The Compton’s Cafeteria riot
Published Thursday, 07-Oct-2010 in issue 1189
“This is gay San Francisco. An inside look at the life of San Francisco’s homosexuals. They number 90,000— at least according to police department figures. They work to hide their sexual orientation by day, and only at night do they show their true colors.
The city’s downtown Tenderloin District is the home ground of the always visible segment of the city’s homosexuals and transvestites. The drag queens are here at Turk and Taylor.
So frequent were the fights between screaming queens in the 2 to 3 a.m. period that police — even in permissive San Francisco — had had enough, and asked an all night cafeteria to close by midnight.”
So began the 2005 documentary “Screaming Queens; The Riot at the Compton’s Cafeteria.” It’s a documentary of an event that transgender historian Susan Stryker described as the “first queer uprising” in the United States.
The bare bones facts of what happened at Evan Compton’s Cafeteria — formerly located at Turk and Taylor in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District — on that hot, August night in 1966 is this: Police came to the restaurant, a person described as a “queen” threw a cup of coffee in an officer’s face, the police began arresting these “queens,” and a riot broke out between the 50 or 60 patrons of the cafeteria and the police.
But there is so much more to the story of the Compton Cafeteria than those bare-bones facts. In 1966 San Francisco it was unlawful to crossdress; it was unlawful to “impersonate a female.” Transsexuals, drag performers and effeminate gay males experienced frequent harassment by police, including arrests and demeaning jailhouse treatment. Transsexuals, drag performers and effeminate gay males also had no employment or public accommodation protections, so prostitution became survival sex work — the only way the “queens” could make a living.
The sixties were a time of social upheaval, seeing the civil rights movements. In that decade, African-Americans fought back against political and social oppression with the help of community religious leaders, and won for themselves many civil rights.
In San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Glide Memorial United Methodist Church launched what Susan Stryker has described (in the book Transgender History) as “one of the most daring social initiatives”: The Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH), the “first ecumenical organization to bring the problem of antigay discrimination to the attention of liberal protestant churches.”
Glide Memorial United Methodist Church played a significant role in gay and transgender history. The church was instrumental in helping form the group Vanguard — a group of gay and trans youth working to improve their living conditions. Vanguard’s first political action was picketing the Evan Compton’s Cafeteria to protest the establishment treating transgender customers so poorly. Vanguard had been having their meetings at Compton’s Cafeteria, and tension developed between the cafeteria’s management and Vanguard members. Vanguard members had recently been subject not only to harassment by police, but discriminatory practices by management at Compton’s Cafeteria.
It all boiled over in August, 1966, in a riot...in an uprising. The aftermath of the uprising changed the Tenderloin. Dr. Harry Benjamin’s book The Transsexual Phenomenon had been recently published, and the cross-gender experience of transsexuals became a medical condition to be treated with therapy, hormones and genital reconstruction surgery. Dr. Harry Benjamin began treating patients in San Francisco.
Also, the police appointed Officer Elliot Blackstone as community liaison with those who lived in San Francisco, and he began to work with gay and trans people as citizens who deserved to be left unmolested by police harassment.
To quote Susan Stryker, from Transgender History, once again:
The violent oppression of transgender people at Compton’s Cafeteria did not solve the problems that transgender people in the Tenderloin faced daily. It did, however, create a space in which it became possible for the city of San Francisco to begin relating differently to its transgender citizens — to begin treating them, in fact, as citizens with legitimate needs instead of simply as a problem to get rid of. That shift in awareness was a crucial step for the contemporary transgender social justice movement — the beginning of a new relationship to state power and social legitimacy. It would not have happened the way that it did without direct action in the streets on the part of transgender women who were fighting for their own survival.
I’m proud of my sisters whose work to create a place for themselves in society also created a space for my contemporaries and me. So much more work needs to be done to obtain trans people’s — and GLBT people’s — freedom, justice, and equality, but our work today rests on the shoulders of those who came before us.