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The Black Cat: Harbinger of LGBTQ Civil Rights

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Films from "Curating the City: LGBTQ Historic Places in L.A." are produced by FORM follows FUNCTION and presented in partnership with the Los Angeles ConservancyThe Los Angeles Conservancy preserves the historic places that make Greater Los Angeles unique. They work through education and advocacy to raise awareness of our shared cultural heritage, prevent the needless destruction of significant sites and historic neighborhoods, empower people to save the places they love, and foster strong preservation laws and incentives.

A private, member-based nonprofit, the Conservancy works throughout L.A. County, spanning 88 cities as well as unincorporated areas.

The proposed demolition of the Los Angeles Central Library led to the Conservancy’s founding in 1978. What started as a handful of concerned citizens is now the largest local preservation group in the U.S., with more than 6,000 member households and hundreds of volunteers.

Over the course of the 20th century, Los Angeles played a significant role in the advancement of civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identified people, as well as in the shaping of a collective yet diverse community identity. Although events in cities like New York and San Francisco often overshadow the region’s history, residents of Greater Los Angeles have been instrumental in bringing LGBTQ experiences into the public consciousness.

Los Angeles formed the backdrop for two early LGBTQ protests in the decade before the more famous Stonewall uprising in New York City in 1969.

In 1959, transgender women and men clashed with law enforcement at Cooper’s Donuts on Main Street in response to relentless police harassment. The downtown coffee shop, which has since been demolished, was popular among officers with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as well the local transgender community during the 1950s. After officers targeted and arrested several patrons whose gender did not match their identification, the crowd resisted and fought back. The uprising ultimately forced closure of Main Street for a full day.

Eight years later, the Black Cat in the Silver Lake neighborhood became the site of what was, at the time, the largest documented LGBTQ civil rights demonstration in the nation, leading many to recognize it as the birthplace of a worldwide movement. The demonstration took place on Feb. 11, 1967, in response to a New Year’s Eve police raid at the popular gay bar weeks before. Hundreds gathered outside the bar in peaceful protest of police brutality and discriminatory laws and procedures.

Black Cat protests, 1967
Protests outside the Black Cat bar, Feb. 11, 1967. Photo courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. 

Located on Sunset Boulevard, the modest Art Deco building that houses the Black Cat was originally constructed as a Safeway grocery market in 1939. By the 1960s, it contained a gay bar and laundromat. The bar attracted a largely working-class clientele and was nestled among a number of businesses friendly to gay men and lesbians.

At the midnight celebration on Jan. 1, 1967, eight undercover police officers from the LAPD raided the bar just after midnight while patrons were exchanging celebratory kisses and embraces. During the struggle, patrons were beaten and dragged out of the bar and into the street.

Fourteen people were arrested and charged with assault and public lewdness. Some patrons managed to escape the chaos of the raid by running across the street and blending into the crowd at New Faces, another gay bar and later the site of Circus of Books.

Activist Wes Joe has advocated for the bar’s preservation. “There was quite a bit of chaos and pandemonium, but it was not a riot,” he recalls. “There was absolute chaos. There was real panic over what people saw was an assault by the LAPD.”

In 1967, LGBTQ people across the board lived under intimidation. At the time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the United States. Sex between two men was illegal in California, and a conviction of lewd conduct (for which kissing often sufficed) required registering as a sex offender. In addition to the criminalization of same-sex relations, the LGBTQ community faced tremendous harassment and oppression, particularly in Los Angeles from the LAPD.

In addition to the Cooper’s Donuts uprising, postwar Los Angeles had already seen a number of locally and nationally significant events in the advancement of LGBTQ civil rights. Yet the idea of a collective identity did not yet exist. 

The 1950s saw the formation of local groups such as the Mattachine Society, which focused on protecting and improving the rights of gay men. A 1964 article in Life magazine described Los Angeles as the birthplace of a new “homophile” movement. By the time of the Black Cat raid in 1967, Los Angeles was also witnessing the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement, which intersected with the broader civil rights organizing and youth counterculture of the 1960s.

The New Year’s Eve raid of the Black Cat represented a turning point for activists. Two organizations – Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE) and Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile (SCCRH) – came together to stage the unprecedented protest on Feb. 11, 1967, in response to the unprovoked police incursion.

Black Cat protests, 1967
Protests outside the Black Cat bar, Feb. 11, 1967. Photo courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. 
Black Cat protests, 1967
Protests outside the Black Cat bar, Feb. 11, 1967. Photo courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. 

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PRIDE, SCCRH, and others promoted the protest through the distribution of flyers and the use of phone trees in which one individual would call ten people, and they in turn would each relay the message to ten additional people, and so on.

The demonstration attracted nearly 600 people, who gathered in front of The Black Cat building in peaceful resistance. Activists called on LAPD to end entrapment, cease illegal searches, and respect the basic rights and dignity of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.

The 1967 protest at The Black Cat predated New York’s famed Stonewall Riots by two and a half years. While it involved fewer people and did not figure as prominently nationally, it represents one of the first instances when lesbian and gay activists bravely organized and stood up for their rights.

The events at The Black Cat had significant legal repercussions, as well.

Six of the 14 men arrested during the raid for exchanging New Year’s kisses were convicted of lewd conduct and were liable under California Penal Code Section 647 to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. Two were ultimately required under state law to register.

Both men appealed their convictions in federal court, ultimately petitioning the Supreme Court, which declined to consider their cases. In a departure from previous cases, their attorney, Herbert E. Selwyn, did not deny or cover up the sexual orientation of his clients, but instead claimed their right to equal treatment under the law and in the context of the larger civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was the first time in U.S. history that gay men asserted their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment – a legal argument that courts would only accept decades later.

Reflecting on the significance of the Black Cat today, Wes Joe maintains: “Hopefully people will realize that the LGBT movement came about all across the country. It had humble origins, just like all of the other civil rights of the 1960s. This was a working class bar at that time. That’s the origin of people’s rights today; it came from places like this.”

Since the raid and subsequent demonstration, The Black Cat has closed and reopened many times under various names such as the Bushwhacker, Basgo’s Disco, and Le Barcito.

In 2008, The Black Cat was designated as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument for its early and significant role in the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Through the efforts of Wes Joe and other community advocates, it became the first building in Los Angeles to be landmarked solely for its LGBTQ history. 

The designation came at a time when a number of significant LGBTQ historic places were threatened or lost before their stories could be fully understood and valued. The building reopened under the Black Cat name in 2012 as a gastropub that primarily caters to a young and diverse clientele.