Long before the Stonewall riots of 1969, queer people of all identities were persecuted, harassed, taunted, and sexually assaulted by law enforcement during the 1950s and ’60s.
Trans Black women and women of color like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy were involved in spearheading the Stonewall rebellion, a culmination of an era when raids on LGBTQ+ spaces were commonplace. But it was certainly not the first such event.
A decade before Stonewall, in 1959, Cooper Do-nuts, a downtown Los Angeles doughnut shop popular with LGBTQ+ people, was the location of what is widely considered to be the first queer uprising in modern history. After two Los Angeles police officers attempted to arrest five people, including two trans women of color, one arrestee fought back, which eventually drew others to do the same. The officers retreated as patrons threw doughnuts, coffee, and silverware at them.“The street was bustling with disobedience. Gay people danced about the cars,” John Rechy, an eyewitness, writes of the events in his novel City of Night.
In 1966, a group of trans women in San Francisco fought back against police inside Compton’s Cafeteria, a 24-hour restaurant popular with queer folks in the Tenderloin neighborhood. As officers began to verbally and physically harass its LGBTQ+ patrons, one very fed-up trans woman threw a cup of coffee at a policeman’s head, sparking a riot led largely by trans women and drag queens.
According to Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s documentary film Screaming Queens (2005), the riot ended with several queer people being taken into custody — only after a police car was destroyed, a newsstand was set ablaze, and numerous tables and windows were smashed.
In 1967, the Black Cat Tavern, a queer bar in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, witnessed another prominent uprising. Under newly elected Gov. Ronald Reagan’s push for law and order, officers were determined to display their power. On New Year’s Eve, as 1966 turned into 1967, plainclothes L.A. officers infiltrated the Black Cat and began harassing, beating, and arresting queer people. Those taken into custody included the bar’s co-owner, Lee Roy, a cisgender woman who cops assumed was a man in a dress. Roy was severely beaten that night, but police claimed to the press they were simply containing a riot.
A month later, LGBTQ+ people assembled outside the Black Cat in a protest organized by the newly formed group PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education). The event was the first public demonstration by an LGBTQ+ rights group in L.A. and ultimately led to the founding of The Advocate, which was a newsletter before becoming a national magazine.
The events at Stonewall resonated beyond the streets of New York City and soon would act as a bridge between two movements.
In the days following the rebellion, queer and trans-masculine prisoners at the Women’s House of Detention in New York (which ended operation in 1971) reportedly chanted “Gay Power!” and threw burning objects at windows in solidarity with the uprising.
Queer historian Hugh Ryan, who is working on a book about the House of Detention, told Time magazine in June that he’s identified nearly 120 queer female former inmates from that time who can attest that the prison experience was monumental in linking the civil rights and LGBTQ+ movements.
At the time, Afeni Shakur, a renowned activist and the mother of the late Tupac Shakur, organized a meeting between the Black Panther Party and the Gay Liberation Front only after she witnessed the similarities between the oppression of queer people and people of color. The meeting was held at Jane Fonda’s New York apartment. Stories from inside the Women’s House of Detention also affected Black lesbian activists like Angela Davis.
“Angela Davis says that the Women’s House of Detention is where she started to think about prisons in a way that wasn’t just about political prisoners, but rather as a mechanism for upholding white supremacy,” Ryan told Time.
Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder for the brutal killing of George Floyd, making him the first white officer in Minnesota to face criminal prosecution in the death of a Black civilian. While for many Americans it was a moment to take note of some overdue justice, the sad reality is that Floyd was not the first Black person to die at the hands of police—or the last.
Less than 1 percent of police officers are convicted for the deaths of people while in custody. The fight against police brutality is baked into both the civil rights and LGBTQ+ movements. Police violence was—and is—a central issue framing the demand for queer liberation and equality. But one thing is for sure: The criminal justice system isn’t the only system that fails people of color.
“I think society as a whole needs to take some responsibility. That’s what brings people into contact with this system,” says Brian E. Downey, president of the Gay Officers Action League of New York, which addresses the needs, issues, and concerns of LGBTQ+ officers and civilians.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the profession that doesn’t think significant change needs to be made, but I think there’s a lot of disagreement over what that change looks like. You can never tell people how they feel,” he says. “Healthy dialogue goes a whole lot better than the sexy sound bites.”
Thanks to a growing outcry from Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ activists alike, the two movements, once again, are uniting to make significant change—and it’s working.
In June, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a 10-bill police reform package and a four-part executive order that requires all police departments to design specific reforms or lose their funding. To be eligible for state funding, departments must adopt individual plans, present those plans to the head of police, and consider feedback and comments from the public. Local legislators must approve these reforms by April of next year.
A few weeks after Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a resolution to start a yearlong process to create a new public safety model for the city. Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C., City Council voted to require the police department to disclose the names of officers who use deadly force as well as release body-camera footage.
“There’s nobody that hates a bad cop more than a good cop. What made the murder of George Floyd absolutely reprehensible is that not one cop there thought it would be a good idea to say, ‘Hey, maybe you should chill,’” Downey says of Tou Thao, James Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Kiernan Lane, three officers who were present but did nothing as Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, ultimately causing his death.
“Even the people on the street saw that something wasn’t right here. I don’t know how you don’t turn around and tell [your partner], ‘What are you doing?’ It’s beyond outrageous,” he adds. “I think that we have a responsibility to call out bad cops, to root out corruption, to root out excessive force. We need to have a conversation about what are the penalties involved.”