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LGBTQ History Made in Los Angeles:
Cooper Do-Nuts and the Black Cat Tavern

Cooper Do-Nuts, 1959

Editor's note, Mar. 31, 2021: In researching the Cooper's Donut story described below, we found that author John Rechy offers the only original account of the incident described below. We were unable to find any other corroborating records, including newspaper stories or police reports. In 1959, Cooper's Donuts did have at least two shops in Downtown Los Angeles. However, according to city directories, the shop closest to Main Street, where the incident was reported to have occurred, was actually located several blocks away on Fifth Street. In 2020, the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC), seeking to determine if the location might be designated a historical site, requested historical police records for the location and period from the LAPD. The effort was unsuccessful. According to the LAPD, with few exceptions, records from that long ago were likely purged or destroyed. The DLANC, however, continues to seek other possible sources for corroboration of this story. At this point, we have not been able to verify that this incident actually occurred or, at least, that it occurred how, when, and where described. We will update this note if additional information follows.

Also see: We Need to Talk About Cooper Do-Nuts by Nathan Marsak.

Cooper Do-nuts Sign Sketch

Sketch of Cooper Do-nuts sign.

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 attracted police attention.

One of the few establishments that did not turn away transgender people was Cooper Do-nuts, located in the Skid Row area of Downtown Los Angeles at 316 East 5th Street*, a 24-hour donut shop that welcomed everyone. By day, cops patronized the shop. By night, absent police patrons, it became a popular nightly hang-out for LGBTQ people, especially transgender patrons.

One night in May 1959, two LAPD officers turned their attention to Cooper Do-nuts to confront patrons, demanding 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 complained of the lack of space and resisted. This drew other patrons out from the shop to protest and join the fray. The officers were then forced 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.”

News of the incident at Cooper's Do-nuts apparently spread quickly several blocks west to Main Street, where a number of LGBTQ-friendly bars and clubs were located. There, people spilled onto the street, openly venting their long-simmering anger. Police reinforcements soon arrived to the area to contain the "riot." They closed Main Street and wrested back control of the street. History, however, had been made. For the first time in America, LGBTQ people stood up in open resistance to police harassment and abuse.

* Editorial correction: Previously, we stated in this article that the shop was located at 547 South Main Street, as stated in other sources. However, after subsequently researching L.A. city directories, we determined that the nearest shop was actually located several blocks east, near the corner of 5th and San Julian Streets, at the address given above.

The Black Cat Tavern, 1967

Black Cat Tavern Sign Sketch

Sketch of Black Cat Tavern sign.

When the Black Cat Tavern opened its doors at 3909 Sunset Boulevard to the LGBTQ community, in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, in November 1966, there were about 80 known gay bars in the city. Although the LGBTQ community still then faced California laws that targeted them, for several years Los Angeles police mostly left them unharassed. Yet, at the time the Black Cat Tavern opened, California elected Ronald Reagan as its new governor and he would enter office that following January. In keeping with Reagan's winning campaign themes, Los Angeles authorities apparently felt compelled to demonstrate their own 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, another gay bar just down the street at 4001 Sunset Boulevard, 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.”

Black Cat Tavern Protest Leaflet, 1967

Protest leaflet calling for demonstration outside the Black Cat Tavern , 1967.
Scanned by Spenseratlas, 2016, available through Wikimedia Commons.

The LGBTQ community did not stand for it. Several weeks later, 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 all the police abuses and civil rights violations inflicted on their community. Surprised by such an unprecedented LGBTQ push-back and fearing a riot, city leaders reacted by having a large number of police deployed 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, in that LGBTQ people were willing to come out publicly to protest and risk potential violence, rejection and retribution.

Also see:
--- World's First LGBTQ Pride Parade
--- Mattashine Steps in Silver Lake
--- Historic LGBTQ in STEM, Los Angeles County
--- LGBTQ Population in Los Angeles County