In 1959, LGBTQ people endured ongoing discrimination, threats of violence, and the persistent threat of arrest. Gay and lesbian-friendly bars were the few places they could hope to gather in public without harassment. Transgender people, however, were generally not welcome even at these establishments. The Los Angeles Police Department made it a priority to target transgenders under laws making it criminal to publicly act and dress as the opposite sex. Even gay and lesbian-friendly establishments were wary of how transgenders drew police attention. One of the few establishments that did not turn away transgender people was Cooper Do-nuts in Downtown Los Angeles (547 South Main Street), a 24-hour donut shop that welcomed everyone. By day, cops patronized the shop. By night, after the police were gone, Cooper Do-nuts became a popular nightly hang-out for LGBTQ people, especially transgender patrons. One May night in 1959, however, two LAPD officers turned their attention to the donut shop to confront patrons, demanding to see identification. They arrested two transgender people of color, two gay men and a “hustler.” When the officers tried forcing all five into the back seat of their patrol car, one arrestee would not have it and fought back. This drew other patrons from the shop into the fray, forcing the officers to retreat under a shower of donuts, coffee, dishware, silverware and anything else that could be thrown. For that brief moment, LGBTQ people were able to revel in having successfully fought back. John Rechy, a first-hand witness and Latino author who later chronicled the events in his novel City of Night, wrote "...the street was bustling with disobedience. Gay people danced about the cars.”
Police reinforcements soon arrived, closed Main Street and wrested back control of the street. However, history had been made. For the first time in America, LGBTQ people stood up in open resistance to police harassment and abuse.
When the Black Cat Tavern opened its doors to the LGBTQ community in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles (3909 Sunset Boulevard) in November 1966, there were about 80 known gay bars in Los Angeles. Although the LGBTQ community still faced California laws at the time that targeted them, for several years the Los Angeles police mostly left them unharassed. Yet, at the same time that the Black Cat Tavern opened, California elected a new governor, Ronald Reagan, and he would enter office that following January. Los Angeles authorities apparently felt compelled to demonstrate their commitment to "law and order" and remind the LGBTQ community of the law. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1967, plainclothes Los Angeles police officers, having infiltrated the bar that evening, began beating and arresting celebrating patrons for “lewd conduct” (same-sex kissing). Uniformed officers also swarmed the establishment. In all, 14 people were arrested. Two patrons tried fleeing to New Faces (4001 Sunset Boulevard), another gay bar just down the street, pursued by officers. When the two were captured in New Faces and arrested, officers then demanded to see the manager. Bar employees pointed to the manager, a woman named Lee Roy, referring to her by name. Officers, apparently mistaking her name for “Leroy” and assuming that she was a male wearing a dress (then a crime in California), took to inflicting a severe beating on her. A bartender attempted to protest, but also ended up being beaten. Police justified their actions that evening by claiming that they had to contain “rioting.”
The LGBTQ community was not going to stand for it. On February 11, 1967, 200 people assembled outside the Black Cat Tavern for a public demonstration, organized by PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education, founded by Steve Ginsburg in Los Angeles in 1966) and the SCCRH (Southern California Council on Religion and Homophile). They protested the police abuses and civil rights violations inflicted on their community. Surprised at this unprecedented LGBTQ push-back and fearing a riot, the city deployed a large number of police into the neighborhood. Demonstrators, however, would not give police any legitimate excuse to assault and arrest anyone and carefully adhered to all laws and ordinances. The event was the first organized public LGBTQ protest in Los Angeles and one of the earliest and largest held in the U.S. until that time. It was especially significant for the time that LGBTQ demonstrators were willing to risk potential violence, rejection, and retribution by coming out publicly in protest.