The 1969 Stonewall Riots marked a historic turning point for gay rights, but several smaller uprisings preceded Stonewall as LGBTQ communities pushed back against harassment and inequality.
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 are arguably the most famous and impactful uprisings for lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) rights. But they are not the first LGBTQ+ uprising by far. Various smaller uprisings preceded Stonewall—some by over a decade—to push back against harassment, often from police, and inequality.
1. 1958: Los Angeles – Cooper Do-Nuts Riot
After nearby bars closed, the 24-hour Main Street café Cooper Do-Nuts became the site of a large riot one morning in May 1958. “Two cops, ostensibly checking ID, a routine harassment, arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens and a young man just cruising and led them out,” novelist and one of the hustlers John Rechy said in his book City of Night.
The situation quickly devolved as angry bystanders began throwing debris and items from Cooper at the cops, who eventually retreated into their car. Disobedience turned into a riot, and soon enough police backup arrived. The officers blocked part of Main Street for the night and arrested several of the rioters.
2. 1961: Milwaukee – Black Nite Brawl
On August 5, 1961, four party-going sailors entered Black Nite, a popular St. Paul Avenue gay bar in Milwaukee, on a dare. They started a fight with the bouncer, only to be chased out of the bar by gender-nonconforming Black “queen” Josie Carter, who knocked one of the men unconscious with a bottle.
The men later returned with reinforcements and began to tear the bar apart, but were met with stiff resistance by bar patrons. The sailors were arrested but the charges were later dropped due to “lack of evidence.” The bar suffered significant damage from the brawl and was eventually demolished for the extension of St. Paul Avenue.
3. 1965: Philadelphia – Dewey’s Restaurant Sit-In
On April 25, 1965, the 17th Street location of Dewey’s restaurant in Philadelphia denied service to approximately 150 people who appeared to be gay or gender non-conforming. Three teenagers refused to leave and were later arrested, along with Clark Polak, leader of the homophile organization Janus Society, after he offered to help the group obtain a lawyer.
Janus Society members protested outside of the restaurant for the next five days; on May 2, three more people staged a second sit-in at Dewey’s. This time, the protesters weren’t arrested and instead left the restaurant voluntarily a few hours later. Dewey’s agreed to stop denying service to LGBTQ+ people.
4. 1966: New York City – Julius Tavern “Sip In”
In spring 1966, members of the early gay rights organization Mattachine Society staged a “sip-in”—a twist on “sit-in” protest—in which they visited taverns, declared themselves gay, and waited to be turned away so they could sue. At the time, LGBTQ+ individuals couldn’t be served alcohol in public because liquor laws considered their gathering to be “disorderly.”
The group was finally denied service at the Greenwich Village tavern Julius, which had been raided by police a few days earlier for serving gay people. This led to the quick reversal of the state’s anti-gay liquor laws.
5. 1966: San Francisco – Compton’s Cafeteria Riot
Nestled in the San Francisco Tenderloin neighborhood, Compton’s Cafeteria was a 24-hour restaurant and refuge for sex-working trans women, who often faced intense violence from clients and police. One day in 1966, an officer placed his hand on a trans woman at Compton’s—she responded by throwing her cup of coffee in his face.
Chaos ensued with Compton’s patrons throwing cups, saucers and other diner items at the police, who retreated until reinforcements arrived. A riot erupted as dozens of trans people, drag queens and gay men fought the police. They broke windows, destroyed a police car, and set a newsstand on fire. Drag queens hit police with heavy purses. In the end, however, police arrested the women.
6. 1966–1967: Los Angeles – Black Cat Tavern Protests, Los Angeles
Opened in November 1966, Black Cat Tavern was a haven for Silver Lake’s queer community, who were subjected to harassment from police enforcing anti-homosexuality laws. On New Year’s Eve 1967, undercover cops tore apart couples celebrating at midnight and began beating them. The brutality eventually spread to a neighboring bar where police attacked the bar’s owner and two bartenders. By the end of the night, 14 people were arrested and two of the men were later forced to register as sex offenders for kissing.
On February 11, 1967, over 200 demonstrators formed a picket line outside of The Black Cat Tavern to peacefully protest against police abuse. Though many police were dispatched to the protest, it remained charged, but peaceful.
7. 1968: Los Angeles – The Patch Bar ‘Flower Power’ Protest
The Patch was an LGBTQ bar in Wilmington owned and managed by Lee Glaze. Glaze had a secret signal—he’d play “God Save the Queen” on the jukebox—to announce that police officers were entering the bar, allowing patrons time to comply with the discriminatory laws. On August 17, 1968, undercover cops left the bar and returned with several uniformed officers for backup, though it’s unclear what prompted this action. They fanned out and began to screen the crowd, looking for IDs that didn’t “match” the holder’s outward appearance.
In the end, police arrested two bar patrons for lewd conduct, enraging Glaze who knew the men were innocent. He led a crowd to buy massive quantities of flowers from nearby shop owned by of the bar’s customers. The crowd then went to the police station and camped in the waiting room, remaining until bail was posted for the arrested men.
Explore more of the history of the LGBTQ movement in America here.
Before Stonewall, the Queer Revolution Started Right Here in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Magazine.
Queer history was made at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles. VoiceNews.
Before Stonewall, the Black Nite brawl stunned Milwaukee. onMilwaukee.
5 LGBTQ Protests That Set the Stage for Stonewall. Vice.
Different fight, ‘same goal’: How the Black freedom movement inspired early gay activists. NBC News.
Philly’s largest gay hangout denied service to 150 people in 1965 for simply ‘looking gay.’ Timeline.
Compton’s Cafeteria riot: a historic act of trans resistance, three years before Stonewall. The Guardian.
The Black Cat. ONE Archives at USC Libraries.
The Patch Bar Flower Power Protest. ONE Archives at USC Libraries.
Armstrong, E. A., & Crage, S. M. (2006). Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth. American Sociological Review, 71(5), 724–751. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25472425