Compton's Cafeteria riot

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Gene Compton's Cafeteria Riot 40th Anniversary Historical Marker at corner of Taylor and Turk in San Francisco

The Compton's Cafeteria Riot occurred in August 1966 in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. This incident was one of the first recorded LGBT-related riots in United States history, preceding the more famous 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.[note 1] It marked the beginning of transgender activism in San Francisco.[1]


Compton's Cafeteria was one of a chain of cafeterias, owned by Gene Compton, in San Francisco from the 1940s to the 1970s. The Tenderloin location of Compton's at 101 Taylor Street (at Turk)—open from 1954 to 1972—was one of the few places where transgender people could congregate publicly in the city, because they were unwelcome in gay bars due to transphobia.[2][3] In addition, the cafeteria was open all hours until the riots occurred. Most of the fights occurred from 2-3 am so they were forced to close at midnight. Because cross-dressing was illegal at the time, police could use the presence of transgender people in a bar as a pretext for making a raid and closing the bar.[4]

Many of the militant hustlers and street queens involved in the riot were members of Vanguard, the first known gay youth organization in the United States founded in 1965, which gained the help of radical ministers working with Glide Memorial Church, a center for progressive social activism in the Tenderloin for many years. A lesbian group of street people was also formed called the Street Orphans.[5]

Cause of the riot[edit]

In the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender individuals, who would frequent the restaurant.[6] Management felt that transgender customers were loitering and causing them to lose more desirable business. In response, they implemented a service fee directed at transgender individuals and blatantly harassed them in an attempt to get them to leave the restaurant.[6] In response to police arrests, the transgender community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria.[7] Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against police violence directed towards transgender people in San Francisco.[7] On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton's called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. In the 50's and 60's police officers were known to mistreat transgender people.[8] When one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face.[2] At that point the riot began, dishes and furniture were thrown, and the restaurant's plate-glass windows were smashed. Police called for reinforcements as the fighting spilled into the street, where a police car had all its windows broken out and a sidewalk newsstand was burned down.[6] The exact date of the riot is unknown because 1960 police records no longer exist and the riot was not covered by newspapers.[9]

The next night, more transgender people, hustlers, Tenderloin street people, and other members of the LGBT community joined in a picket of the cafeteria, which would not allow transgender people back in. The demonstration ended with the newly installed plate-glass windows being smashed again.[5]

Effects of the riot[edit]

Vanguard Street Actions[edit]

Following the Compton’s riot(s), a queer youth group by the name of Vanguard orchestrated some notable actions.

The group of queer youth--many transgender, many engaged in survival sex work and without stable housing-- had formed as a social and political group beginning in 1965.  They initially formed under the Glide Memorial Church, a radical offshoot of the United Methodist Church.  Vanguard’s politics highlighted “the issues facing gay and transgender youth in the 1960s produced radical insights into the connections between economic class, police violence, incarceration, and homophobia.”[10]

In early Autumn of 1966, Vanguard hosted a historic “street sweep” in response to the events at Compton’s.  About fifty Vanguard members took to the streets of the Tenderloin with push brooms borrowed from the city. They did so in protest, a direct response to the routine practice of police “sweeping” the streets of known queer neighborhoods--such as the Tenderloin--to remove all the queer people.[11]

Many held handmade signs reading “Fall Clean Up: This Is a Vanguard Community Project”, and “All trash is before the broom,” pushing against the idea that they, as people, were in any way disposable or unworthy of human dignity.  Vanguard symbolically called into question the fact that police were treating transgender and queer sex workers like “trash” to be “swept away,” and instead reclaimed public space as their own.[12]

Later effects of the riot[edit]

Felicia "Flames" Elizondo speaks at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Compton's Cafeteria Riot.

The riot marked a turning point in the local LGBT movement. According to the online encyclopedia[13]

In the aftermath of the riot at Compton's, a network of transgender social, psychological, and medical support services was established, which culminated in 1968 with the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit [NTCU], the first such peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world.

Serving as an overseer to the NTCU was Sergeant Elliott Blackstone, designated in 1962 as the first San Francisco Police Department liaison to what was then called the "homophile community." According to Susan Stryker, Compton’s Cafeteria riot was “the first known incident of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history." Transgender people finally stood up to the abuse and discrimination by police officers.[6] The riot "did not solve the problems that transgender people in the Tenderloin faced daily", but prompted the city to begin addressing them as citizens rather than as a problem to be removed.[6] Police brutality towards them decreased over time,[6] and they had less fear of being heckled by the police department for dressing how they chose during the daytime.[7]

On June 24, 2016, at the conclusion of the San Francisco Trans March, a new street sign was unveiled, renaming the 100 block of Taylor Street to Gene Compton's Cafeteria Way.[14][15][16]

In August 2016, a number of events were held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the riot, including a gathering in Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin.[17][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A smaller-scale riot broke out in 1959 in Los Angeles, when the drag queens, lesbians, gay men, and transgender people who hung out at Cooper Do-nuts and who were frequently harassed by the LAPD fought back after police arrested three people, including John Rechy. Patrons began pelting the police with donuts and coffee cups. The LAPD called for back-up and arrested a number of rioters. Rechy and the other two original detainees were able to escape. Faderman, Lillian and Stuart Timmons (2006). Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. Basic Books. pp. 1–2. ISBN 0-465-02288-X


  1. ^ Boyd, Nan Alamilla (2004). "San Francisco" in the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, Ed. Marc Stein. Vol. 3. Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 71–78.
  2. ^ a b Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. First Printing edition. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008.
  3. ^ Sandeen, Autumn. "The Compton's Cafeteria Riot". Gay and Lesbian Times. Archived from the original on 9 November 2013. Retrieved 24 August 2013. 
  4. ^ Sears, Clare. “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. 3 (December 14, 2008): 170–87. doi:10.1353/wsq.0.0108.
  5. ^ a b Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria (documentary film by Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker, 2005)
  6. ^ a b c d e f Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Berkeley: Seal, 2008. Print.
  7. ^ a b c Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria. 2005. Film.
  8. ^ "Before Stonewall, There Was The Cooper's Donuts And Compton's Cafeteria Riots". Queerty. 7 October 2011. Retrieved 5 July 2015. 
  9. ^ "Recalling a San Francisco Stonewall". Retrieved 5 July 2015. 
  10. ^ Captive genders : trans embodiment and the prison industrial complex. Stanley, Eric A.,, Smith, Nat, (Expanded second edition ed.). Oakland, CA, USA. ISBN 9781849352345. OCLC 907167460. 
  11. ^ Captive genders : trans embodiment and the prison industrial complex. Stanley, Eric A.,, Smith, Nat, (Expanded second edition ed.). Oakland, CA, USA. ISBN 9781849352345. OCLC 907167460. 
  12. ^ Captive genders : trans embodiment and the prison industrial complex. Stanley, Eric A.,, Smith, Nat, (Expanded second edition ed.). Oakland, CA, USA. ISBN 9781849352345. OCLC 907167460. 
  13. ^ "glbtq >> social sciences >> San Francisco". Archived from the original on 5 July 2015. Retrieved 5 July 2015. 
  14. ^ Staver, Sari (June 23, 2016). "Street renaming highlights Trans March". Bay Area Reporter. Retrieved June 25, 2016. 
  15. ^ Chavez, Lola M. (June 25, 2016). "SF Trans Celebration Boos Pols and Says No to More Police". Mission Local. Retrieved June 25, 2016. 
  16. ^ Kukura, Joe (June 25, 2016). "Video: Politicians Booed As Trans March (Un)Officially Kicks Off SF's Pride Weekend". SFist. Gothamist LLC. Archived from the original on June 28, 2016. Retrieved June 25, 2016. 
  17. ^ "Compton's Cafeteria Riot 50th Anniversary". The SF LGBT Center. Retrieved August 29, 2016. 
  18. ^ "Calendar of Events for the Compton's Cafeteria Riot 50th Anniversary". San Francisco Bay Times. Retrieved August 29, 2016. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 37°47′00″N 122°24′39″W / 37.78333°N 122.41083°W / 37.78333; -122.41083