Alexei Romanoff and the LGBT Civil Rights Legacy of The Black Cat

The Black Cat bar

The Black Cat in Silver Lake is exactly what you want in your local. It’s warm and inviting, with attentive staff, handsome design, good food and cocktails. But there’s much more to The Black Cat than a bustling neighborhood tavern.

A plaque is mounted on the exterior of The Black Cat, which reads:

The Black Cat
Site of the first documented LGBT civil rights demonstration in the nation
Held on February 11, 1967
Declared 2008
Historic Cultural Monument No. 939
Cultural Heritage Commission
City of Los Angeles

The Stonewall Inn in New York is widely regarded as the flashpoint that gave rise to LGBT pride. However, the original Black Cat, which was the site of a peaceful demonstration that took place two and a half years before the 1969 Stonewall riots, should rightfully be considered to be the birthplace of what is now the global LGBT civil rights movement.

The Black Cat went through many incarnations over the years, including Basgo’s Disco (home of the notorious Club Fuck! in the 90s) and more recently as Le Barcito, a gay Latino bar. In November 2012, Charlie Conrad and his partners, who also own The Village Idiot on Melrose, renovated and reopened the landmark with its original name.

Alexei Romanoff at The Black Cat

Alexei Romanoff and a photo of the landmark LGBT civil rights demonstration that he helped organize.

Conrad recently arranged an interview at The Black Cat with Alexei Romanoff, who is perhaps the last surviving participant of the pioneering civil rights demonstration that took place outside the bar. The 79-year-old Romanoff, a longtime gay rights activist, speaks quietly, with conviction and a wry humor. His striking blue eyes, inner spirit and delightful energy are captivating. We were joined by Romanoff’s husband, David Farah, a historian who provided invaluable context and insight regarding the history and legacy of The Black Cat.

The demonstration commemorated by the plaque stemmed from police raids that took place on New Year’s Eve 1967 at The Black Cat and other gay bars in the area. “I was in a different location,” says Romanoff. “I wasn’t here when the raids happened. But I was notified really quick when the raids happened here.” Romanoff helped organize the historic protest that took place outside The Black Cat on Feb. 11, 1967. In those pre-cell phone and Internet days, the demonstration was organized with phone trees – you called 10 people, they called 10 more people, and so on. Flyers were also distributed to spread the word.

Romanoff notes the difference between The Black Cat demonstration and Stonewall. “It wasn’t a riot, it was a demonstration. After what had happened to the anti-war demonstrators three months earlier on the Sunset Strip, we didn’t want to give them any ability to attack us, because they would at that point. They felt, we’ve got Ronald Reagan in the state mansion as governor and we’d be free to do anything. And that’s what gave the emphasis to that. And I’m not knocking Ronald Reagan. Though I could, because the truth is, when the AIDS epidemic happened, he didn’t mention it until two months before the end of his second term.”

Romanoff says there were several hundred people throughout the demonstration, which stretched up and down the block on the evening of Feb. 11. A photo of the demonstration, an original flyer and other related items are displayed on the walls of The Black Cat.

“The free press were the only ones that covered our demonstration,” says Romanoff. “None of the regular media were here. That was one of the fears we had, that if the regular media were here and took pictures, that we would lose our jobs, we would lose our homes, and we’d be alienated by our families if we appeared in print.”

“We would love to see [The Black Cat] take advantage of its extremely important history,” says Farah. “They could parlay the history of this place – they’ve done such a wonderful job of it – but the real significance is not this artwork, but the few little pieces they have on the wall about the demonstration here.”

Romanoff adds, “Also, not the top of the bar, but the bottom of the bar is the original bar that was here at the time of the raid. And it was on that side of the wall, down there was a stage. But this was all blacked in, the windows, so that no one could see into the place.”

Alexei Romanoff at The Black Cat

Alexei Romanoff with photos of the original Black Cat and the New Faces.

A native of Ukraine, Romanoff says, “I arrived here in 1958 on February 15th, and I thought I had arrived in heaven after coming from the East Coast and the cold. If you ever want to come to a place, come to California and get away from all of that snow!”

“I loved Silver Lake, it has a place in my heart to this day and everything about it. It just was a magnificent place to come to and I think anybody who could come here and visit at this time, at any time, will be absolutely amazed and charmed by it.”

In 1962, Romanoff opened a gay bar called the New Faces with a straight woman partner named Lee Roy. The New Faces is now Circus of Books, located just down the street from The Black Cat. Romanoff was half-owner of the New Faces for the first few years of its existence, but he had a disagreement with Lee Roy and sold his share to her.

Romanoff says, “I was a bartender at the High Spot on Hyperion Boulevard, it was across the street from Casita del Campo. Lee Roy came in there and said, ‘I heard a lot of good things about you. I would like to make a business proposition with you.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And she said, ‘You have the in and the contacts and I have the license, and I’m taking over a bar that’s called Patty’s Pub’ – which was where Circus of Books is now – and we signed the contracts and everything. We closed Patty’s Pub for 90 days – the whole place was emerald green – painted the inside, and if I can remember right it was black inside and our logo was the masks of Comedy and Tragedy. We had a very good business there. But then there were some conflicts, and I just asked her to buy me out.”

Farah says, “In the two years prior to 1966, there were no gay bar raids in Los Angeles. There was a police truce. At the end of ‘66, Ronald Reagan was elected governor. There was a police precinct that covered this area called the Rampart Street precinct. They got a new police chief in the fall of that year. They decided to inaugurate Reagan, who was becoming governor on January 1st, [by] instituting gay bar raids so he could make a name for himself, basically. At that time there were 80 known gay bars in Los Angeles. There were 12 in Silver Lake at the end of ‘66. There hadn’t been a gay bar raid in so long that people weren’t expecting them.”

On the night of Dec. 31, 1966, about a dozen undercover policemen were inside The Black Cat with the intention of raiding it. “The bar was not that full,” says Farah. “At the stroke of midnight, some people kissed each other, including a woman who was dressed as a woman and her brother who was dressed in drag. So it looked like two women kissing each other. That was the signal for the raid to start. They told them they were police officers and they were under arrest. But they refused to show ID and they were in plainclothes.”

“They started beating people, one officer tore down the New Year’s Eve decorations. The people in the bar didn’t know that they were police officers. They thought that something bad was happening, a gang attack, something like that. So they started fighting back. In the melee, two of the police officers were injured seriously enough to be hospitalized.”

There were three bartenders in The Black Cat on New Year’s Eve. Farah says, “Two were gay and they kissed each other. And one was a married straight man and he apparently kissed somebody or was accused of it. Two of the people that were in this bar, not knowing what was going on, ran out down the street towards the New Faces. The police officers chased them and they thought it was gang men chasing them. They kept running and were tackled to the ground.”

Farah continues, “The police officers got to the New Faces, which was not supposed to be raided that night, entered and said, ‘Who owns the bar?’ There was a bar manager and a bartender. The bartender was behind the bar [and] the bar manager said, ‘It’s Lee Roy.’ She was in a gown, because it was New Year’s Eve. They thought it was a man in drag, because the name was Lee Roy. So they tackled her, broke her collarbone, beat her up, left her in a bloody mess on the sidewalk in front of the New Faces after they realized it was really a woman. They just left her there. They attacked the bar manager [and] the bartender started yelling. They grabbed him, pulled him over the bar, stomped on him, kicked him, they ruptured his spleen, broke his jaw and his skull, and he was completely bruised. They arrested the bartender and the bar manager plus 14 that were in [The Black Cat].”

They were taken to the police station. “The bartender with the ruptured spleen, they charged him with felonious assault on a police officer,” says Farah. “He was 5’4,” 24 years old and 120 pounds. And he was smashed to pieces. They didn’t give him medical care for 22 hours. By the time they gave him medical care, he went to the hospital, had his spleen removed and was in the hospital for three weeks. The 14 that were arrested here, two were arrested for drunkenness and the remainder were arrested for lewd conduct because they said they were kissing on New Year’s Eve. All of these people but the bartender, who was then in the hospital, made bail and were released at 1 o’clock in the afternoon on Jan. 1, 1967.”

“Then what the police did was this,” says Farah. “Between January 2nd and January 20th, they staked out the New Faces and had police officers going in and out every night. They scared all the customers away and the bar closed on Jan. 21, 1967. So after five years the New Faces was closed down. The owner of this bar, The Black Cat, which had opened in October of ‘66 – only two months earlier – had his liquor license and his entertainment license suspended. He fought for five months to get them reinstated. He lost every appeal and he eventually closed on May 21st because he had no liquor license.”

“After the raids here at The Black Cat and the New Faces, the very next week – Saturday [and] Sunday, the 7th and 8th of January –  the Ram’s Head on Sunset [Boulevard] was raided and the Stage Door on West 6th was raided because they had a concerted effort to raid the gay bars. What the police said was, if you fight the arrests, we will close down all the gay bars in the city. What had happened in the years prior, when they had raided the gay bars, the police always made two charges to a gay man. They made a lesser charge that wasn’t a lewd conduct charge and they made a lewd conduct charge. If you were convicted of a lewd conduct charge in California, you were required to register as a sex offender. Virtually all of the gay men who were arrested prior to these raids took the lesser charge [and] paid the fine because they didn’t want to register the rest of their life as a sex offender, whether the charge was true or not, whether it was fair or not.”

Farah says, “This turned out to be different, and here was the difference. Three months before these raids, there was an anti-Vietnam War protest on the Sunset Strip. It was met with violence. The police beat up the protesters, it was violent. Straight people wanted to do something about police brutality. Mexicans were getting beaten up, blacks were getting beaten up, anti-war protesters, the hippies were getting beaten up. The straight organizations decided that they were going to hold a series of anti-police brutality demonstrations on Feb. 11, 1967. And the gay organizations that existed at the time, and there were a bunch that were formed in the year prior, wanted to be part of that. Now, of the organizations that formed prior to the raids, one was called the Southern California Council on Religion and Homophile, and its magazine was Concern. And one was called P.R.I.D.E. (Personal Rights In Defense and Education). Also in existence prior was the Tavern Guild of Southern California, which was the organization of gay bars, of which this bar was a member and the New Faces was a member.”

“So these gay organizations decided to raise money to defend the 14 people that were arrested [at The Black Cat] and the two at the New Faces. The trial was to take place on January 26th. The two drunkenness charges were dismissed. One of the men who was accused of kissing was acquitted because the police officer couldn’t identify who he was supposed to have been kissing. The judge dismissed the charge. The other four hired private attorneys and they were all found not guilty. That left seven – the bartender and the six here. The bartender whose spleen was ruptured was tried in July of ‘67  and found not guilty of felonious assault on a police officer. That left the other lewd conduct charges. Those people could not afford their own attorneys. So the Tavern Guild [and] the other organizations raised a total of $3,400 – which was a lot of money at the time, it would be like $34,000 now – to hire a private attorney.”

The trial began on Jan. 26, 1967. “Then it gets controversial,” says Farah. “What they could have defended was, they didn’t kiss. There were four charged with kissing a person of the same sex for 2-3 seconds, there was one charged with kissing 10-15 seconds, and there was one charged with a peck on the neck. These people were then tried before a jury of eight women and four men. The trial lasted five days and [it] was a circus. Of those people, two of them were the bartenders here who had kissed and one was a straight bartender who was accused of kissing. And there was seven total.”

“The attorney for the defendants, instead of saying that they didn’t kiss, raised the defense that there was nothing illegal about kissing. That straight people could kiss, and that gay people should have the same rights as straight people. They also raised the issue that these people were all beat up. The police officers didn’t identify themselves, they literally beat ‘em up. And the judge refused to allow any of that in the court. He refused to allow any testimony regarding how the charges were filed, what police brutality was involved, he said the only issue was whether they kissed and whether it was lewd. There was no definition of lewd conduct.”

“The police officers clearly perjured themselves on the stand,” says Farah. “In order to get convictions, when they were testifying they would say things like, ‘they were groping,’ but they weren’t charged with groping, because they couldn’t prove any of that. But they did that so that the jury would think, ‘These are gays, these are homosexuals and they should be convicted regardless of what they did, because they’re homosexuals.’”

“The trial ended on February 1st [and] the jury came back. It was a hung jury with respect to the married bartender. And he had spent all the recesses at the trial in the hallway kissing some woman to show that he was straight. The other six were convicted and [found] guilty of lewd conduct. Lewd conduct in California at the time meant you had to register as a sex offender for life. So, these people now had to register as sex offenders for life.”

“The attorney who took the case was then taken off the case and another attorney, with the help of the ACLU, was put on the case. He appealed the conviction through the California courts of appeals, the Supreme Court of California, the Supreme Court of the U.S. All of them refused the appeal and didn’t issue an opinion as far as we can tell. And all of those six were registered sex offenders the rest of their lives.”

Farah explains the legal significance of The Black Cat case. “That was the first time in the history of the U.S. that gay men, homosexuals, stated in a court case that they were equal under the Constitution. Before that you would pay it off on a lesser charge, or say you were trapped, or ‘we didn’t do it.’ This is the first time that they actually defended – and lost – but defended, saying the Constitution of the United States applies to gay men equally as it does to straight men. That had never happened before. The courts didn’t find that. The other thing that the appeal was on was whether kissing met the statute for lewd conduct. And it did. Even if you didn’t do it, being accused of it was enough for you to be registered as a sex offender for the rest of your life.”

“Now you have to remember, this is 1967. In ‘67 in the U.S., being gay was a mental illness. You could be institutionalized against your will as gay because you had a mental illness. It wasn’t until ‘71 that that was taken off as a mental illness. It wasn’t until ‘75 in California that sodomy became not illegal. It was taken off the books, two men having sex was not illegal. It was illegal in California in ‘67 to have sex, you had a mental illness, and you were a sex offender for having a peck on the neck on New Year’s even if you didn’t do it.”

“This was the first time that they actually said, in connection with this and the New Faces, that gay men were subject to the Constitution like anybody else. They had Constitutional rights and were equal. They didn’t win, but that’s the first time they did it.”

“Then there was something equally as large,” says Farah. “Of the organizations that supported these trials, that gathered the money, one of them was P.R.I.D.E., [which] had a newsletter that started prior to the raids. It was supporting the demonstration that occurred on February 11th and it changed its name in the Spring to the P.R.I.D.E.- Advocate. In September of ‘67 it dropped P.R.I.D.E. and just became The Advocate. The Advocate newsletter became The Advocate magazine which became The Advocate online. One of the men who established it was Aristide Laurent. When they did the plaque here to commemorate this bar, the city of L.A. searched for people who were at the demonstration. They only found two [that were] alive, Alexei and Aristide. Aristide had a stroke and was unable to attend. [Aristide died in October 2011]. So Alexei is the last one known to have actually attended the demonstration.”

“It gets a little confusing because that was in ‘67,” says Farah. “Those people didn’t go away. They maintained contact. In June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn in New York City was raided. That turned into a three-day riot. During the summer the homophile organizations in New York decided that they wanted to commemorate that raid and riot the following year on the same day. In November there was a council of gay organizations that met in Philadelphia. And they proposed this one-year [anniversary] demonstration.”

“Then things get murky because a number of people claim to have started the Pride celebrations. The history hasn’t been completely written yet. What actually happened I believe is this. In 2009 there was a panel discussion at the Metropolitan Community Church. It was about gay history and Alexei was on it. One of the men there was one of the people who started one of the newer Pride demonstrations. He was a reverend, but I can’t remember his name. I went up to him after and I said to him, ‘Where did the name ‘Pride’ for the demonstrations come from?’ He said, ‘I don’t remember but I do know it came from Los Angeles. We called somebody in Los Angeles and they suggested the name.”

Farah continues, “Those first parades and demonstrations, the ones in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles in ‘70, they were called Gay Liberation, Gay Freedom demonstrations and Pride. But those names fell away after a couple of years and only Pride remained. The Pride demonstrations in 1970 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco celebrating Stonewall was actually the second. The first one was here. And all of the Pride celebrations throughout the world now come from that original Pride demonstration here on this street. Last year there were two million people at the Pride demonstration in Sao Paulo. That comes from here. The Pride demonstrations that are in Eastern Europe now and the former Soviet Union, where they’re still being beaten up and it’s illegal to march, those civil rights movements come from here. The origin of Pride was on this floor and on that corner.”

Farah says, “So two things are significant about this bar. First, the origin of worldwide Pride, including the civil rights movements that stem from Pride today, come from this floor and that corner. And the idea that gay men are equal under the Constitution in the United States and therefore other minorities – Asians, blacks, Mexicans – everybody is subject to the same rights of the Constitution.”

“Even the people that hate us have the same Constitutional right,” says Romanoff. “They have the right to hate us, but their Constitutional right stops this far from my nose. They can’t injure us. They may vote against us, they may do whatever they want, as long as it isn’t discriminatory. But they can’t hurt us. They’re not allowed to.”

“That legal ramification starts from this bar. It starts in that court case,” says Farah. “From the appeals to the court case, from January 26th to the 1st. It starts from here. And that’s extremely important in American legal history and it’s virtually unknown.”

Farah brings out a thick notebook and reads a February 1967 op-ed piece from ONE Magazine written by Jim Kepner, a gay historian whose archives contributed to the formation of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.

“But the homophile movement in Los Angeles was in a very real sense created on New Year’s Eve by a couple of dozen officers of the new Rampart Street police station. All over the city, homosexuals are determined that they will no longer “cop out” to a lesser charge if they should be arrested and when someone else is arrested, they will come forward as witnesses even though the police may bring pressure on their employers. A spirit like this can very quickly firm up or fade out. Dare we let it fade?”

Farah says, “This is [Kepner] contemporaneously realizing how important that demonstration was and how important the trials were. It was a game changer that gays would no longer say, ‘please accept us because we’re just like you’ – because we’re not just like you – or saying ‘we didn’t do it’ or ‘please don’t hurt us.’ This is, ‘We have civil rights, we’re equal under the Constitution.’ We didn’t get them at the time, but this is the first time that gays stood up in the U.S. and actually said they were subject to the same rights that straight people were. That’s how important this place is.”

“All of the Pride celebrations in the entire nation and the world extend out of what happened here,” says Romanoff. “There were other groups, there was the Mattachine Society before. We just had the steps that go from Silver Lake Boulevard up, [they have] just been dedicated [to] the Mattachine Society. [It] was another homosexual group that was fighting for acceptance. We came from a different position. We were fighting and saying that our civil rights guaranteed us all of the rights, the same as everybody else. And that started here with that raid. It facilitated that and it wasn’t like Stonewall, where it was a riot. Here it was an orderly demonstration, but a demonstration.”

The Mattachine Steps are located on the east side of Silver Lake, where Silver Lake Boulevard splits. “Until this bar became a historical monument, there were no gay historical sites in California,” says Farah. “This was the first, the second was the steps in front of Harry Hay’s house.” Hay was a founder of the Mattachine Society – its spinoff, One, Inc. published ONE. The post office had refused to mail the October 1954 issue, declaring it obscene. The magazine brought suit and it went to the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling for LGBT rights and free speech. “The [Supreme Court] said that simply because [the magazine] discussed homosexuality in a social context, that it wasn’t illegal to mail it simply because it mentioned homosexuality,” says Farah.

Alexei Romanoff at The Black Cat

Alexei Romanoff and the plaque that designates The Black Cat as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 939.

For Romanoff and Farah, it’s important that The Black Cat gets the recognition that it deserves as a civil rights landmark. “The worldwide Pride movement, it’s still a civil rights movement,” says Farah. “It started in this bar and on this corner. And it’s virtually unknown. This spot should be a major attraction, not just a plaque. People want to know where civil rights in the U.S. came from? This is as important as any bridge in Selma. We’re still fighting that battle.”

Romanoff says, “When I was testifying to get this place declared a historical landmark, they asked me why I felt it necessary or I wanted it to [be declared a landmark]. And I said, 50 years from now when I’m no longer here and able to talk to young people, or to some young gay person who has the question, ‘Where did my gay pride or gay rights start?’ That they have a place that they can go to – like Gettysburg, like Selma, Alabama and like Bunker Hill. Because that’s the places where our liberties started. And this is one of those places. So some gay man, or any man or any woman, that says, ‘What aided all of our rights?’ This is one of the places. And that’s what I said to them. And we have the plaque outside now because of that.”

Farah says, “I don’t know of another place in L.A. that’s as important for civil rights as this bar.”

The Black Cat
3909 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 661-6369

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