Compton's Cafeteria riot
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.
The 1960s was a critical time period for sexual, gender, and ethnic minorities—social movements which honed in on civil rights and sexual liberation came into fruition, and even churches, like the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, began reaching out to the transgender community. Still, many police officers resisted this change and continued to abuse and ostracize transgender people. This simultaneous rise in support for transgender rights on one side, and the unwillingness to accept these new ideas on the other, created the strain that would fuel the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in the summer of 1966, in which a transgender woman resisted arrest by throwing coffee at a police officer and drag queens poured into the streets, fighting back with their high heels and heavy bags.
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, especially trans women who had spent a long evening hustling, could congregate publicly in the city, because they were unwelcome in gay bars due to transphobia. Compton's management and staff, in an effort to deter drag queens and trans women, would frequently call the police when they were present causing them to be harassed and arrested for a crime called "female impersonation."
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.
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.
A number of the women that Susan Stryker interviewed for the film, who were all members of the transgender community in the Tenderloin District during the time of the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, were involved in street prostitution. Among these women was Tamara Ching, who is now a sex-workers-rights activist. They ended up in the profession, many of them lamented, because they faced job discrimination. Eventually, they stopped trying to seek employment elsewhere, though some “fortunate” ones were saved from the dangers of street prostitution because they could “pass” (i.e. they appeared more feminine and could get jobs as dancers or singers). The women who had to sell sex to survive complained of police harassment and abuse by customers. It is clear that social forces—systematic marginalization and discrimination—have forced these women into prostitution, the only viable source of income.
Cause of the riot
In the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender individuals, who would frequent the restaurant. 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. In response to police arrests, the transgender community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria. Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against police violence directed towards transgender people in San Francisco. 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. When one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face. According to the director of Screaming Queens, Susan Stryker, the cafeteria "erupted.” 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. Dozens of people fought back against the police who forced them into paddy wagons.
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. The exact date of the riot is unknown because 1960 police records no longer exist and the riot was not covered by newspapers.
Effects of the riot
Vanguard Street Actions
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.”
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.
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.
Later effects of the riot
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.
Felicia "Flames" Elizondo, who participated in the Compton's riot, spoke at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Compton's Cafeteria Riot. She said, "A lot of people thought we were sick, mental trash," says Elizondo, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1974. "Nobody cared whether we lived or died. Our own families abandoned us and we had nowhere to go."
It was dangerous for queer folks to exist back in 1966 as there were no equality laws and LGBT people were considered "perverts" and "mental cases." Furthermore, transgender people found themselves locked out of most "respectable" jobs and were often forced to turn to prostitution to survive. Many were beaten, and some were brutally murdered.
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. 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. Police brutality towards them decreased over time, and they had less fear of being heckled by the police department for dressing how they chose during the daytime.
- 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
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- San Francisco Chronicle: Pride parade salute for an unlikely ally; Police officer who reached out in 1960s to be grand marshal
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