Alexei Romanoff, 81, knows a thing or two about Resistance. In fact, you could say he is in some sense a founding father of LGBT resistance in Los Angeles, having helped sparked one of the earliest large scale demonstrations in American history against homophobic injustice.
And that’s just one good reason Romanoff will lead the ResistMarch as 2017’s LA Pride Grand Marshal.
Los Angeles in the late 1960s, like much of America, was a hotbed of resistance of every kind: the women’s movement, the hippie movement, the antiwar movement and, yes, even a nascent movement for LGBT rights, all combined here to fuel the winds of change. The LGBT community in Los Angeles, as in New York and around the country, lived under constant threat of official violence and the oppression of pervasive hostility. But a few people began to fight back.
Alexei is is perhaps the last surviving participant of the pioneering civil rights demonstration that took place outside the Black Cat Tavern.
In 1966 Los Angeles, affection between men was officially condemned as a mental illness and viewed as a moral disorder. Sexual relations between people of the same sex — even hand holding — was a crime. Careers were destroyed by whisper or innuendo and extortion was rampant. There were precious few safe social spaces for LGBT people other than a dozen or so nightclubs in close proximity to one another near Silver Lake — Black Cat, Ram’s Head and Stage Door — and a couple, like The Patch near Long Beach.
And so when routine police raids on these establishments escalated and turned violent, the community was deeply traumatized.
Finally, a breaking point came on New Year’s Eve 1967 when a celebration at Black Cat turned into a bloodbath; at five minutes past midnight, plain clothes police officers began tackling patrons, swinging billy clubs and pool sticks, dragging people into the streets, pulling bartenders facedown over broken glass across the bar, chasing patrons down the streets, breaking bones and doing severe bodily injury to some, arresting 16 people who were charged with lewd conduct for simply kissing, according to witnesses of the time and published accounts.
A community that had long hidden in the shadows suddenly found itself seeking intersectional allies. Police violence against civilians was attracting more attention than ever and activist groups, like Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE) distributed fliers that read, “PRIDE DEMONSTRATION,” screamed one, calling for demonstrators to protest “the Establishment war on minorities.” The Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile urged action by activating a phone-tree with the message that “Homosexuals, who have always been dependably meek, are fighting back.”
An unprecedented number of people turned out — one of the first mass protests in the United States to address police harassment of LGBT people — protesting at the corner of Sunset and Hyperion.
Alexei Romanoff helped organize that protest, a protest that has a direct line to the founding of Christopher Street West and the roots of LA Pride. He helped spark a revolution that made Los Angeles a haven for LGBT people and fueled a movement that spread nationwide.
Until recently, the action, groundbreaking though it was, has rarely been hailed as such. It has been almost buried in LA’s psyche. Even Troy Perry, one of the founders of Christopher Street West, says he “never viewed the Black Cat as a demonstration for LGBTQ rights but as an action against police brutality at that time in LA.”
Born in the Ukraine, Romanoff immigrated to the United States during War World II, moving to Los Angeles in 1958 and became an active member of the city’s activist and leather communities. As his activism increased, so too did his arrest record for ‘civil disobedience’ in organizing protests against unfair police raids.
Romanoff has founded several LGBTQ+ organizations, including the Santa Monica Bay Coalition for Human Rights and the Avatar Club of Los Angeles.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Romanoff also fought long and hard for the funding of research and assistance programs as well as the rights of AIDS victims.
“I have spent a majority of my life fighting for equality and standing up for the unalienable rights of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Romanoff, who will also be very active in this year’s #ResistMarch. “I have marched alongside the community in solidarity ever since the first LA Pride Parade 47 years ago, and will do so as long as I live. “
Romanoff is featured, along with many other local LGBTQ+ activists, in LA Pride’s 2017 ‘OWN YOUR PRIDE.’ The marketing campaign, featured at the top of this page, was launched on May 11, 2017.
“This year’s LA Pride experience will be different from what we’ve seen over the past few years,” says Chris Classen, CSW Board President. “So, our campaign needed to be different, too. We are committed to honoring our community’s rich history of activism by encouraging everyone to own their pride this year. Our choice for the 2017 LA Pride Grand Marshal was easy. Alexei is a renowned activist, a champion of human rights, a long-time LA Pride supporter, and our friend. He represents the very best of what our community stands for as well as what it can be.”
Visit the ‘OWN YOUR PRIDE’ homepage to see the campaign video along with video vignettes of all those who participated in the campaign.
While 2017 marks the organization’s 47th anniversary, it also marks a pride season of change. This year, Christopher Street West celebrates the right to demonstrate with #ResistMarch, an all-inclusive march that will take place on June 11th.
The march begins at Hollywood & Vine and will work its way through the city, ending at West Hollywood Park where participants can continue celebrating at the LA Pride Festival.