Cooper’s Donuts riot May 1959 , ten years before Stonewall

Cooper’s circa 1961

On the night of the Cooper Do-nuts uprising in May 1959, five (or three, depending on accounts) patrons were arrested but when the cops tried to shove them into the back of a single cruiser, a struggle ensued and all of the arrested “sex perverts” escaped. 

The rest of the patrons (including author John Rechy, who chronicled the happenings in the Main Street “gay ghetto” in his 1963 novel, City of Night) hurled coffee, donuts and paper plates, and more at the officers, forcing them to retreat and later return with larger numbers. When the police returned, a full blown riot ensued and as a result a section of Main was closed for a day. The riots may’ve been quelled but a spark would seem to have been ignited.

The cafe was located on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles between two gay bars, Harold’s and the Waldorf, and was a popular hangout for transgender people. There had been many LGBT customers at Cooper’s taken into custody before, and on the day of the riot, two police officers entered the cafe and asked patrons for ID as Los Angeles law dictated at the time that if a person’s gender presentation did not match the gender shown on their ID they were taken to jail. The officers attempted to arrest two drag queens, two male sex workers, and a gay man. One of those present that day was novelist John Rechy who wrote of the event in his novel. Rechy describes the victims of the Los Angeles Police Department’s abuse on this night as a culmination of routine targeting of the LGBTQ community.

After the detainees protested the lack of room in the police car, onlookers began throwing coffee, cups, and trash at the police until they fled without them in their car. People then took to rioting in the streets and police backup arrived blocking off the street for the entire night and arresting several people. The Cooper Do-Nuts uprising is believed to be the first gay uprising in the United States.

Gay L. A.” Lots of information on gay life from the 1930s forward in Los Angeles.
John Rechy “City of Night“.