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One of nation's 1st organized LGBT protests was 50 years ago in LA




Alexei Romanoff (L) with his husband David Farah marching in front of The Black Cat restaurant on February 11, 2017. Romanoff was one of the original organizers of a march at the Black Cat 50 years earlier when it was a gay bar.
Alexei Romanoff (L) with his husband David Farah marching in front of The Black Cat restaurant on February 11, 2017. Romanoff was one of the original organizers of a march at the Black Cat 50 years earlier when it was a gay bar.
Leo Duran/KPCC

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The history of LGBT rights in America often starts with the rioting and protests at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969.

But one of the country’s first large-scale and organized LGBT demonstrations actually happened over two years before that in L.A.

Demonstrators in February 1967 took to the streets following the police arrests at the Black Cat Tavern on New Year's.
Demonstrators in February 1967 took to the streets following the police arrests at the Black Cat Tavern on New Year's.
ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

The story of the riot and protest at the Black Cat Tavern starts a half-century ago.

Alexei Romanoff, 80, was 30-years-old at the time.

“I have pictures of me back then. I thought I looked pretty good!" he laughs.

But then he gets serious when he remembers what happened to his friends on New Year’s Day, 1967, at the Black Cat Tavern.

Partiers inside the Silver Lake gay bar were counting down to midnight. 

"Auld Lang Syne started to play," he says. “People instinctively went over and hugged and kissed each other."

But the police were there, too. Undercover.

“Two males kissing each other was against the law. Police were grabbing them and tearing them apart," says Romanoff.

By dawn, more than a dozen people were arrested. Two of the men caught kissing eventually had to register as sex offenders.

And gay people like Romanoff were incensed.

"Once again we’re being picked on," he says.

In the weeks afterwards, he helped to organize one of the first large-scaled and documented protests for LGBT rights in America.

It was February 11, 1967.

More than 500 people gathered back outside the Black Cat for a somber, serious march.

Hundreds of people took to the streets in February 1967. They were angry at the LAPD action against LGBT people at places like the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake.
Hundreds of people took to the streets in February 1967. They were angry at the LAPD action against LGBT people at places like the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake.
ONE Archives at USC Libraries

“They were terrified," remembers Romanoff. "People would go by, roll their windows down in the cars, and would say, you should be ashamed of yourself."

But the event had a major impact.

For example, the group that organized it was called Personal Rights in Defense and Education.

Romanoff says the acronym – PRIDE – was the first time the word was used as part of the gay rights struggle.

PRIDE's newsletter, the PRIDE Advocate, eventually transformed into The Advocate magazine, which still exists today as the nation's longest-running LGBT publication.

The Black Cat Tavern itself, however, didn’t have nine lives.

It closed just a few months afterwards because it couldn't do business when the city revoked its liquor license.

The space housed a string of other bars with other names since that time.

Then in 2012, a gastropub took it over. It’s called The Black Cat.

The return of the name isn’t a coincidence.

Owner Lindsay Kennedy found out about the building’s history when he was developing the restaurant.

He’s not LGBT himself, but he wanted to honor that past by dubbing it The Black Cat.

“We make it a point to educate our staff about the history of this place," he says. "It’s part of our employee handbook.”

Checks at The Black Cat restaurant in LA's Silver Lake neighborhood come with a postcard featuring an image from the LGBT protests that happened in 1967 at the same site.
Checks at The Black Cat restaurant in LA's Silver Lake neighborhood come with a postcard featuring an image from the LGBT protests that happened in 1967 at the same site.
Leo Duran

Kennedy was also able to find the only five pictures that exist from the 1967 protest, and frame them on the restaurants walls. Every check also comes with a postcard featuring one of those pictures.

But the reason that there are just five images is one of the reasons the Black Cat protest isn't as well-known as the riots and protests at Stonewall.

Just a small alternative newspaper, The Free Press, was there to document that single night, which is where the pictures came from.

But the major national and internationally newspapers based in New York couldn’t ignore the days-long riots at Stonewall that drew thousands.

So that event grabbed the spotlight in history.

The Black Cat protest, however, is no longer being ignored.

Last Saturday night on the protest's 50th anniversary, hundreds of people gathered back on the same block to recreate history.

People celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Black Cat protest on February 11, 2017, by recreating the original march in front of the building.
People celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Black Cat protest on February 11, 2017, by recreating the original march in front of the building.
Leo Duran

Marchers remade signs from the original demonstration and paced in front of The Black Cat restaurant chanting phrases like, "Hey hey, ho ho, police brutality has got to go!"

LAPD officers and city officials including Mayor Eric Garcetti were there, too. But they weren't there to crackdown on people  – they cheered them on. Several out LGBT police officers also spoke before the crowd to say that they are committed to building trust with the community.

One of the celebration's speakers Paul Katami, a co-plaintiff in the Supreme Court case against California's Prop 8, also asked the crowd to redo that New Year's eve.

"Let's have a 1967 kiss-in!" he shouted.

And as people turned to each other and kiss to Auld Lang Syne, there were no arrests.

Just cheers, smiles and pride.

Note: this story has been updated with copy appearing in a NPR report on the subject. It has also been corrected to show that the Black Cat protest was just one of the first large-scale LGBT demonstrations in the country. Several smaller protests occurred in the years prior.