“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) required 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.” Laura Dominquez- KCET
The Black Cat Tavern opened in October 1966. It was one of several gay bars that operated at that time along a one mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. On New Year’s Eve 1967, The Black Cat was targeted in an undercover police sting. As a trio named the Rhythm Queens played in the new year and balloons dropped, the patrons and bartenders celebrated. Unbeknownst to the crowd, a dozen plainclothes police officers were positioned throughout the room in anticipation of any “lewd conduct.” A few seconds after midnight the police witnessed several men hugging and kissing and their raid began.
The police didn’t announce themselves before they pounced, pulling people apart and dragging them toward the exit. It was a confusing scene that quickly escalated to chaos. Some of the patrons fought back and the bartenders sprang to their defense. Two men tried to flee. They were all met with sudden violent force. Fourteen people were beaten to the floor, dragged to the sidewalk, and arrested in front of the bar. Six of the fourteen were charged with lewd conduct for kissing. Three weeks later they were tried by a jury and found guilty as charged.
In response to these developments, a coalition of gay community members joined forces with Personal Rights in Defense and Education (P.R.I.D.E.) to organize a demonstration outside The Black Cat. The demonstration, held on February 11, 1967, was attended by several hundred peaceful protestors. This marked the first time in United States history that the LGBTQ community organized publicly to protest the harassment, brutality, and persecution they specifically were suffering at the hands of the police.
Soon after The Black Cat demonstration, Charles Talley and Benny Baker (two of the six men convicted) filed an appeal with the California Court of Appeals, the California Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court of the United States. Their appeal was unsuccessful in California and their convictions were upheld. The U.S Supreme Court declined to hear the case. However, their attorney mounted a legal defense that would fundamentally alter the social, cultural, and political tenor of the LGBTQ rights movement in America. The defense argued that his clients were entitled to the same legal rights and equal protection that are guaranteed to all Americans by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Black Cat is recognized by the Cultural Heritage Commission of the City of Los Angeles as Historic-Cultural Monument Number 939. A commemorative plaque on the façade of the building honors The Black Cat as the site of the first documented LGBT civil rights demonstration in the nation.