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."

Jim Burroway

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.

They kissed.

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.

Timothy Kincaid

December 31st, 2007

The location is still a gay bar, Le Barcito, though the neighborhood and the clientelle have changed. They are still a tiny hole in the wall next to an adult video store and across the street from JiffyLube.

On their website they tell that the founder of Advocate magazine was one of the men arrested that night.

Up until that time I’d always said to friends, “What are you worried about? If you’re doing nothing wrong, nothing’s going to happen to you.” But after my arrest I knew there was something radically rotten going on. There probably wouldn’t be any Advocate if not for that one tap on the back.

Emily K

December 31st, 2007

What, no love for us lesbians? Not everyone who would see ME kissing another girl would think it’s “hot” and want to linger at looking at it. Really, it’s only certain girls kissing each other that guys think are “hot.” A friend of mine was once beaten up on a train because the offender thought she was being “too close” to her girlfriend. Her girlfriend broke up with her that night, out of fear. I personally think that if I were to kiss another girl, it would be a brave act. Especially those around me who really know me.

Another problem is that girls can be touchy-feely with eachother as friends, or even kiss eachother as friends (i’ve done it) and it’s fine. Men aren’t “allowed” to be touchy-feely, so physical acts that are seen as “innocent” for heteros and women are seen as scandalous for two men. Men can’t cry, can’t hug, can’t hold hands, can’t “smooch,” can’t kiss, can’t “peck,” can’t sit on each other’s laps, can’t share a bed for fun as friends the way girls can as friends. That’s just “not done.” In fact I’m not aware of any culture that DOES allow that.

At any rate, I’m not always a fan of watching ANYONE kiss. It’s just not my place to watch it, and I’m not a fan of PDA anyway. Some of us were just born conservative and reserved, and I’m one of those.

Jason

December 31st, 2007

“Another problem is that girls can be touchy-feely with eachother as friends, or even kiss eachother as friends (i’ve done it) and it’s fine. Men aren’t “allowed” to be touchy-feely, so physical acts that are seen as “innocent” for heteros and women are seen as scandalous for two men. Men can’t cry, can’t hug, can’t hold hands, can’t “smooch,” can’t kiss, can’t “peck,” can’t sit on each other’s laps, can’t share a bed for fun as friends the way girls can as friends. That’s just “not done.” In fact I’m not aware of any culture that DOES allow that.”

Then you haven’t been to Europe, the Arab world, or Latin America. Wasn’t Bush criticized for following local tradition and holding hands with a male foreign dignitary from the middle east? Friends of mine have noted that the way men are affectionate with each other outside of the USA is so different that they have to “recalibrate their gaydar” because most of the population gives off false positives by American Gay Standards.
But you still make a valid point, there is still a difference between what’s okay between two women and what’s okay between two men, regardless of culture. Sexism and homophobia are fraternal twins, so in a male-dominated world, there’s always going to be a difference.

“At any rate, I’m not always a fan of watching ANYONE kiss. It’s just not my place to watch it, and I’m not a fan of PDA anyway. Some of us were just born conservative and reserved, and I’m one of those.”

Unless a couple is being obnoxious, I normally don’t notice them. There are times when I happen to notice a fairly unobtrusive couple and think to myself, “I don’t think I could get away with even that.” It’s rough sometimes, Chicago is fairly open-minded, but there are places where my partner and I sitting next to each other on the bus or train is enough to get sideways glances.

But that’s part of the life of being gay. I don’t remember who said it, but it’s very valid, “the political is personal, and the personal is political.” –Whether we like that or not, I think it’s true.

Emily K

December 31st, 2007

Actually, I spent 5 months in Europe. It IS more acceptable over there, especially in Italy, I noticed, which is where I lived most of the time. But there’s STILL a sense of “machoism” that must be conformed to.

simon

December 31st, 2007

and i wanna second emily’s first point. i have throngs of lesbian friends (nearly all of them) who have been shouted at, spit on, and beaten up for showing affection in public.

two women kissing is only hot for straight men if they believe those women will go home with men at the end of the night (think madonna and britney, girls gone wild, and bad mainstream porn).

have you ever paid attention to what happens when a butch and a femme kiss in a straight bar? it can still be downright scary (and i’m in nyc).

Jim Burroway

December 31st, 2007

Simon, Emily, you’re quite right. I didn’t mean to dismiss lesbians concerns for their personal safety where displays of affection are concerned. Those concerns are quite real and shouldn’t be overlooked Now that I read it, I know that some substantial revisions are in order. So my New Year’s resolution is to do better when I post something similar next year.

Meanwhile, I’ve placed an update to the end of the post. Next year’s version will be different. Thanks.

Emily K

December 31st, 2007

Thanks Jim, that was really big of you.

simon

December 31st, 2007

thx and happy new year!

Pia\'Sharn

January 2nd, 2008

“And while Ennis Del Mar and Jack Tripp were finally allowed to kiss each other in the remotest reaches of Brokeback Mountain…”

Actually, it’s Jack Twist. Just had to be nitpicky and point that out. :)

Lovely post, and thank you very much for the addendum to include the f/f couples.

Happy New Year!

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