Few people really noticed it - the flipping on of a bright white neon light over one of many joints lining Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake's Sunset Junction where the latest pre-march rally against Prop 8 was gathering.
Le Barcito, the sign said. But just above the name perches the cartoon-like face of a black cat. Look at it long enough and there's a Cheshire Cat quality to that bugged-eyed grin, as if that cat knows a secret.
This night, perhaps, the secret is more an ironic memory for surely the new generation of equality activists waving signs and shouting "Equal Rights Now!" has no clue that it was in this bar, on this street after a police raid on New Year's Eve 1967 that gays first poured out onto the streets, angrily protesting for their rights - two and a half years before Stonewall.
That night the Black Cat bar served as the unknowing stage that launched an activist grassroots gay rights movement in America.
As Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons describe the incident in their book "Gay L.A." a bevy of drag queens fresh from a contest at New Faces bar down the street crowded into the Black Cat just before midnight. As the New Year was sung in and men exchanged the traditional midnight kiss,
uniformed police, who had been alerted by undercover officers, rushed in and begun to swing billy-clubs, tear down left over Christmas ornaments, bust up furnishings, and beat several men brutally. Sixteen customers and employees were arrested and forced to lie face down on the sidewalk until squad cars came to take them away. Plainclothes officers chased two men across Sanborn Avenue to the New faces bar. There, the officers knocked the woman owner down and beat her two bartenders unconscious. One of the bartenders, Robert Haas, suffered a ruptured spleen from the beating. He remained in critical condition for days, and when he recovered, was charged with felony assault on an officer. Six men were charged with lewd conduct: They were seen kissing other men on the lips for up to ten seconds. A jury found them all guilty.
They had to register as sex offenders and they lost appeals in court. Shortly after the incident, protesters started carrying signs demanding equal protection and equal rights and an end to police harassment and abuse.
But this night in Silver Lake it was the LGBT and straight demonstrators who pushed back the lines of LAPD, wary of another public relations headache after an officer was caught on videotape beating a protester who was already on the ground with two other officers on top of him.
And this night, 41 years after the Black Cat protests, the demonstration was all about the right of two men and two women to kiss - and incredibly, get married.
Warren Caton, 67, (in a wheelchair aided by his friend Bill Kaiser of the theatrical group Purple Circuit) used to go to the Black Cat after he came out in 1963. But he wasn't there for the protests. Not that he avoided protests. Far from it - he said he'd been protesting since the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were convicted as communist spies and sentenced to death in 1953.
"Protests as just a thrill," Caton said, adding that he never expected to see gay people get the right to marry in his lifetime only to experience the disappointment of having gay rights taken away by Prop 8. Nor did he expect to see the election of a black man to be president.
Across the street from the Black Cat, excitedly waiting for the speeches and marches to begin, 15 year-old straight friends Andrea Marquez and Vanessa Melendez thought the demonstration was "really cool. I have gay family and friends and everyone deserve equal rights," said Vanessa.
The Saturday night Nov. 8 rally and march was the largest of several rallies and marches held throughout the state since the passage of Prop 8 on Nov. 4. This one, organized by the Answer Coalition, attracted 13,000 people - many of whom were married lesbians and gays, as well as many gay, straight and bisexual families - including families with the dog as the "child" brought to their first protest.
The Answer Coalition led the swelling ranks of protesters in chants such as "The People United Shall Never Be Defeated" and "What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!"
But it was the speech by longtime activist lesbian Robin Tyler (married to Diane Olson) who seemed to really rile up the crowd - sparing no one and claiming the civil rights comparison to Rosa Parks:
We want marriage - that's the front of the bus. The Democratic Party wants to give us civil unions - that's the back of the bus. The Republican Party wants us off the bus. And the radical religious right - including but not limited to the Mormon, Catholic and Baptist churches have thrown us under the bus. ...
The no on 8 people were afraid to show gay people. They were told it would lose the proposition. They made us invisible...and they lost anyway. Look at us, leadership of the No on 8 campaign. We will never be made invisible again.
You were afraid to use the word "bigots." Well, the Yes on 8 people are bigots.....
This is not a movement about our "lifestyle." This is a movement about our lives.
Tyler also called for another march on Washington, a suggestion that seemed well received by the crowd.
Angry equality activists are devising scores of schemes to regain marriage rights and punish those who pushed Prop 8.
Noah Arc's Darryl Stephens and Wilson Cruz - are starting a new organization to help youth stay engaged after the protests - From Street to Strategy: Freedom Action Inclusion Rights... the new voice of the youth equality movement.
And at the Nov. 7 protest in front of the Los Angeles Mormon Temple, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lorri L. Jean announced the launch of www.InvalidateProp8.org, a website where people can support efforts to invalidate the initiative that attempts to revise the constitution to repeal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Jean also announced a campaign to "send a message to the Mormon Church," which played a leading role in funding the deceptive Yes on 8 campaign.
This is from the Center's press release afterwards:
At the urging of church President Thomas Monson, Mormons contributed more than $15 million to fund the deceitful advertising campaign that resulted in a small majority of Californians supporting Prop 8. For each donation of $5 or more at www.InvalidateProp8.org, the Center will send Monson a postcard to let him know a donation was made in his name to fund legal organizations fighting Prop 8 and to fund grass-roots efforts supporting marriage equality.
"No one's religious beliefs should be used to deny fundamental rights to others. Our civil rights are inalienable," said Jean. "It is a travesty that the Mormon Church bought this election and used a campaign of lies and deception to manipulate voters in the great state of California. Today we will send a message to President Monson that we will not tolerate being stripped of our equal rights in the name of religious bigotry. They're entitled to their beliefs, but not to impose them upon the constitution or laws of California. Let's flood the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City with postcards!"
Each time someone makes a donation at www.InvalidateProp8.org, Monson will receive a postcard with the following text:
Dear President Monson:
A donation has been made in your name by (YOUR NAME HERE)
Ironically, as Lorri Jean was denouncing the Mormon Church, under the watchful but respectful eyes of the LAPD, the Los Angeles City Council was voting to give historic status to the Black Cat gay bar.
"With Prop. 8 we took five steps backward, but the Black Cat gives us the perspective that we've taken 50 steps forward since 1967," Wes Joe, a Silver Lake resident who nominated the bar for monument status, said at Friday's council meeting in Van Nuys, the LA Times reported.
The police raids at the protests at the Black Cat, gay alley Council President Eric Garcetti said, was "a watershed event that has gone unnoticed in American history."
Not any more. This night the LAPD cops watched respectfully from a distance as gay men kissed and chanted and kissed some again - all under the mischievous watchful eyes of that black cat.
(I am going to be hosting a live radio show on Prop 8 Monday night 8-9pm Pacific time on Pacifica station KPFK. The program manager said the show will stream live on their website. One of the guests is Geoff Kors of Equality California and the No on Prop 8 campaign. I will take calls during the second half of the show.)