Cooper Do-nuts Riot
|Cooper Do-nuts Riot|
|Part of events leading to the|
Gay liberation movement
Cooper Do-nuts, Los Angeles, USA
|Goals||Gay liberation and LGBT rights in the United States|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
|Part of a series on|
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 as the first modern LGBT uprising in the United States.
Homosexuality in 20th-century United States
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.
- 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. 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.
- 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.
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. 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. It is within this environment that the Cooper Do-nuts Riot took place.
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. 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. For this reason, many gay bars were hostile to transgender patrons and banned or discouraged them from entering.
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."
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. 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.
Response by LGBTQ patrons
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. People then took to rioting in the streets and police backup arrived blocking off the street for the entire night and arresting several people.
The Cooper Do-nuts uprising is often believed to be the first gay uprising in the United States. 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."
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.
- List of LGBT actions in the United States prior to the Stonewall riots
- Compton's Cafeteria riot (1966)
- Black Cat Tavern riot (1967)
- Stonewall riots (1969)
- 10 Years Before Stonewall, There Was the Cooper's Donuts Riot
- Mapping Los Angeles's groundbreaking role in LGBT history
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