5 Pre-Stonewall Moments That Changed The Course Of LGBT History

A look at queer activism before the game-changing riots.

The Stonewall Riots have long been considered the birth of the LGBT rights movement. But there were watershed moments in the years before 1969 that emboldened the community and blazed a trail for protesters to follow.

Below, learn about five pre-Stonewall incidents that played a part in shaping queer history.

  1. Founding of The Mattachine Society (1950)

    Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

    One of America’s earliest gay—or “homophile,” as they were called then—organizations was founded by L.A. activist Harry Hay and his circle of friends: Members of The Mattachine Society hoped to end persecution by police and politicians and presented homosexuals as a distinct cultural group worthy of respect.

    While their activism was less militant than later groups, Mattachine published newsletters, assisted members in legal straits, and created the first national LGBT activism network with chapters around the country.

  2. One, Inc. v. Olesen (1958)

    One: The Homosexual Magazine

    By the mid-1950s, Mattachine morphed into the spinoff group One, Inc., which had its own eponymous magazine. In 1954, the FBI and the Postmaster General of Los Angeles declared One magazine obscene and refused to deliver it through the U.S. mail.

    The publishers sued and, though they lost the initial case and appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the magazine—marking the first time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the LGBT community.

  3. Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot (1959)

    Milestone Films

    A full decade before Stonewall, a group of drag queens and hustlers clashed with the LAPD at this 24-hour diner. Under the leadership of police chief William H. Parker, the police made stopping “sex perversion” their top priority. (After Parker took over in 1950, arrests for homosexuality increased more than 85%.)

    Cops routinely raided Cooper’s and demand to see patrons’ identification—if the gender on their ID cards didn’t match how they presented, they’d be thrown in jail.

    Two cops entered the diner in May 1959 and picked up two hustlers, two drag queens, and another young man and led them out to be arrested. One of the men objected, and others followed suit, pouring out of the shop to protest police harassment.

    The officers fled the scene for backup but by the time they returned, the street was overrun with demonstrators. Several people were arrested, and the riot ended as quickly as it began, but America learned that the LGBT community would not always cower in fear.

  4. Compton’s Cafeteria Riot (1966)

    Gaylesf/Wikipedia Commons

    Seven years later and hundreds of miles away, a similar incident took place at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

    In August 1966, a cafeteria worker called the SFPD when customers became unruly. When a police officer attempted to arrest one trans woman, she threw a cup of hot coffee in his face. Within minutes, dishes were were flying, windows were being broken, and a nearby newsstand was burned down.

    The next night, gays, lesbians hustlers and trans people picketed Compton’s. But unlike Stonewall, the city of San Francisco responded by developing a network of trans-specific social, mental-health and medical services, which eventually led to the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit in 1968.

  5. The “Sip-In” At Julius’ (1966)

    Arthur Fellig/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

    Bars in New York were technically not allowed to serve homosexuals but in 1966, a group of well-dressed gay men from the New York branch of the Mattachine Society challenged the law with a mild-mannered “sip-in” at the West Village watering hole.

    As reporters watched, four activists told the bartender they were gay and asked to be served. Julius’ had recently been raided, so the bartender denied them, leading to a court case which determined that the New York State Liquor Authority could not deny service to gay people.

    Thankfully, Julius’ is still around—and still serving gays as New York’s oldest gay bar.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery