Cooper Do-nuts Riot

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Cooper Do-nuts Riot
Part of events leading to the
Gay liberation movement
A black and white photograph of Cooper Donuts, with several men sitting with their back to glass doors. Text painted on the window reads "A cup of delicious coffee and fresh donut, 10 cents"
10 years before the better known Stonewall Uprising, the patrons of an LGBTQ friendly Los Angeles Cafe rioted in response to attempted arrests and scare tactics by the police
DateMay 1959
Cooper Do-nuts, Los Angeles, USA
GoalsGay liberation and LGBT rights in the United States
Parties to the civil conflict
Los Angeles Police Department
Patrons of Cooper Do‑nuts cafe

The Cooper Do-nuts Riot was a small uprising in response to police harassment of LGBT people at the 24-hour Cooper Do-nuts cafe in Los Angeles in May 1959. This occurred 10 years prior to the better known Stonewall riots in New York City and is viewed by some historians[citation needed] as the first modern LGBT uprising in the United States.


Homosexuality in 20th-century United States[edit]

Gay Americans in the 1950s and 1960s faced an anti-gay legal system. Very few establishments welcomed gay people in the 1950s and 1960s. Those that did were often bars, although bar owners and managers were rarely gay. This environment was driven by several factors.

  1. Political climate. Spurred by the national emphasis on anti-communism following World War II, Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted hearings searching for communists and other security risks in U.S. government offices and institutions, leading to a national paranoia. Anarchists, communists, and other people deemed un-American and subversive were considered security risks. Gay men and lesbians were included in this list by the U.S. State Department on the theory that they were susceptible to blackmail.[1] Between 1947 and 1950, 1,700 federal job applications were denied, 4,380 people were discharged from the military, and 420 were fired from their government jobs for being suspected homosexuals.[2]
  2. Psychiatric practice. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a mental disorder, a classification which remained until 1974.[3]

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and police departments kept lists of known homosexuals, their favored establishments, and friends; the U.S. Post Office kept track of addresses where material pertaining to homosexuality was mailed.[4] State and local governments followed suit: bars catering to gay men and lesbians were shut down, and their customers were arrested and exposed in newspapers. Cities performed "sweeps" to rid neighborhoods, parks, bars, and beaches of gay people. They outlawed the wearing of opposite gender clothes, and universities expelled instructors suspected of being homosexual.[5] It is within this environment that the Cooper Do-nuts Riot took place.

Cooper Do-nuts[edit]

Cooper Do-nuts was a cafe on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles between two gay bars, Harold's and the Waldorf, and was a popular hangout for gay people.[6][7] At the time, Los Angeles law made it illegal for a person's gender presentation not to match the gender shown on their ID, and this was often used to target and arrest transgender patrons.[8] For this reason, many gay bars were hostile to transgender patrons and banned or discouraged them from entering.[9]

Cooper Do-nuts was welcoming to the gay community and this made it a target for police harassment. Many LGBT customers had been taken into custody before. Novelist John Rechy, who was present at the riots, described the routine arrests in his 1963 novel, City of Night: “They interrogate you, fingerprint you without booking you: an illegal L.A. cop-tactic to scare you from hanging around."[10]


Attempted arrests[edit]

One evening in May 1959, two police officers entered the cafe and asked for IDs from several patrons, a typical form of harassment. The officers attempted to arrest two drag queens, two male sex workers, and a gay man.[11] One of those arrested was novelist John Rechy, who describes the Los Angeles Police Department's abuse on this night as a culmination of routine targeting of the LGBTQ community.[12]

Response by LGBTQ patrons[edit]

One of those arrested protested the lack of room in the police car and onlookers began throwing assorted coffee, donuts, cups, and trash at the police until they fled in their car without making the arrests.[9] People then took to rioting in the streets and police backup arrived blocking off the street for the entire night and arresting several people.[13]

The Cooper Do-nuts uprising is often believed to be the first gay uprising in the United States.[14] Some historians contest the significance, claiming that anyone who was openly gay at the time was in rebellion and risking arrest and imprisonment. Mark Thompson, a historian who lived in the same area as Rechy, wrote: "I would not describe it as a riot but more like an isolated patch of local social unrest that had lasting repercussions. I think less in its day, more as a lesson for us today."[15]


Although these events are little remembered today, they contextualize the fight for LGBT rights and remind us the struggle was not limited to one city and one event. The Cooper Do-nuts riot and many other events helped pave the way for Stonewall and for all the victories the community has seen since.[9]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Edsall, Nicholas C. (2003). Toward Stonewall : homosexuality and society in the modern western world. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. ISBN 978-0-8139-2396-3. OCLC 811406152.
  2. ^ Johnson, David K. (January 2004). The lavender scare : the Cold War persecution of gays and lesbians in the federal government. Chicago. ISBN 0-226-40481-1. OCLC 52197376.
  3. ^ Mayes, Rick; Bagwell, Catherine; Erkulwater, Jennifer L. (2009). "The Transformation of Mental Disorders in the 1980s: The DSM-III, Managed Care, and "Cosmetic Psychopharmacology"". Medicating Children: ADHD and Pediatric Mental Health. Harvard University Press. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-674-03163-0. Retrieved April 7, 2019.
  4. ^ Edsall 2003, p. 278.
  5. ^ Adam, Barry D. (1987). The rise of a gay and lesbian movement. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-9714-9. OCLC 14904421.
  6. ^ Faderman, Lillian; Timmons, Stuart (2 October 2006). Gay L. A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. Basic Books. pp. 1–8. ISBN 046502288X. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  7. ^ "Opinion | Milestones in the American Transgender Movement". The New York Times. 2015-05-18. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  8. ^ Avery, Dan. "5 Pre-Stonewall Events That Shaped the LGBT Community: Trailblazers". New Now Next. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  9. ^ a b c Lilly, Christiana (30 September 2016). "Los Angeles' Cooper Donuts gay riots sparked a revolution 10 years before Stonewall". The Pride LA. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  10. ^ James, Scott (2019-06-20). "What Was Your Stonewall? Pivotal L.G.B.T.Q. Moments Across the U.S." The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  11. ^ Springate, Megan E. (2016). LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History (PDF). National Park Foundation. p. 18:29. Retrieved 9 July 2017.
  12. ^ "Queer history was made at Cooper's Donuts in Los Angeles | Q Voice News". Q Voice News. 2018-05-03. Retrieved 2018-07-20.
  13. ^ Faderman, Lillian (27 September 2016). The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (Reprint ed.). Simon & Schuster. pp. 115–116. ISBN 978-1451694123. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  14. ^ Faderman, Lillian; Timmons, Stuart (2006). Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. New York, NY: Basic Books. pp. 2. ISBN 978-0-465-02288-5.
  15. ^ "Los Angeles' Cooper Donuts gay riots sparked a revolution 10 years before Stonewall - The Pride LA". The Pride LA. 2016-09-30. Retrieved 2018-07-20.