, announced that they were gay and then asked to be served. They eventually found a bar unwilling to serve them. The action worked, as the city’s human rights commission declared the law discriminatory and ruled that it must come to an end.
Later in the year, Mattachine Midwest picketed the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times for ignoring press material and refusing advertising from the organization.
Police raids and harassment continued, and spurred both spontaneous and planned actions, such as at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and at gay bars The Black Cat Tavern and New Faces in Los Angeles.
In 1969, there were two notable pickets against the firing of employees over their orientation, or perceived orientation. Activist and journalist Gale Whittington was fired by the States Steamship Company after coming out in print and Tower Records fired Frank Denaro because they believed him to be gay. He was eventually reinstated.
All of these moments played a pivotal role in allowing the Stonewall riots to be the flashpoint it is heralded as being, forging the path for a fight that continues to this day.