Before Stonewall, there was Cooper Donuts

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It was a torrent of doughnuts and coffee that kicked off the LGBT-rights movement.

Sure, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City get all the glory, but there was also a smaller, nearly forgotten uprising at Cooper Donuts in Los Angeles in May 1959 to which the movement’s roots can also be traced.

John Rechy, an accomplished gay author who chronicles the Chicano culture in his books, was there the night of the riots. On his website, he wrote that two police officers asked for ID cards from some customers at the restaurant — a typical way for them to harass LGBT people. Those who were picked out of the crowd, including Rechy, were “two hustlers, two queens and a young man just cruising.”

Something snapped in one of them — enough was enough. He objected to the car being packed with five people and fought back, leading the customers at the shop to flood the street, throwing coffee cups, trash, spoons, anything they could get their hands on.

“[The officers] fled into their car, called backups and soon the street was bustling with disobedience. Gay people danced about the cars,” Rechy wrote.

And history was made — but like most people who are a part of history, it wasn’t apparent how important their actions were until much later.

“I would not describe it as a riot but more like an isolated patch of local social unrest that had lasting repercussions. I think less in its day, more as a lesson for us today,” Mark Thompson, a social historian who lived in the same neighborhood as Rechy, wrote in an email. “L.A. is such a huge, sprawling city (even back then) so what happened in one district probably did not register elsewhere — especially when issues of class and race are factored in.”

Not too much is known about the “uprising” at Cooper Donuts, and as time passes, fewer of the storytellers of the time are around to share their experiences. Rechy went on to write a number of books, and in his 1963 novel “City of Night,” he recounts living in the “gay ghetto” of Los Angeles.

 

Christiana Lilly’s foray into journalism began at 11, when she put together a one-page gazette for classmates recounting field trips, announcing the lunch menu and other important news. Today, she’s a freelance journalist who covers a plethora of topics, including contributing regularly to South Florida Gay News. There, she covers health, religion, law and activism impacting the LGBT community. She has won multiple awards for her coverage, including stories on conversion therapy and youth homelessness. Lilly grew up in Asia as the daughter of a foreign service officer, and now calls Fort Lauderdale home with her fiancé.