7 Riots, Rallies, and Protests That Propelled Queer Liberation

Before there were parades, there were protests.

Before LGBTQ Americans could gather peacefully in the streets for Pride parades, there were protests, riots, and other acts of insubordination. Sometimes violent, often militant, and always disruptive, the necessary, anti-establishment actions of our predecessors paved the way for a more tolerant, accepting world to come.

The fight for queer liberation and equality has always involved disruption. LGBTQ people of color have often led that charge, too, proving that racial justice and LGBTQ equality are intersecting political movements. As activists nationwide protest systemic racism and police brutality toward Black Americans, particularly in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police, let us honor and revisit that history.

  1. Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot (1959)

    A full decade before Stonewall Uprising, drag queens and hustlers fought back against policing of “sexual perversion” at this 24-hour diner in Los Angeles. Cops routinely raided the premises, demanding to see patrons’ IDs and arresting them if the gender on their IDs didn’t match ther presentation. One night in ’59, a group of hustlers retaliated against two LAPD officers, and other patrons at Cooper’s poured out of the restaurant to back them up. The officers ended up fleeing the scene.

  2. Compton’s Cafeteria Riot (1966)

    This riot at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District predated the Stonewall Uprising by three years. A cafeteria worker called police when a patron became unruly — and when officers tried to arrest a trans woman, she threw hot coffee in his face. The following night, San Francisco’s LGBTQ community picketed outside the cafeteria. The riot was depicted in Netflix’s Tales of the City series.

  3. The “Sip-in” at Julius’ (1966)

    Louis Liotta/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

    Dick Leitsch (pictured above) and other well-dressed, mild-mannered members of the Mattachine Society — one of the country’s earliest gay civil rights groups — got their drink on at this old New York City bar in 1966, when serving alcohol to “sexual deviates” could get a bar or restaurant shut down for “disorderly conduct.” Four activists told a bartender they were gay and asked to be served. The men were refused service, and the incident led to a court case determining that the New York State Liquor Authority could not deny service to gay people.

  4. Stonewall Uprising (1969)

    STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

    The fateful rebellion at this New York gay bar has been widely credited with launching the modern LGBTQ rights movement. The bar erupted in violence after police attempted to raid the premises that continued over five days, with revered activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, both trans women of color, and Stormé DeLarverie at the frontlines of the resistance. The 50th anniversary of the uprising was honored last year during WorldPride NYC and Stonewall50.

  5. White Night Riots (1979)

    Getty Images

    In May 1979, an estimated 5,000 protestors took to the streets of San Francisco’s Castro District to protest the lenient sentence Dan White received for the assassination of Harvey Milk (pictured above). The early civil rights pioneer broke ground as California’s first openly gay elected official, and one of the first in the United States, but some people, White included, were not so keen on his historic victory. The protest after White’s sentencing escalated to a full-on riot, with angry demonstrators fighting back against officers’ violent efforts to contain them and destroying SFPD vehicles. The next day, which would’ve been Milk’s 49th birthday, saw some 20,000 San Franciscans gather in his memory.

  6. The Dyke March

    Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

    The Dyke March, now an annual (but unsanctioned) event, kicked off in 1993 when a coalition of activists from the Lesbian Avengers, ACT UP, and Puss N’ Boots stormed Washington, D.C. holding banners and a huge vulva like a puppet to protest anti-LGBTQ legislation. More than 20,000 lesbians showed up. In the years since, organizers have never obtained a permit to assemble.

  7. ACT UP Protests

    Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

    The late Larry Kramer’s HIV/AIDS activist group has never been shy about its disruptive, in-your-face tactics — including demonstrations like “die-ins” at the capital during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when the disease was largely ignored by politicians and public-health officials. Case in point? The 1991 protest pictured above, which resulted in 84 protestors being arrested for acts of civil disobedience, like chaining themselves to the White House gates.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.