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LGBT+ History Month: the Cooper Donuts Riot – 1959

Updated: Dec 24, 2022

For LGBT+ History Month we asked the SAYiT Team to tell us about the people, events, and organisations in LGBT+ history that are important to them. SAYiT LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Development Worker, Heather Paterson, has written this important piece on the Cooper Donuts riots that took place in 1959 (10 years before the Stonewall riots). The riot was the inspiration behind Heather’s tattoo and the reason she has 1959 tattooed on her arm – not the year she was born as a young person once asked!

Last year we saw numerous events marking the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, often cited as the start of the modern LGBT+ rights movement. However, it is less commonly known that Stonewall, rather than being the first uprising, was the last in a decade of acts of rebellion against the attacks on LGBT+ people.

10 years before Stonewall in 1959, the modern LGBT+ rights movement began with a night of queer empowerment and resistance with coffee cups flying from the hands of drag queens, as the LGBT+ community fought back against an ongoing campaign of targeted police brutality and harassment, the inspiration behind this tattoo.

Cooper Donuts was a 24-hour café in Los Angeles, and a well-known hang out for trans and gender diverse people. LA law at the time dictated that if your gender presentation did not match the gender on your ID you would be taken to jail and LGBT people were subject to campaigns of entrapment, intimidation and violence. As a result, many gay bars banned or actively discouraged trans and/or visibly gender diverse people from attending in order to avoid attracting attention and being targeted by raids. Cooper donuts however was well known for welcoming trans and gender diverse customers alongside drag queens, sex workers and others who were not welcomed in other venues and partly due to this visibility was subject to regular police raids, where numerous attendees had previously been arrested. There were rules that you must wear at least three items of clothing that match your legal gender. Raids would often involve abusive ‘gender checks’ where a police officer would confirm a person’s sex by putting their hand down their pants in full view of anyone present.

On the night in question, the police attempted to arrest several patrons including two drag queens, two male sex workers and a gay man. As those arrested attempted to fight back, protesting their unjust arrest onlookers from Cooper Donuts decided enough was enough, and a group consisting of transgender women, lesbians, drag queens and gay men, spilled out onto the street in support and threw coffee cups, donuts and trash at the police until they were forced to retreat without their detainees. Backup was called and a night of rioting ensued, closing the street for an entire day and resulting in several arrests.

The years following this saw numerous uprising and acts of rebellion by LGBT+ people standing up again harassment including amongst others the New York’s Army Induction Centre protest (1964), Independence Hall Protest (1965), Deweys Sit In (1965), Comptons Cafeteria Riot (1966), Black Cat Tavern Riot (1967) and ultimately 10 years the Stonewall Riots (1969). The Stonewall Riots were the largest and last of these uprisings, marked a year later by the Christopher Street parade, the first ever LGBT pride march.

About the author – Heather Paterson is a LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Development Worker for SAYiT. You can find out more about SAYiT’s Domestic Abuse project ‘Call It Out’ here –

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