The Stonewall riots triggered by a police raid on a New York City gay bar in 1969 and three other lesser known gay riots in San Francisco were reactions to police abuse and perceived societal oppression, according to LGBT activists familiar with those incidents.
San Francisco gay and AIDS activist Cleve Jones, who witnessed two of the gay riots in his city in 1979 and 1991, is among those who say there are similarities between the police abuse experienced by young gay men back in the 1960s and 1970s and young black men today.
Jones and other LGBT activists point to the incident involving 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray, whose death on April 19 from a severe spinal cord injury he sustained while in custody of Baltimore police triggered riots and looting.
Officials with several national LGBT rights groups, including the National Black Justice Coalition, have joined African-American civil rights leaders in denouncing the action by six Baltimore police officers who detained and arrested Gray on a charge of possessing a small knife that was later found to be legal to carry.
The groups said Gray’s death in a police-related incident, after officers reportedly ignored his pleas for medical treatment while being transported in a police wagon, highlighted similar instances of reported abuse by police against young black men in Baltimore and other parts of the country, including Ferguson, Mo.
“Where you can draw a parallel is with police relations,” Jones says. “I think to be a young gay person in San Francisco in the late 1970s, you would have many of the same kinds of feelings as young African Americans feel toward the police today.”
“When I got to San Francisco, the cops hated us. And they made it very, very clear every day,” Jones says. “I’m an old white man and unlikely to be singled out for my appearance for abuse by the police. But my memories of it from my youth are fresh.”
Jones was a student intern working for San Francisco Board of Supervisors member and gay rights advocate Harvey Milk in November 1978. It was at that time when Dan White, a disgruntled former police officer who had just resigned from his position as one of Milk’s fellow supervisors, shot Milk to death in Milk’s office at City Hall.
White killed Milk minutes after assassinating pro-gay San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in the mayor’s office in a fit of rage over Moscone’s refusal to reappoint White to his supervisor’s seat. White had announced he changed his mind and wanted to remain in office. Milk was among his fellow supervisors who urged Moscone not to reappoint White, who was part of a conservative faction on the Board of Supervisors that opposed Milk on many policy matters.
In May 1979, gays and other San Franciscans became outraged when a jury ignored prosecutors’ calls for convicting White on a first-degree murder charge and instead found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the most lenient possible charge for shooting two people to death.
Similar to the turn of events in Baltimore 36 years later, gays responded by holding a protest rally in the gay Castro neighborhood, which was Milk’s home base. They marched peacefully through the streets as the crowd swelled from about 500 to more than 1,500 people, according to news media accounts.
When the gathering of mostly LGBT people reached City Hall its ranks had increased to about 5,000, and violence broke out.
Police cars were set on fire, windows of nearby buildings were smashed and overhead wires for the city’s street cars were pulled down. Some of the rioters took tear gas canisters from damaged police cars and threw them at police, who initially stood on the sidelines at the direction of the police chief, again similar to the Baltimore disturbances this year, before the chief directed them to confront the rioters and force them away from the City Hall area.
About two-dozen arrests were made and more than 140 protesters and as many as 60 police officers were injured, news media reports said. The rioting caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage to the City Hall building and nearby buildings and vehicles.
Jones, who was present when the rioting unfolded, said the longtime police hostility toward the gay community combined with the shock of a lenient jury verdict for the man who murdered Milk, a gay icon, prompted normally peaceful gays to embrace violence.
“I saw people who were known to be very well mannered who were completely consumed with rage and hatred of the police department,” he said. “It was a real desire to fight back, a sense that we had taken this kind of crap for far too long. … I think the LGBT people who were there that night — within all of us — the memories of prior abuses, the reality that we had been beaten up and called names and put down for so long — and then it was the last straw — that this all white, straight jury basically gave him a slap on the wrist.”
Compton’s Cafeteria Riot pre-dates Stonewall
New York’s Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969, where gays and transgender people fought back against a police raid, is considered the historic development that started the modern LGBT rights movement.
But three years earlier, in August 1966, a confrontation between a police officer and a person witnesses described as a drag queen inside Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin section erupted into what has become known as Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.
Transgender historian Susan Stryker, who co-wrote and co-directed a documentary film about the incident in 2005 called “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” is credited with helping piece together a comprehensive report on what happened.
LGBT activists are now calling the incident one of the first known transgender riots in U.S. history based on reports that Compton’s was a hangout for people who today would be considered transgender women.
Also patronizing Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin were the trans women’s gay male and lesbian friends. Nearly all of them, the documentary film says, were struggling to survive at a time when they were considered outcasts. Most lived in nearby cheap rooming houses and many engaged in prostitution. Most were also often harassed by the police at a time when cross dressing was against the law, Stryker reports in the documentary film.
According to the film, the riot started when a police officer threatened to arrest one of the male-to-female cross dressers inside Compton’s and she threw her coffee in his face. People interviewed in the film, which can be viewed on YouTube, said a melee then broke out among police and as many as 50 people inside the establishment, with windows shattered and dishes and furniture tossed around the room.
The fighting soon moved outside the restaurant, people in the film reported, creating a disturbance considered a full-fledged riot on the street.
“The violent oppression (and riot) of transgender people at Compton’s Cafeteria did not solve the problems that transgender people in the Tenderloin faced daily,” said transgender activist Autumn Sandeen in a 2010 article about the incident in gaylesbiantimes.com. “It did, however, create a space in which it became possible for the city of San Francisco to begin relating differently to its transgender citizens — to begin treating them, in fact, as citizens with legitimate needs instead of simply as a problem to get rid of.”
AB 1 Riots triggered by veto of gay rights bill
The fourth known gay riot in the United States took place in San Francisco on Sept. 30, 1991, after then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed Assembly Bill 1, a gay rights measure that called for banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.
The bill had been stalled in committee for years before both houses of the legislature finally passed it in September 1991. Gay activists and their supporters in the legislature were outraged over Wilson’s veto, saying he acquiesced to the anti-gay faction of the state’s Republican Party.
“As was the case in the White Night riots, a large crowd assembled in the Castro and stormed the civic center,” says Jones, who was present as the crowd grew and became increasingly angry. “But instead of stopping at City Hall they went to the state building and did their best to set it on fire.”
A short documentary film on the AB 1 Riot, which included TV news footage of the incident, says about 2,000 protesters marched to the state building, where Wilson had an office. Protesters can be seen in the film using sections of metal barricade fences as battering rams to smash through the building’s glass doors.
The film also shows a protester using a large pole with a rainbow flag attached to it to smash through the glass doors on the building. It says the rioting caused over $250,000 in damage to the building, but no arrests were made and no serious injuries were reported.
‘Intersection’ between Baltimore and LGBT rights movement
Officials with some of the national LGBT groups talked about what they called the intersection between the Baltimore riots in late April of this year and the LGBT civil rights movement.
“The recent events in Baltimore and throughout the nation have been emotional, hurtful and even traumatic for so many in the black community,” says Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBT civil rights organization.
“At the National Black Justice Coalition, we are dedicated to changing the mainstream narrative around socially marginalized black people, especially young people, because issues like police brutality and economic injustice are also LGBT issues that disproportionately impact LGBT people of color.”
“Black LGBT people cannot separate their blackness from their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity,” she says. “Issues that confront black people — like structural oppression, classism and racism in America — impact black LGBT people twofold.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says transgender people often face “brutal victimization, mistreatment and violence at the hands of law enforcement.”
She says NCTE works to address police abuse not only for transgender people but for everyone in its quest for “a more just society.”
According to Keisling, at least one transgender woman who was arrested during the Baltimore disturbances was placed in a men’s jail after police learned she was transgender. She was “forced to remove her undergarments and made to reveal her body to officers,” Keisling says.
“Our hearts go out to the family of Freddie Gray and to those people whose hearts are broken with grief,” says Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “Police-related killings of young black men have become a regular occurrence across our nation. So in a very real way what is happening in Baltimore is a predictable reaction to appalling injustice, deep mistrust of police and a real sense that nothing will be done about it.”
“The beauty and responsibility of the LGBT community is that we’re at the intersection of everything,” says Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz. “We’re black, Asian, Latino and everything in between.
“Because of the stigma we face and the lack of legal protections, LGBT people are also more likely to face economic disenfranchisement,” he says. “What all of this means is that this must be a shared struggle and we also have a responsibility to make life better for all Americans.”