Taking it to the Streets
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In Recognition of Pride Month

While many  view the Stonewall Riots as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement in the United States, there were numerous incidents that paved the way for what happened in New York in June 1969. One of the most significant uprisings broke out years before (1966) in San Francisco, CA.  Though knowledge of this event has faded over the years in Stonewall’s shadow, it was one of the first times the LGBT community stood up against discrimination and police abuse. That event is known as the:

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Historical Notes

IA plaque commemorating Gene Compton's Cafeteria Riot 1966n the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was a common practice for law enforcement agencies across the U.S.  to harass members of the LGBT community. California was no exception. With laws against cross-dressing  a part of the California statutes, police ‘kept an eye out’ for transgender individuals entering or leaving gay bars-an excuse to raid and shut down these places.  As a result, many gay hangouts rejected transgender individuals, who were shunned by many members of the gay community as well.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is sometimes referred to as the Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot because Gene Compton was the owner of a chain of cafeterias.  This one specific cafeteria in which the riot occurred was located on the corner of Taylor and Turk Streets in an area known as the Tenderloin District, an impoverished neighborhood in San Francisco. It was a popular all-night hang-out area for transgender people to socialize. In spring of 1966, Compton’s began to discourage the patronage of gay and transgender individuals.  Hired security guards and local police increasingly harassed these patrons.

On an August evening in 1966, Compton’s Cafeteria erupted in a riot. The incident was not well documented at the time; even the exact date is uncertain and the details remain sketchy. According to available accounts, a cafeteria worker called the police when some transgender customers became unruly. The San Francisco Police came to Compton’s Cafeteria with the intent to close the establishment and arrest the patrons.

The police planned to use the laws against cross-dressing to oppress the transgender community by preventing their socialization at the cafeteria. When the police attempted to close the cafeteria, they became aggressive with some of the patrons. Police officers were accustomed to manhandling the clientele at Compton’s. On this night, the patrons unexpectedly fought back and one of the transwomen responded by throwing a cup of coffee at an officer.

Other patrons joined in and started throwing sugar shakers, dishes and furniture. Police tried to grab patrons as they exited the restaurant, which led to a general melee outside as drag queens kicked the officers with their high-heeled shoes and beat them with their heavy purses. Police called for reinforcements as about 50 enraged customers fought back.

Before the night was over, windows of the cafeteria were broken, a police car was destroyed, and a nearby newsstand was burned.  The next night, 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. Following the altercation, Compton’s began closing earlier; its business never fully recovered.

This little known uprising helped launch a broader fight for human rights in America. It is considered the first known instance of collective resistance by the LGBT community against police harassment and the beginning of the movement for transgender rights. The historic incident was recounted in the 2005 documentary film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.