The old, illuminated sign of a black and white smiling cat still beckons patrons into a small windowless bar, the site of one of the nation’s earliest gay rights protests four decades ago.
Just last week, after thousands flooded the streets of Sunset Junction rallying for the rights of same-sex couples to marry, some demonstrators rested their placards under the sign and crowded into the Silver Lake bar now called Le Barcito.
Forty-one years earlier, the Black Cat, as it was known then, offered a rare gathering place for Los Angeles gays. But it was no safe haven: Police commonly raided taverns, targeting patrons for their sexual orientation.
In 1967, a police raid at the Black Cat touched off protests that predated by two years the historic Stonewall riots in New York City. The 1969 Stonewall riots, in which gays and lesbians fought back against the police for several nights, are commonly said to have sparked the gay rights movement.
Last week in Los Angeles, the Black Cat cemented its place in history with a city designation as a historic-cultural monument.
Alexei Romanoff, who rallied outside the Black Cat in February 1967 with a few hundred demonstrators, said the designation is a reminder of the progress the gay rights movement has made -- and of the work that remains.
“We were terrified at the time,” said Romanoff, 72. “It wasn’t safe to be a gay man and professing you were gay. . . . We were afraid we would get beat up and, possibly worst of all, be rejected by our own families.” The 1967 protest lasted days and came one month after a police raid at the Black Cat and nearby New Faces bar, which Romanoff had owned until a few months before the raid.
Just after midnight on New Year’s Eve, as balloons floated down from the ceiling, a trio of singers belted out “Auld Lang Syne” and patrons exchanged embraces and kisses, plainclothes and uniformed Los Angeles Police Department officers swarmed the Black Cat, beating and arresting 14 patrons and bartenders.
Two men, who had fled from the raid to New Faces, were chased and arrested there, where the owner and a bartender were also beaten.
Two of the men arrested that night, accused of lewd conduct for kissing another man, were found guilty by a jury and registered as sex offenders. The men appealed, asserting the right of equal protection under the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court did not accept their case.
“Unfortunately, the court wasn’t ready for that,” said Herb Selwyn, the attorney who appealed to the Supreme Court on the men’s behalf.
Selwyn, 83, was one of few attorneys at the time who would represent gay clients. He took the Black Cat case pro bono and prepared a pocket-sized guide to legal rights that was distributed to patrons at gay bars.
“In those days, for a lawyer to represent gays, people would think they were gay, and that frightened a lot of lawyers,” said Selwyn, who is heterosexual. “I didn’t give a damn myself.”
Early activists said they had few allies outside the gay community.
“You were dangerous by association -- almost considered to be criminals,” said Mark Thompson, a Silver Lake resident who has written extensively about gay history and culture.
Bars like the Black Cat -- there were an estimated 80-plus gay bars in Los Angeles in the mid- and late 1960s -- were often the only places where gay people could meet publicly, he said.
Although some gay rights groups existed, it was not until after the New Year’s raids at the Black Cat and New Faces that they staged sizable protests in Los Angeles.
“We just wouldn’t put up with it,” Romanoff said. “We were putting up with being raided, with going to court and people pleading to lesser charges, and then extorting fines out of us. We were getting beat up and hurt. We knew it had to stop somewhere.”
The Black Cat demonstration was the first time Romanoff and many of his gay peers protested in public. They carried signs reading “No More Abuse of Our Dignity and Rights” and “Peace in Silver Lake.” They handed out fliers decrying police brutality and treatment of gays, and garnered supportive honks from passing cars.
But fearful of retaliation, protesters never once uttered the name of the group that brought them together -- the newly formed Personal Rights in Defense and Education, or PRIDE. And fearful of police officers, who were watching the demonstration, Romanoff said protesters “didn’t dare step off the sidewalk.”
Still, Romanoff said, “there was a feeling of relief. . . . I felt for once in my life, I wasn’t lying. I wasn’t pretending to be something other than who I was.”