Today in History: The Temerity Of A Kiss
In commemoration of the Black Cat raid of 1966, celebrate this New Year's Eve with a radical act. Kiss him "on the mouth for three to five seconds."
December 31st, 2007
This essay first appeared last year. Since then, the readership of Box Turtle Bulletin has increased ten-fold, so I thought it might be appropriate to re-post this to premiere our series for 2008, “Today In History.”
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
It all began exactly forty years ago this New Year’s Eve, on Sunset Blvd., in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, in a small bar called the Black Cat. There were some sixty or seventy patrons gathered during those final moments of 1966, counting down the last few seconds to midnight. Couples gathered and stood next to each other, and as the countdown approached zero, they leaned into one other, and, amid the shouts of “Happy New Year!” and the opening strands of Auld Lang Syne, they did something all couples do all around the world.
And immediately at least six plainclothes officers who had infiltrated the gay bar began viciously beating and arresting the kissing offenders. As the melee widened, several people tried to escape to the nearby New Faces bar. Undercover officers followed and raided that bar as well. One of the New Faces workers was beaten so badly by police that they cracked a rib, fractured his skull and ruptured his spleen.
Six Black Cat kissers were tried and convicted of “lewd or dissolute conduct” in a public place, conduct that consisted of male couples hugging and kissing. According to one police report, one couple had “kissed on the mouth for three to five seconds.” Apparently, three to five seconds are what constituted “lewd or dissolute conduct” among the LAPD.
It’s hard to describe what it was like to be gay in Los Angeles in the 1950’s and ’60’s. It was virtually illegal to be gay in LA, where undercover officers displayed unusual zeal to “clean up the streets.” No place was safe, not even private homes, bars or clubs. “Gay bars” barely existed. If one establishment gained a reputation as a gay hangout, it would be raided and shut down. Undercover officers would infiltrate private parties and bars suspected of being frequented by gay men. If they saw anyone who engaged in any sort of social touching, hand-holding, dancing, or even simple small-talk that might, in the imagination of the undercover officer, conceivably lead to “something more”, they were arrested. Entrapment was the norm and it didn’t take much to get arrested. Simply arranging to meet for dinner or exchanging phone numbers with an undercover officer was often enough to trigger an arrest — and being labeled a sex offender under California Law.
But all of that began to change with the profoundly radical act of a kiss.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
Two and one half years before the Stonewall rebellion in New York, there was another rebellion underway in Los Angeles as the gay community stood its ground in defense of a kiss. In this case of do or die, more than 200 activists gathered at the corner of Sanborn and Sunset to protest the arrests and the ongoing police brutality and intimidation. At a time when few would dare to publicly identify themselves as homosexual for fear of intimidation and arrest, this first open gay-rights protest in Los Angeles was a very bold step. It led to the formation of PRIDE, a gay rights group in Los Angeles, and it swelled the ranks of the Mattachine Society. Where previous raids drove gay men further underground, this time the reaction was different. Gay activism in Los Angeles came of age that night forty years ago.
In the ensuing publicity, two of the convicted kissers, Charles W. Talley and Benny Norman Baker, were able to find some very brave heterosexual lawyers who agreed to handle their appeals. No gay lawyers were willing to publicly come out to take the case. Charles (the one described in the police report kissing someone “on the mouth for three to five seconds”) and Benny appealed their convictions all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But their kiss was much too radical for that august institution. In 1968, the court refused to hear Talley vs. California, and so their convictions stood.
There’s no question that we have come a very long way since 1966. But in some ways, we haven’t yet come far enough. Male couples can still be beaten for simply holding hands in public. The ordinary act of placing one’s hand in another’s – the same thing so many heterosexual couples do with such ease and innocence – is still too provocative even today in many places. A kiss would be downright heroic.
In a society where heterosexual couples can kiss wherever they please and lesbians kissing is considered “hot”, a kiss is still a very radical act when that kiss is shared between two men. Critics point to the popularity of Will & Grace as evidence that gay men are accepted, but long-suffering Will Truman (Eric McCormack) rarely had a boyfriend. And when he finally got one, he wasn’t allowed to kiss him on the lips for the longest time. It wasn’t until the the show had been on the air for eight seasons that Will was finally allowed to kiss James Hanson (Taye Diggs).
A few years ago, Oliver Stone put Alexander the Great in bed naked with Hephaistion after they expressed their undying love for each other. But even though Stone’s reputation is supposedly built on his bold interpretations of history, he chickened out and only let Alexander share his kiss with Olympia in a love scene that was more a struggle for dominance than an expression of love. And while Ennis Del Mar and Jack Tripp Twist were finally allowed to kiss each other in the remotest reaches of Brokeback Mountain where nobody could see them, all of that kissing still came to an end some twenty-five years ago with Jack’s brutal murder.
Forty years after the Black Cat raid, men still cannot be seen kissing each other, unless ratings are tanking during the final season or one of them dies.
And yet, what are two lovers supposed to do?
And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
A lot has changed since 1966, but the passage of forty years has not tamed the temerity of a simple kiss. For gay men, a kiss is still seen a boldly radical act. But it is also our declaration of independence, on which forty years ago many have pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
So all you men out there, do something radical this New Year’s Eve. Kiss him. On the Mouth. For three to five seconds.
I don’t care who you kiss or why. You can kiss him for love, you can kiss him for lust, or you can kiss him just because he’s cute. You can kiss him because he’s the love of your life, or you can kiss him because he’s a total stranger who you’ll never see again. But just kiss him, and kiss him boldly.
Kiss him for all of those who were not allowed to kiss. Kiss him for those who were beaten and arrested for kissing, and for those who fought back to defend that kiss. Kiss him for those heroes who declared an end to the shame of kissing. Kiss him because now you can; because today your greatest freedom is in that kiss. Kiss him on the mouth. And for good measure, kiss him for much, much longer than three to five seconds. Kiss him hard and long, with a kiss of forty years and still counting.
And wish him a very happy New Year.
Update: When I first wrote this, I had very few readers to admonish me for leaving something very important out: Ladies grab your gal and plant one on her “for three to five seconds,” at least. And don’t let up until you’re good and ready! I sincerely apologize for leaving you out. It was very boorish of me.
The same good wishes goes for everyone else, whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself. And have a very happy New Year.
That’s the advantage of having a larger readership this time: it keeps us accountable and on our toes, and it holds us to ever higher standards for ourselves and for each other. Thanks for your comments.