|What happened at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco?
The June 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City are widely credited as the spark that ignited the gay liberation movement. But an incident three years earlier in San Francisco was likely the first time queers physically fought back against police harassment.
In the 1960slike todaySan Francisco's Tenderloin district was an impoverished neighborhood frequented by drag queens, gay hustlers, and runaway queer youth. At the time, cross-dressing was against the law, and transgender people were subject to frequent police harassment. Many transgender women worked as prostitutes because they couldn't get other jobs. "The Tenderloin was known as the place to go for sex, drugs, and late-night fun," explains transgender scholar Dr. Susan Stryker, "but while others had the freedom to come and go, the transgender women couldn't leave."
Turk Street was the center of the Tenderloin's transgender community. "Turk Street was our street, our home," recalled Amanda St. Jaymes, who at the time played the role of house mother at the El Rosa Hotel, a sort of "home for wayward girls" with nowhere else to go. At the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets stood Gene Compton's Cafeteria, a popular all-night hangout where queens, hustlers, and street youth could get a cheap meal or a cup of coffee between tricks and take temporary refuge from the violence they faced on the streets. "Compton's was a great place to meet," said Tamara Ching, who, like St. Jaymes, was a frequent patron. "It was our own little fairyland."
By 1966, San Francisco had a well-established homophile community that included the Daughters of Bilitis, the Tavern Guild, the Society for Individual Rights, and the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. While these gay and lesbian organizations had had some success in reducing police harassment of gay bars and had made inroads into the city's political establishment, the street queens and disadvantaged queer youth were largely left out of the picture. In response, the youthwith the help of progressive ministers from Glide Memorial Methodist Churchformed a radical queer group called Vanguard, which held its meetings at Compton's.
In the spring of 1966, new management at Compton's began to discourage the patronage of young queens and hustlers, who tended to be unruly and often spent long hoursbut little moneyat the diner. Hired security guards and local police increasingly harassed these patrons, and it was not uncommon for queens to be randomly arrested and thrown in jail for female impersonation. Vanguard's first major political action, on July 18, was a picket outside Compton's to protest this discrimination.
Soon after, on a warm night in early August, Compton's Cafeteria erupted in a riot. The incident was not well-documented at the timeeven the exact date is uncertainand the details remain sketchy. According to available accounts, a policeman tried to grab one of the young queens, who in turn threw her coffee in his face. Mayhem ensued as about 50 enraged customers hurled dishes at the police, overturned tables, and broke the diner's plate-glass windows. Police tried to grab patrons as they exited the restaurant, which led to a general melee outside, as queens kicked the officers with their high-heeled shoes and beat them with their heavy purses. Before the night was over, a police car was destroyed and a corner newsstand was set on fire.
According to Stryker, the Compton's riot was "the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history," and marked the beginning of the movement for transgender rights. "There was a lot of joy after it happened," recalled St. Jaymes. "A lot of people went to jail, but I don't give a damn. It needed to happen."
Following the altercation, Compton's began closing earlier and its business never fully recovered; it was replaced by a porn shop in 1972. But the event proved to be a turning point for the local transgender community. In the wake of the riot, the police began leaving the queens alone, and a sergeant in the department, Elliot Blackstone, helped get the laws against cross-dressing changed. A new network of social services was established, including city-funded health clinics. The city began issuing new ID cards reflecting transgender women's preferred gender, enabling them to enroll in school and get jobs.
A variety of social changes came together in the late 1960s to set the stage for the Compton's Cafeteria altercation and the later Stonewall riots, including the civil rights movement, urban renewal, the antiwar movement, and the rise of youth counterculture. At about the same time, the new availability of sex reassignment surgery in the United States and a better understanding of transsexualismpioneered by Dr. Harry Benjamin, who had an office near the Tenderloingave transgender people new hope for a brighter future. "Gender itself became a form of politics," argues Stryker. The riot at Compton's was "part of the same social upheaval that gave us unisex fashions, glam rock, gay liberation, and radical feminism."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No.10 July 29, 2005