The Black Cat | Los Angeles Conservancy
The Black Cat, 2013. Photo by Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy

The Black Cat

Located on Sunset Boulevard, the modest Art Deco building that houses The Black Cat was originally constructed as a Safeway grocery market in 1939, but by the 1960s contained a gay bar and laundromat. The bar attracted a largely working class clientele and was nestled among a number of businesses friendly to gay men and lesbians.

At a New Year's celebration on January 1, 1967, eight undercover police officers from the LAPD raided the bar just after midnight while patrons were exchanging celebratory kisses and embraces. During the struggle, patrons were beaten and dragged out of the bar and into the street.

In response to the police raid, activists organized one of the earliest known demonstrations in support of LGBTQ civil rights. Hundreds gathered outside of the bar on February 11, 1967 in peaceful protest of police brutality and discriminatory laws and procedures. 

The associated court case related to the baseless lewd conduct allegations of bar patrons from the New Year’s Eve raid is legally significant as the first time in U.S. history that gay men were defended in a court case as equal under the Constitution, though the courts disagreed at the time.

Since the raid and subsequent demonstration, The Black Cat has closed and reopened many times under various names such as the Bushwhacker, Basgo’s Disco, and Le Barcito.

In 2008, The Black Cat was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument for its early and significant role in the LGBTQ civil rights movement. The building reopened under The Black Cat name in 2012 as a gastropub that primarily caters to a young and diverse clientele. 

Click here to read a 2015 interview with Alexei Romanoff, one of the last surviving participants in the 1967 demonstration outside of The Black Cat >>

Los Angeles formed the backdrop to two early LGBTQ protests in the decade before the more famous Stonewall uprising in New York City in 1969.

In 1959, transgender women and men clashed with law enforcement at Cooper’s Donuts in downtown in response to relentless police harassment. The coffee shop, which has since been demolished, was popular among officers with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as well the local transgender community during the 1950s.

After officers targeted and arrested several patrons whose gender did not match their identification, the crowd resisted and fought back. The uprising ultimately forced closure of the street for a full day.

The New Year's raid at The Black Cat in 1967 similarly revealed systemic patterns of police harrassment of well-known LGBTQ establishments. Fourteen people were arrested outside the bar and charged with assault and public lewdness. Some patrons managed to escape the chaos of the raid by running across the street and blending into the crowd at New Faces (another gay bar across the road where Circus of Books currently stands).

Activist Wes Joe, who has advocated for the bar’s preservation, recalls: "There was quite a bit of chaos and pandemonium, but it was not a riot.  There was absolute chaos. There was real panic over what people saw was an assault by the LAPD."

Two organizations – Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE) and Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile (SCCRH) – came together to stage the unprecedented protest on February 11, 1967 in response to the unprovoked police raid.

PRIDE, SCCRH, and others promoted the protest through the distribution of flyers and the use of phone trees in which one individual would call ten people, and they in turn would each relay the message to ten additional people, etc.

The demonstration attracted nearly 600 people, who gathered in front of The Black Cat building in peaceful resistance. Activists called on LAPD to end entrapment, cease illegal searches, and to respect the basic rights and dignity of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.

The 1967 protest at The Black Cat predated New York’s famed Stonewall Riots by two and a half years, and while it involved fewer people and did not figure as prominently nationally, it represents one of the first places where lesbian and gay activists were brave enough to organize and stand up.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Los Angeles played a significant role in the advancement of civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identified people and the shaping of a collective, yet diverse community identity.

Although events in cities like New York and San Francisco often overshadow the region’s history, residents of Greater Los Angeles have been instrumental in bringing LGBTQ experiences into the public consciousness.

Eight years after the uprising at Cooper's Donuts, The Black Cat became the site of the largest documented LGBTQ civil rights demonstration in the nation at the time, which took place on February 11, 1967. Hundreds gathered outside of the bar in peaceful protest of police brutality and discriminatory laws and procedures, which many recognize as the birthplace of a worldwide movement.

In 1967, LGBTQ people across the board lived under intimidation. At the time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the United States. Sex between two men was illegal in California, and a conviction of lewd conduct (for which kissing often sufficed) meant registering as a sex offender.

In addition to the criminalization of same sex relations, the LGBTQ community faced tremendous harassment and oppression, particularly in Los Angeles from the LAPD.

Six of the fourteen men arrested for lewd conduct for exchanging New Year’s kisses at The Black Cat were convicted and liable under California Penal Code Section 647 to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. Two ultimately did register, and both men filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to consider their cases.

Their attorney, Herbert E. Selwyn, argued that their conviction was a violation of the right to equal protection under the law. In a departure from previous cases, he did not deny or cover up the sexual orientation of his clients, but instead asserted their right to equal treatment as part of the larger civil rights movement.

Broadly speaking, Los Angeles at the time had already been the scene of a number of locally and nationally significant events in the advancement of LGBTQ civil rights, though the idea of a collective identity did not yet exist.  An article in LIFE magazine in 1964 described the city as the birthplace of a new "homophile" movement, and the previous decade saw the formation of local groups such as the Mattachine Society, which focused on protecting and improving the rights of gay men.

By the time of The Black Cat raid in 1967, Los Angeles was also witnessing the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement, which intersected with the broader civil rights organizing and youth counterculture of the 1960s.

Reflecting on the significance of The Black Cat today, activist Wes Joe maintains, "Hopefully people will realize that the LGBT movement came about all across the country. It had humble origins, just like all of the other civil rights of the 1960s. This was a working class bar at that time. That’s the origin of people’s rights today; it came from places like this."

Photo by Laura Dominguez/L.A. Conservancy

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