On June 18, 2010 I published a diary about the Compton Cafeteria Riots of 1966. On August 20, 2012 there was a gathering/march in San Francisco honoring the survivors of those riots and the decades to follow.
Lest one try to parse the difference between the drag queens of the time and today’s transwomen, one might note that the participants who showed up have mostly transitioned since that time.
That original diary follows.
Most of you know that June is designated as LGBT Pride month because of the Stonewall Riots, which began on June 28, 1969.
At Wikipedia, one can find the following statement:
They are frequently cited as the first instance in American history when people in the homosexual community fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities, and they have become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.
The only problem with the words above is that they are not quite true. Almost three years before, there had been a blow struck for freedom on the other side of the country.
- Note: The video inserts are fragments of The Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, which was produced by Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker.
Gene Compton owned a string of Compton’s Cafeterias from the 40s into the 70s. The site of the action in question was his cafeteria at the corner of Taylor and Turk in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. This 24 hour restaurant was one of the few places in San Francisco where the Hair Fairies, as they were known at the time, could congregate. The concepts of transsexual and transgender were almost(?) non-existent.
Transwomen were not welcome in San Francisco gay bars, since crossdressing was illegal and the presence of one transperson in a bar could get it raided and perhaps closed down.
Compton’s was also a hangout for street hustlers and members of a gay youth known as Vanguard (the first known LGBT youth organization, organized at Glide Memorial Church, along with a lesbian group called the Street Orphans.
On a hot August night, the Compton’s management called the police on its customers, claiming they had become too boisterous. One of the policemen rousted one of the transwomen and she threw her coffee in his face. That ignited the riot. Dishes and furniture exited through the plate glass windows. Police called reinforcements and the fight moved out into the street. A news stand was set ablaze.
The next day Compton’s adopted a policy prohibiting transfolk from entering the establishment. This caused more transfolk to gather at the scene, along with the hustlers and other denizens of the Tenderloin…and even some gay and lesbian folks…to picket the cafeteria. That demonstration ended with the newly installed windows also being broken.
One of the outcomes of the riot was that a network of services (social, psychological, and medical) for transpeople was established…which led to “the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first such peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world. The NTCU was run by Sergeant Elliot R. Blackstone of the SFPD, who had been designated liaison with the San Francisco homophile community, as it was called at the time.
Along with the political expression of the riot that we were human beings and deserved to be treated as such, July of 1966 brought the publishing of Harry Benjamin’s earth-shattering book, The Transsexual Phenomenon (pdf), which affirmed our existence socially and medically. This book established a procedure through which we could attain our life-long dreams.
The events of that hot August night were commemorated in 2006, with the installation of a plaque at the corner (the youtube of the first part of the commemoration doesn’t work properly…the second half will be displayed below).
It should also not be lost on anyone that the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was a drag bar.
It catered to an assortment of patrons, but it was known to be popular with the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: drag queens, representatives of a newly self-aware transgender community, effeminate young men, hustlers, and homeless youth.
In the words of my former hair stylist…and one of the queens who claims to have been there on the night of June 28, many of the queens were “serious about it”…meaning that they viewed themselves as women.
I share this story tonight so that people will know that we were there at the beginning and hence deserve to be there when equality is achieved.
Fair is fair, don’t you think?
Queerty did an article about the Compton Cafeteria Riots in 2011, while also reminding us of the Cooper’s Donuts riot of May, 1959. Cooper’s was situated between two gay bars, Harold’s and The Waldorf, which did not allow transwomen/drag queens into their establishments for fear of police raids.
Two cops entered the donut shop that night, ostensibly checking ID, and arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out. As the cops packed the back of the squad car, one of the men objected, shouting that the car was illegally crowded. While the two cops switched around to force him in, the others scattered out of the car.
From the donut shop, everyone poured out. The crowd was fed up with the police harassment and on this night they fought back, hurling donuts, coffee cups and trash at the police. The police, facing this barrage of [pastries] and porcelain, fled into their car calling for backup.
Soon, the street was bustling with disobedience. People spilled out in to the streets, dancing on cars, lighting fires, and generally reeking havoc. The police return with backup and a number of rioters are beaten and arrested. They also closed the street off for a day.