The current events unfolding across America are both shocking and heartening to me. I am appalled by the police murder of George Floyd, as well as the somewhat less-publicized police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville back in March (not to mention the murder of Joel Acevedo in my home city of Milwaukee on April 19th by an off-duty police officer who somehow still hasn’t been fired despite being arrested for 1st degree murder). And I’m horrified by the willingness of the police to physically assault peaceful protestors in cities across the country, not to mention Trump’s repulsive photo-op in front of a church.
But I’m also sort of hopeful seeing how many tens of thousands of Americans are as horrified by these events as I am. So many white people seem to finally be starting to understand how badly the police treat black people and how ignorant white people can be of the suffering of their fellow Americans. There is much greater willingness to talk about over-due issues like ending cash bail, reducing police department budgets to direct resources to programs much more likely to reduce crime, and ending the sale of surplus military gear to police departments. I am heartened by the crowds of people willing to risk their bodies to stand up against injustice. Unconfirmed reports coming out of the White House say that the president’s internal polling show a disastrous collapse of his poll ratings, suggesting that the past two months are finally forcing many of his supporters to open their eyes to how unfit the man is for the office he holds. His gassing of peaceful clergy in the lead-up to his photo-op has shocked many more conservative Christians, and earned public rebukes from Washington DC’s Episcopalian and Catholic bishops.
But sadly, there are many who feel that protest riots are simply wrong, that ‘violence is never the answer’. This frustrates me a good deal, because the people who say these things failed to support the peaceful protests made by people like Colin Kaepernick in the past several years. On gay Twitter, there have been lots of gay men just blissfully going on as if nothing important was happening. I am by no means opposed to porn in the time of protests–I write porn after all, and I firmly believe that the life-affirming nature of sex and porn is a valuable form of self-care for those under stress. But this is Pride Month, so it seems like it’s time to take a detour out of kink and into a history of gay protests.
The first known gay riot occurred in 1959 at Cooper Do-Nuts on Skid Row in Los Angeles, a popular hang-out for lesbians, trans women, drag queens, and gay men. It was particularly popular with trans people and drag queens, because LA gay bars typically refused to admit cross-dressers for fear of attracting police attention. Two police officers entered and demanded to do an ID check, to see that everyone was wearing clothing appropriate to the sex on their IDs, since cross-dressing was a crime in that period. The police attempted to arrest five people, including two drag queens and two hustlers. One of the detainees became angry that the police were trying to force five people into the backseat of a single car and so he began to fight back. The police had harassed the clients of the cafe the night before, so an angry crowd of patrons began to throw coffee, cups, donuts, and garbage at the officers, forcing them to flee the scene without the detainees. Angry patrons then filled the street, forcing the police to close off the whole street for several hours before they could re-establish peace. The Cooper Do-Nuts Riot is generally considered the first example of LGBT resistance to police violence in US history, although it does not seem to have had long-term consequences.
Two years later, the Black Nite, a gay bar in Milwaukee, was the scene of a confrontation between gay men and a group of civilians intent on making trouble. The Black Nite was run by a straight man who intentionally created a welcoming space for Milwaukee’s furtive LGBT community, establishing a bar on the edge of the city’s run-down Third Ward warehouse district. On Aug 5th, 1961, four off-duty servicemen showed up at the Black Nite after drinking at a different bar. They were apparently looking for trouble. They refused to show any ID to the bouncer, who repeatedly refused to admit them. A brief brawl ensued in which one serviceman was knocked unconscious by black trans woman Josie Carter and wound up being taken to a hospital. The other three gathered a group of about a dozen fellow servicemen and decided to teach the patrons of the Black Nite a lesson. Unfortunately for them, by the time they came back, about 75 people had gathered in the bar, and the servicemen got the worst of the confrontation. One was thrown through a plate glass window and another knocked unconscious with a barstool. The police, surprisingly, took the side of the bar-goers and arrested four of the servicemen, saying that they had no business harassing the bar. Unfortunately, notoriously conservative judge Christ Seraphim dismissed all the charges, claiming there was insufficient evidence.
In Aug of 1966, a riot broke out at the all-night diner Compton’s Cafeteria in the San Francisco Tenderloin. The Tenderloin was home to a large number of seedy hotels that were some of the few places that would rent rooms to trans woman. Because it was extremely hard for trans women to find employment, many were forced to make their livings as prostitutes, and the all-night Compton’s diner was a good place for them to hang-out, although the management frequently harassed them. The diner imposed a service charge on trans women that was meant to discourage them from showing up.
This lead to a brief-lived picketing of the Cafeteria in which trans woman protested police harassment (as well as police shaking down the prostitutes for money). The picket failed to produce any changes, but a few nights later (some time in August, although the exact date is unknown), a policeman attempted to arrest one of the trans women, who responded by throwing coffee in his face. That triggered a brawl in which coffee cups, sugar shakers, and tables were hurled at the police and the Cafeteria’s plate-glass windows were shattered. As the struggle spilled out onto the street, a nearby newsstand was burned down. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot helped the trans community in San Francisco begin to coalesce and led to the formation of a series of social, psychological, and medical support services for trans people. Two years later, that culminated in the founding of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first trans counseling service in the world. The riot also prompted the city to begin treating trans people not as problems to be stamped out but as citizens with distinct needs.
Just a few months later, on New Years’ Eve, 1966, plain-clothes police officers infiltrated the Black Cat Tavern in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles, breaking up a party and beating patrons with nightsticks and pool cues; the bartender was dragged across the bar through broken glass. Police arrested fourteen. In February of the following year, a protest of the raid was held at the tavern that was attended by 200 people. The protest meeting ultimately let to the founding of what would become the Advocate, the country’s longest-running LGBT periodical.
In Aug of 1968, police raided the Patch, a bar in the Wilmington district of Los Angeles that was popular with gays and lesbians. A group of vice officers burst in, demanding to check IDs and arrested two men on charges of lewd conduct, although all they had done was purchase beer. The bar owner, Lee Glaze, upset over the constant harassment, jumped onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and triggered an impromptu protest. The remaining bar patrons marched to a nearby flower shop, where Glaze purchased all the flowers and distributed them to the patrons. Then they marched to the police precinct, where Glaze dramatically paid bail for the arrestees, while people brandished the flowers at the officers. One of the arrested men was the boyfriend of Rev. Troy Perry, a gay Pentecostal minister, who was so upset by the whole incident that he decided to found the Metropolitan Community Church, perhaps the first gay-affirming denomination in the world. It today has 222 member churches and an estimated 43,000 congregants world-wide.
The Stonewall Riots
Of course, on June 29th, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan resulted in the now-famous Stonewall Riots. The Stonewall Inn was seedy bar without a liquor license run by the Mafia. It was one of the few bars in Manhattan that would allow less-masculine presenting men into it, although it typically only admitted one or two drag queens or trans women at a time, in an effort to avoid police attention. It was also popular because it had a dance floor. On the 29th, a group of police officers led by Seymour Pine burst in and demanded to do ID checks. They detained five people for physical inspection by a police woman and forced the rest of the patrons to leave. Two of the five detainees were determined to be women (whether cis or trans is unclear) and were allowed to leave because they were wearing women’s clothing. The other three included trans woman Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman known as Maria (who was making her first public excursion in women’s clothing), and third person who is sometimes claimed to be Stormé Delarverie but who was probably a lesbian named Marilyn Fowler.
Johnson became angry at being detailed and hurled a shot glass at the mirror behind the bar, the first instance of outright resistance. About the same time, Fowler was being dragged out of the bar and shouted for the assembled crowd outside to help her. The police succeeded in forcing Fowler and Maria into the paddy wagon, although Maria was able to jump out and get away, and the wagon sped off as the crowd started throwing things. Outnumbered by the crowd, Pine and his remaining officers were forced to retreat into the Stonewall Inn and barricade themselves in. The crowd began throwing bricks at the building (the first brick being thrown by a Puerto Rican man named Gino) and then tore up a parking meter and used it as a make-shift battering ram on the bar’s door. The crowd lit garbage on fire and stuffed it into the bar through various cracks. Pine ordered one of the policewomen to crawl through an air duct to the roof, from whence she was able to get away and call for back-up.
When the police back-up did show up, they attempted to arrest members of the growing crowd, only to have them fight their way out of custody and an all-out brawl broke out, with protestors attacking the police to liberate captives. Many of the rioters took advantage of the area’s unusual street layout to outmaneuver the police. They formed Rockettes-style kick-lines and taunted the police into charging them, but when the police did charge, the line would break, scatter, run around the block and reform at the other end and then continue the mockery. That first night triggered an uprising tat lasted on and off for another four nights before coming to an end.
The Stonewall Riot was seminal. While earlier riots had galvanized small groups into taking various actions, Stonewall proved to be much larger and had longer-lasting consequences. Within just a few days of the Riots, LGBT people began forming organizations to demand rights for gays and lesbians. Less than a month after the Riots, a protest drew more than 500 participants. The Gay Liberation Front began holding dance parties and confronting politicians at public events. Another raid led by Pine about a month later triggered a public protest by LGBT people at police headquarters. Johnson and trans woman Sylvia Riviera founded the Street Transvestites Action Network (STAR) to support trans people’s needs. Law enforcement was gradually forced to treat the LGBT community with greater respect and police harassment of gay bars declined, thereby allowing the proliferation of bars and social spaces aimed at LGBT people.
The following year activist Chris Rodwell pressed for an event to commemorate the Riot. On June 28th, 1970, the Christopher Street Liberation Day March paraded through Manhattan. That march turned into an annual event and eventually turned into the first Gay Pride celebration. Many people don’t realize that Pride events in June are actually celebrating the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the Gay Rights movement.
The White Night Riots
On May 21st, 1979, the San Francisco gay community erupted in protest when it was announced that Dan White had been given a very lenient sentence for a pair of murders. Six months earlier, White, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, had resigned his seat, only to change his mind shortly afterward. The mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, refused to allow White to revoke his resignation. Furious about this turn of events, White gained entrance to City Hall on Nov 27th and fatally shot first Moscone and then fellow Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk, who was at the time the best known openly-gay elected official in the United States.
Although White was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, he was convicted of only the lowest possible crime, voluntary homicide, and was sentenced to 7 years and 8 months for what he admitted was a premeditated crime; he would eligible for parole in just 5 years. White’s defense that he had been consuming large amounts of junk food, which affected his judgment and state of mind; the jury appeared to accept this so-called Twinkie Defense by convicting him of the lowest possible charge. The verdict was announced the day before what would have been Milk’s 49th birthday.
Milk’s close friend Cleve Jones announced the verdict to a crowd of more than 500 gay men, who began to march through the Castro shouting “Out of the bars and into the streets.” Rumors spread that police and the prosecutor had conspired to get White, a former police officer, a reduced sentence. By the time they reached City Hall, the group has swelled to more than 5,000. The crowd began smashing windows and pulling grill-work off the building, which prompted the police to wade into the crowd with night sticks.
In the ensuing brawl, around a dozen police cars were lit on fire (one of which exploded). The riots took tear gas from the police cars and lobbed them at the police. The electric wires for the city’s famous cable cars were pulled down in places. Rioters ripped the chrome off buses to use as weapons, along with tree branches and asphalt. Eventually, however, police use of tear gas dispersed much of the crowd.
As order was being restored at City Hall, more violence erupted in the Castro, with one gay bar, the Elephant, being attacked by a large crowd of angry police officers shouting homophobic slurs. Many of the patrons in the bar were injured. The raid was unauthorized, and when the police chief learned about it, he ordered an end to it. In the two riots, about 60 police officers and more than 100 gay men were injured badly enough to require hospitalization.
In the aftermath of the riot, the gay community’s leaders refused to apologize for the violence. Jones organized a memorial celebration of Milk’s life for the 22th, an event that was attended by an estimated 20,000 people without violence. A few months later, the gay community made such a strong showing in city elections that Diane Feinstein, who succeeded Moscone as mayor, promised to appoint more gays to public life. She appointed a new police chief who made the recruitment of gays and lesbians a priority; by the end of 1980, 1 in 7 new police recruit was gay or lesbian. The riot also catapulted Jones to a position of importance as a gay leader and activist, a position he has retained ever since.
The AB 101 Riot
In 1991, the California Legislature passed a major gay-rights bill, AB 101, which banned employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Republican governor Pete Wilson had indicated that he would sign the bill, but then surprised people by vetoing it, reportedly at the urging of religious conservatives. A crowd of several thousand angry gay men marched through the Castro, prompting a mayoral candidate to flee so quickly that he lost a shoe (which eventually wound up in a museum exhibit). When the protestors reached a downtown government office building, they smashed windows and a door and gained entrance to the first floor. They lit a small fire that was eventually extinguished by the fire department.
The same week, a crowd of around 2000 gay men gathered in Los Angeles and marched, blowing whistles, from West Hollywood to the Los Angeles Museum of Art, where they confronted Wilson by burning a flag and an effigy of him. Later a crowd of around 150 people gathered outside a hotel Wilson was staying at and briefly scuffled with police. Protests continued for two weeks, but never reached the level of the initial surge of anger. A later court case, Soroka v Daytona Hudson, established that existing law already banned job discrimination against homosexuals and that the penalty were actually higher than what would have been established by AB101.
The AB 101 Riot was pretty tame compared to Compton’s, Stonewall, or the White Night. By 1991, the LGBT community had managed to establish itself as a significant force in the politics of many major cities, and violent police harassment was becoming a thing of the past. Although there were still major issues that LGBT people were fighting for, the simple right to live our lives free from police violence had to a considerable extent been won and we were well on the way to getting a foothold in politics.
Thinking about the Riots
So what can we learn from all this? It’s simple. Sometimes violence does work. Sometimes it takes a riot to make the authorities recognize that there’s a problem and force them to find an alternative solution. With the exception of the Cooper Do-Nut, Black Nite, and AB 101 Riots, every one of the incidents that I’ve listed here advanced the LGBT community in some important way. They vented frustration, helped the communities involved come together to establish important organizations, and helped elevate members of the riot to the level of activists and organizers. The two biggest riots, Stonewall and the White Night, were absolutely transformative for New York City and San Francisco and as those two communities began to transform, their influence began to spread across the whole country (and arguably the world).
So claims that violence doesn’t solve anything are not always true. Sometimes only violence will solve the problem. Martin Luther King Jr famously called riots “the language of the unheard”. Sociologists have a principle known as ‘social closure’ by which groups seek to exclude outsiders as a way to maintain and maximize the resources available to the group. Examples of this are numerous; white racists attempt to exclude non-whites from various social resources like swimming pools, unions sometimes seek to exclude non-members from working in a particular field, and monopolists attempt to shut out business rivals from a marketplace or industry. Frank Parkin identified two types of social closure. Exclusionary closure is the attempt to restrict access to resources by the exclusion of those who are rendered subordinate; this is the use of power downwards toward outsiders. Usurpationary closure, on the other hand, is the attempt by a subordinate group to gain wider access to resources from those in a privileged position, directing power upwards. Both groups may employ physical violence in an attempt to achieve their goals.
These gay riots amply illustrate Parkin’s theories. All of the riots except the last two started with police officers using their legal authority to maintain the exclusionary closure of heterosexual society over the outside homosexual individuals by harassing gays and trans women in particular, which served as a reminder that they were social outsiders. They could be attacked with impunity because they lacked the social resources to prevent their mistreatment. But in all those cases except the Black Cat and Patch incidents, the LGBT community responded to provocation with an act of usurpationary closure, directing a riot against the police in an attempt to expand their group’s resources, in this case by establishing places where they would be free from harassment and violence and could socialize in peace. In all cases where the LGBT community rioted except the Black Nite Riot, police responded with exclusionary violence, seeking to affirm their original social closure and maintain the privilege of harassing the LGBT community as a way of keeping them as outsiders. (In the somewhat unusual case of the Black Nite, police were willing to not maintain exclusionary closure, but the judge in the case reaffirmed the exclusion by dismissing the charges, thus implicitly affirming the rights of heterosexual men to engage in violence against gays.) In all these cases, heterosexual society essentially won the short-term battle; heterosexual dominance was reaffirmed, LGBT rioters were arrested (except in Milwaukee and possible at Cooper Do-Nuts), and the police re-established their control. But the longer-term consequences of these incidents (except for the first two) was a strengthening of the harassed community, which succeeded in recruiting greater resources of various forms (a newspaper, a supportive church, social organizations for LGBT people, and movement away from police violence).
The White Nite Riot, however, illustrates something rather different. In that case, the exclusionary control was being affirmed not by the police but by the jury and the presiding judge, who chose to accept White’s laughable defense and accorded a double homicide the lowest possible sentence. Thus in this case, the resource being fought over was justice, the ability of a gay man’s life to be seen as equal in value to a straight man’s life. So gay anger was directed against City Hall until the police attempted to stop the violence, at which point it became directed against them. The secondary riot at the Elephant Bar was a pro-active attempt by homophobic police officers to re-affirm exclusionary control by avenging the injuries done to the police at City Hall. But in this case, the police chief took action to shut down this attempt at exclusionary control, thereby essentially denying the exclusion and affirming that gay men belong in the privileged group so far as their relationship with the police was concerned. The ultimate response by Mayor Feinstein and the new police chief was to weaken heterosexual closure by bringing homosexuals more fully into both city government and the police force. So once again, although the riot was suppressed and heterosexual exclusion momentarily maintained, the long-term effect of the White Night Riot was a successful act of usurpationary closure, even though the original resource being disputed–equal justice–remained as before; the jury’s ruling and the judge’s sentence were not overturned.
The AB 101 Riot, such as it was, was triggered by a successful effort by the religious right to use their social and political clout to persuade Governor Wilson to veto a bill that would have weakened heterosexual closure by preventing employers from firing people for being homosexual. The rioters were attempting to advance their resources by forcing the state to recognize their political clout. Thus ultimately the resource being contested here was political, which groups would be recognized as important political forces by Governor Wilson and which would not. As it turned out, the court system wound up affirming protections for homosexuals after all. While the riot itself failed, it illustrated something important; by 1991 heterosexual closure was becoming weaker and weaker. It didn’t take a riot for the court system to affirm that gays and lesbians should not be fired from their jobs simply for being homosexual. And that’s a big part of why AB 101 marks the end, thus far, of rioting by the LGBT community; heterosexual closure is far weaker than it was in the 60s and 70s and the LGBT community has more ways to pursue their goals than they did back then. If rioting is the language of the unheard, LGBT people are now heard clearly enough that they no longer need to speak the language of violence.
The Situation at the Moment
What does any of this have to do with the current protests across the country? Plenty. It’s clear from the protests that the black community still feels profoundly excluded from the resources that society offers white people. Like gays and trans women in the 60s, black people today have ample reason to feel that the police are free to direct violence against them at will, often with lethal results. The state (in the form of city governments supported by state and federal government) directs enormous resources to the police to help them maintain white exclusionary closure. The peaceful protests are acts of usurpationary closure, seeking to marshal public opinion and the consciences of police officers to end racist violence. And just as at Cooper Do-Nuts, Comptom’s Cafeteria, and the Stonewall Inn, the police have responded to the effort at usurpationary closure with exclusionary violence, directing ever-larger resources and more extreme violence to achieve the re-affirmation of white exclusionary closure.
The question is, will the pattern we see in the various LGBT riots play out here as well? Will white exclusionary closure win in the short term only to be defeated in the long run by a weakening of that closure, perhaps because of the November elections? I desperately want to think so, but the long history of racial conflict in this country has shown that white exclusionary closure is a remarkably powerful and deeply-embedded principle here. Black people have been struggling for their basic rights far longer than LGBT people have, and yet somehow the LGBT has been far more successful in its efforts as usurpationary closure, perhaps because white LGBT people have been able to draw on their racial privileges to fight their sexual exclusion. So what the long-term outcome of these protests and riots will be, I have no idea. But there is at least some reason to think that change is coming.
I have one last point I want to make. The LGBT community owes a great deal to the black community. Large numbers of LGBT people are black, so what hurts the black community hurts us. Black trans women are one of the social groups most likely to encounter poverty and violence; they are killed at far higher rates than their percentage of the population would account for. Gay, bi, and trans black people have far higher rates of HIV and AIDS than their white brothers and sisters, despite a higher rate of condom usage, because they have much poorer access to testing services (which means they will be positive longer than whites before they are diagnosed) and because they are less likely to have access to medical services and PrEP. They encounter a great deal of sexual racism on dating apps, with white gay men often posting racist statements such as ‘no blacks–that’s just my preference’; the casual bigotry on dating apps has resulted in odious cutesy phrases like ‘no fats, no fems, no rice, no spice’ proliferating, as if racism can be waved away with a damn catchphrase. Black porn performers have notably harder time booking work, and a number of prominent porn performers are able to get away with saying and tweeting blatantly racist things. The white segment of the LGBT community has a lot of work today fighting racism in our own ranks. None of us are free until we are all free.
But it goes deeper than that. Black people have played important roles in advancing the cause of LGBT rights. The Stonewall Riot was triggered by a black trans woman. Our best witness to the Black Nite Riot was a black trans woman, and one of the few sources of information on the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is a Latino trans woman. With the exception of Caitlyn Jenner, the most prominent trans people in the media today are all black and Latino trans women such as Janet Mock, MJ Rodriguez, and Indya Moore. Billy Porter has emerged as a major men’s style icon and is challenging both racism and toxic masculinity in high-profile ways, and RuPaul has done amazing work to bring drag into the mainstream with his television show. Popular gay catchphrases like ‘Yass, queen!” are derived from black culture, and gay dance music owes a huge debt to disco music. I could go on and on. So when black people are being beaten, gassed, and killed by the police simply for demanding the right to live their lives, the LGBT community has a moral obligation to stand up for fight for them.
Looking away or saying black people should protest peacefully is hypocritical, because the rights we enjoy today emerged from our own history to violent protest. We MUST stand with the black community in this time of crisis. We owe it to Marsha P. Johnson, who threw that shot glass for us.