Late one evening in May of 1959, two members of the Los Angeles Police Department entered Cooper’s Doughnuts, a sketchy downtown coffee joint, looking for trouble. The LAPD, as the historians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons have written, “prided itself on being one of the most determined enemies of homosexuality in the nation,” and Cooper’s was known to be an all-night hangout for gay people, drag queens, transgender and gender-nonconforming folks, and “hustlers”—part- or full-time sex workers. Many of them were people of color. The cops barged in that spring night and pointed at three customers, demanding, “You, you, and you—come with us.”

This was a familiar scene. Yet, for some reason, that night the crowd at Cooper’s had had enough. They started throwing donuts, then coffee. The police fled to their squad car and called for backup. Eventually, the cops managed to quell the riot, but not before fighting had spread to the streets and many of the people they’d attempted to target had escaped.

Incidents like the one at Cooper’s presaged the more famous queer uprising at the Stonewall Inn a decade later, but—except for Stonewall—these incidents have been largely forgotten. In the minds of many, Stonewall represents the beginning of a movement. Yet the activists at Stonewall built on decades of previous activism, and this activism was geared not merely toward the liberation of gay men and lesbians, but also toward the liberation of a wider group of queer people: trans and gender-nonconforming people, queer people of color and queer sex workers.

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Sex Workers are an important part of the Stonewall story, but their role has been forgotten by Scott W. Stern

June 27th, 2019