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Restaurants and bars were flash points for the LGBTQ+ protest and uprising

Private businesses open to the public have a long history as flash points for civil rights movements. 

Before the popular actions of the LGBTQ liberation movement in the late 1960’s onward, city, county, and state police across the United States used liquor laws, which prohibited establishments “injurious to public morals,” as a pretext to raid bars where gay people would meet. 

McCarthyite officials in the ‘50s added an almost obsessive zeal to these raiding programs, vowing to reveal the identities of homosexuals who were considered a “threat” to national and local security in a period historians now call the “Lavender Scare.” 

“It’s an easy target. It’s a vulnerable target. They make their names on our backs,” Dave Hayward, an LGBTQ historian, said. “It’s not about morality, it’s about money.”

Police agencies sought to entrap LGBTQ people across the country and punish them under anti-sodomy laws, or laws against “lascivious acts.” 

Richard Rhodes, a gay activist, Navy veteran, and Georgia political figure, was forced to escape from Florida after being ratted out to investigators of the state’s anti-gay John’s Commission, according to Hayward. 

Rhodes fled to upstate New York in the 1950’s, and didn’t tell his family for years because, “they were law abiding citizens,” and would tell the police, Hayward said. 

Diamond Lil, an iconic Atlanta drag performer, was discharged from the National Guard, and after numerous arrests for her performances for sailors docked at the city’s harbor, “was literally run out of Savannah,” Hayward said. 

The violent, anti-gay policing made gay people around the United States into refugees. 

“When you talk to other minority groups, they talk about being shit upon when they leave the community, but they get to return to the community,” Hayward said.  “Gay people couldn’t do that.”

Often gay people would end up in bigger cities like Los Angeles, San Fransisco, New York City Chicago, Washington D.C., and Atlanta where they could live more under the radar of surveillance. 

Groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) formed, at first in secret, to try to negotiate with people in powerful positions to stop the practice of discrimination based on sexual orientation, but activists opted for a public approach after progress proved slow. 

The riot that was sparked by a 1969 police raid on The Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood has received much public attention in recent years, but historians have cataloged numerous other consumer demonstrations that have faded from public memory. 

Marc Stein, a historian and professor at San Francisco State University, said participants in the Black civil rights movement often targeted restaurants, bars, and similar businesses for direct actions.

“I see LGBTQ protests coming out of the same tradition,” Stein said. “They knew about African American protests.. and were inspired by them.”

Black, lesbian activist Ernestine Extine had even been trained by members the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and participated in direct actions while in college in Indiana in the early 1960s.

One of the earliest queer consumer demonstrations was a series of sit-ins at Dewey’s Lunch Counter in Philadelphia in 1965.

Dewey’s was “not fancy, not expensive,” Stein said. “It was a place to get warm and have coffee, grab a quick bite,” which made the location near the Gay Village a popular hangout for younger LGBTQ people. 

The store management put a ban on, “homosexuals, masculine women, feminine men, and people wearing nonconformist clothing,” and had denied about 150 people service. 

Three people, two men and one woman, according to Stein, staged a sit in and were arrested, along with Clark Polak, who had offered to get the three a lawyer as they were dragged out of the restaurant by police. 

Polak, a member of The Janus Society, was, “one of the most militant gay activists of the era,” Stein said, and helpped the demonstrators organize a picket outside Dewey’s that soon led to the reversal of the policy against LGBTQ people. 

In April of 1966, Mattachine Society member Dick Lietsch organized a “Sip-in” in New York City, in which he intended to get denied service as a homosexual in order to challege a local liquor ordinance in court. 

Leitsch and other members were followed by reporters from The New York Times and The Village Voice who recorded the scene when Leitsch announced “we are homosexuals” to the bartender at Julius, a bar in Greewich Village. 

In August of 1966 there was a “simmering conflict” between customers and management at a Gene Compton’s Cafeteria location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, a well-known “red light district,” according to historian and professor Susan Stryker. 

“Gene Compton’s was a really popular local chain of 24/7, always open eateries,” Stryker said.  “I think of them as clean, well-lit, places to get cheap food anytime of the day.”

The location at the corner of Turk and Taylor was a popular hangout for Trans folks, queer street kids, and people looking to party or buy drugs in the neighborhood. 

“It had these big, plate-glass windows, and you could look out and see what was going on,” Stryker said. “Transwomen would go there and keep an eye on the street, show off a new boyfriend, or wear a new outfit, or bring their trick there for breakfast in the morning after.” 

When the newer managers of the store hired security guards, and implemented a service charge to enter the restaurant, neighborhood locals organized a picket outside the restaurant. 

According to Stryker:

“In the middle of this sort of escalating conflict, [the] San Francisco Police Department made a street sweep. They were just going out and rounding up people on the streets who they were, charging with so-called nuisance crimes. They came into Compton’s, and tried to arrest some of the trans-feminine people who were there and who really had nowhere else to go. One of the Queens, as they were described at the time …said, like, hell no, and threw her cup of coffee in the face of the cop who was trying to arrest her. Everything just blew up. The patrons started throwing trays and knives and forks and plates and cups at the cops, driving them back out onto the streets. They took the sugar shakers off the table, and threw them through the plate glass windows. I think about 165 people in that room just kind of boiling out onto the streets. The police called on reinforcements. People in the neighborhood started swarming the corner at the intersection of Turk and Taylor. There was fighting all up and down the streets. The police vans pulled up. Cops are cracking people’s heads. The Queen’s are taking off their stiletto heeled shoes and their purses loaded down with bricks and whatever and fighting back against the cops who were fighting them.”

A wave of LGBTQ activism followed the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, including a “sweep-in” neighborhood clean-up organized by a local group, Vanguard, and push to get medical support services for trans people. 

Demonstrations following the Compton’s uprising often focused on bars and clubs which had become important spaces for LGBTQ people who had few alternatives for “out” gathering spaces. 

“When you compare the gay rights movement to the [Black] civil rights movement, the bars are our churches,” Hayward said. “Bars are our ground zero. That’s where we organized.”

A raid on New Year’s Eve 1966 of The Black Cat, a bar in the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles, in which police beat and arrested LGBTQ people for kissing, prompted a 200 person protest in 1967 organized by Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE)

Later that year, Los Angeles police raided a performance by Sir Lady Java at the Redd Foxx club, which inspired a picket outside the club (seemingly with the blessing of Foxx himself), and a case that was eventually rejected by the court.

It wasn’t until the Stonewall Riot that the movement would gain broad national attention, inspiring a wave of national activism into the ‘70s and beyond. 

In 1970, students in Chicago protested a city ordinance against same-sex dancing by organizing a 2,000 person dance at the Chicago Coliseum, that sprouted a picket outside The Normandy Inn a few days later. 

Hayward, while at school at Georgetown, was part of a picket outside the Lost and Found club in Washington D.C. in protest of the club’s discrimination against Black people and lesbians in 1971. 

An anti-gay raid on the Ansley Park Mini-Cinema in Atlanta led to the organization of the city’s first gay pride march. 

The march was denied a parade permit (the Georgia chapter of the ACLU refused to help organizers secure one), and forced to march on the sidewalk, stopping at traffic lights along the whole route. 

“I have the distinction of being ejected from the Sweet Gum Head and the Cove bar in 1972, for leafleting about Atlanta Gay Pride,” Hayward said in an email. 

It’s unclear how often service workers played a supportive role in these consumer demonstrations. 

With some notable exceptions, like the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, the labor movement was largely anemic to supporting LGBTQ causes before the 1970s. 

“A lot of times there’s a more intense prejudice among blue collar people,” Hayward said.  “That’s always been a real challenge in allying with the labor movement.”

Stryker said a night manager at Compton’s was a gay man that would let some of the late-hour shenanigans at the restaurant slide, but had passed away before May of 1966. 

The lack of support from workers may have been a factor in sparking the uprising that followed.

Foxx was clearly at least a tacit supporter of drag/trans entertainers, as he was open to being photographed in Jet Magazine in support of Sir Lady Java. 

The owner of the Ansley Park Mini-Cinema, George Ellis, was also a supporter of entertainment for the gay community, as the theater was often raided for showing films like I Am Curious Yellow and I Am Curious Blue which “had full frontal male nudity,” Hayward said. 

“[Ellis] was an ally before we had any allies at all,” Hayward said. 

In general, though, there was a lack of solidarity between the labor movement and the LGBTQ liberation movement, just as there was with the Black liberation movement. 

In many ways the lack of interplay allowed all three movements to be co-opted by the United States’s broader capitalist, imperialist project. 

“Things that start as resistance I think get folded into existing relations of power, precisely to the extent that they fail to critique the sort of deeper levels of power. It’s kind of like, can we make prisons better, rather than can we abolish prisons. Can we have our own neighborhood rather than have liberation for everyone,” Stryker said. “It’s the problem of liberal complicity rather than radical resistance, or truly envisioning what transformational social justice would entail.”