Monday, August 31, 2009

Roots of the Transgender Movement: The 1966 Riot at Compton's Cafeteria

reposted from Critical Moment

by Susan Stryker

Late one August night in San Francisco in 1966, Compton's Cafeteria was hopping with its usual assortment of transgender people, young street hustlers, and other down-and-out regulars who found refuge there from the mean streets of the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood. The restaurant's management, annoyed by a noisy crowd at one table that seemed be spending a lot of time without spending a lot of money, called the police as they had been doing with increasing frequency throughout the summer. A surly cop, accustomed to manhandling Compton's clientele, grabbed the arm of one of the queens.

She responded unexpectedly and threw her coffee in his face. Mayhem erupted: plates, trays, cups, and silverware flew threw the air at the police, who ran outside and called for backup. Tables were turned over, windows were smashed, and Compton's queer customers poured out of the restaurant and into the night. The paddy wagons pulled up, and street fighting broke out in Compton's vicinity, all around the corner of Turk and Taylor. Drag queens beat the police with their heavy purses, and kicked them with their high-heeled shoes. A police car was vandalized, a newspaper stand was burned to the ground, and in the words of the best available source on what happened that nights "general havoc was raised in the Tenderloin."

That riot at Compton's Cafeteria probably involved fifty or sixty people; it was the first known instance of collective, militant, queer resistance to the social oppression of transgender people in United States history. It took place nearly three years before the larger, better known 1969 riot at New York's Stonewall Inn, which is credited with launching the militant phase of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) civil rights movement. Why did queer people riot at Compton's, and why has their struggle that night, unlike the one at Stonewall, largely been forgotten until now?
I first came across the story of the Compton's riot in 1996, when I was doing research for my book Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was looking up information on the first gay pride parade in San Francisco and dug up a copy of the program for that 1972 event in the GLBT Historical Society archives. The parade organizers noted that the parade was ostensibly a celebration of Stonewall but they reminded program readers that gay militancy had started even earlier at Compton's Cafeteria.

Though I had never heard of the Compton's riot, as an out queer transsexual historian living in San Francisco, I was determined to get to the bottom of the story. I ran into several roadblocks for example, city police records for the 1960s no longer existed and the riot had not been covered in newspapers. I might have concluded that the riot story was just a tall tale had I not found tantalizing clues in some of the gay papers about Vanguard, a new organization of street youth that formed in 1966, and picketed Compton's in July of that year for discrimination against drag queens and hustlers. I knew then that the story was out there.

I was able to learn several things that made the story of the riot extremely plausible. First, the Tenderloin neighborhood had been a sex-work district since the early 1900's, and transgender people, particularly male-to-female people who experienced employment and housing discrimination in part because they "looked transgendered” had lived there in large numbers for decades. Turk Street, where Compton's was located, was well known for the many residential hotels that rented to transgender people.

Second, relations between the queens and the cops were never good, and had become worse in the mid-1960s. The police were notorious for exploiting sex workers in that neighborhood (if you look up "Tenderloin" in a dictionary, you'll find that it means “an inner-city vice district controlled by corrupt police officers'), and they were especially vicious to street queens whom they considered to be from the bottom-of-the-barrel. As the Vietnam War escalated and more soldiers and sailors passing through San Francisco stopped off in the Tenderloin to support the local sex trade, police raids intensified. Hardest hit were the gay and drag bars, which even then catered to the "don't ask, don't tell" military crowd.

Another factor that changed an already grim situation from bad to worse was the effect of urban renewal and redevelopment. The Black working-class neighborhoods that surrounded the Tenderloin were torn down beginning in the early 1960s, leaving the Tenderloin as the last pocket of affordable housing in central San Francisco. New residents flooding in from adjacent areas began to displace the queens, who were among the neighborhood's most vulnerable residents.

In response to such massive disruptions, the neighborhood activists launched a campaign for economic justice. These were the days, after all, of the federal government's so-called War on Poverty, as opposed to its usual war on poor people. Glide Memorial Methodist Church, a hotbed of civil rights activism located one short block from Compton's Cafeteria, became the hub of a campaign to win anti-poverty funding for the Tenderloin. That summer of 1966, the neighborhood was in a ferment that could not have failed to inspire the queens. Vanguard, the organization that protested the mistreatment of drag queens at Compton's, was itself organized as part of the anti-poverty campaign.

A final factor influencing the riot's timing was a perceived change in attitudes toward transsexual surgery in the United States. Genital transformation surgeries had been available in Europe since the 1930s, but most American doctors considered the procedures unethical, and refused to perform them. As a result, transsexual embodiment was practically out of reach for decades for many transgender women who might desire it. That began to change in July of 1966, with the publication of Dr. Harry Benjamin's path-breaking book, The Transsexual Phenomena. Benjamin argued it was impossible to change gender identity but possible to change bodily sex; he initiated a paradigm shift in American medical attitudes toward transgender people. As a result, many street queens in the Tenderloin began to believe a better life might finally be within their reach. The riot, in some respects, was the clash of newly raised expectations with the same old repression.

By 1999, I had pieced together much of the story of the Compton's Cafeteria riot. Still, I had found no "smoking gun" to prove that the riot had happened as described in the pride parade program. By this time, however, I had decided to make a film about the story. My filmmaking partner, Victor Silverman, and I pieced together archival footage of the queer scene in the Tenderloin for a work-in-progress screening at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. That was the turning point that led to Screaming Queens, our film about the Compton's riot' word got out on the street and people who had been patrons at Compton's, and who had rioted there, came forward to share their memories, which we then captured on film.

Screaming Queens introduces viewers to a diverse cast of former prostitutes, drag entertainers, police officers, ministers, and neighborhood activists, all of whom played a part in the events surrounding the Compton's Cafeteria riot. Mixing recent interviews with archival footage and documents, impressionistic reenactments, and period music, the film depicts a marginalized community few people know, one that exists in the midst of a city famous for its cosmopolitan glamour. With extraordinary candor, the subjects recount the difficulties they encountered in the Tenderloin, as well as the sense of community they created there in the mid-1960s. Felicia Elizondo tells of prostituting herself in order to survive. Aleshia Brevard, a drag entertainer, describes how her talent spared her from street prostitution. Perhaps most surprising is Sgt. Elliot Blackstone, who helps explain the conflict between the police and the city's transgender community and how the department's policies changed to reflect greater acceptance in the years following the 1966 riot.

Screaming Queens connects the riot at Compton's Cafeteria to broader social issues that continue to be relevant today, such as discriminatory policing practices in minority communities, lack of minority access to appropriate healthcare, harmful urban land use policies, the unsettling domestic consequences of foreign wars, and civil rights campaigns that aim to expand individual liberties and social tolerance on matters of sexuality and gender. The Compton's Cafeteria riot was the first militant outburst of the contemporary transgender movement. Making Screaming Queens has been a privilege.

Market Street and Union Square Sex Work Economies

Reposted from OutHistory

Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.

Union Square, 1955. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.
Union Square, 1955. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

Redevelopment in the central city would dramatically impact the Polk Street in the 1970s. The Polk Gulch district sat on the western fringe of the Tenderloin. The area housed the city’s bustling entertainment industry, until the 1920s, when city officials shut down the Barbary Coast “vice” district at the behest of the city’s business elite before the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and much of the trade went underground and relocated to the Tenderloin district.[1]

San Francisco’s modern gay subculture began to come together in the Tenderloin’s speakeasies and gin joints during the era of Prohibition. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, a number of gay bars quickly opened in the area. By the 1960s, the low-income area was a haven and a residential ghetto for low-income elderly, runaway youth, and an emerging transgender community, who found space in its residential hotels, 24-hour cafeterias, bars, and liberal religious institutions.

Patrons of the Gilded Cage, a Tenderloin club and afterhours youth hangout. 1968. Courtesy of the Peter Fiske collection at the GLBT Historical Society.
Patrons of the Gilded Cage, a Tenderloin club and afterhours youth hangout. 1968. Courtesy of the Peter Fiske collection at the GLBT Historical Society.
Ed Hansen, a liberal minister with close ties to anti-poverty campaigns and youth organizing, called the Tenderloin “the human dump heap of San Francisco. It is the place where the social outcasts – the aged, the poor, the infirm, the youth with sexual problems – persons of all races and religions – go and are out of sight. Here they are forgotten, ignored, and ultimately die, emotionally and then physically.”[2]

Several discreet sex work economies were also based in the neighborhood, each built around a specific “type” of sex worker and customer. While youth may have carried themselves differently in other aspects of their lives, while working they conformed to each location’s style of dress and sexual identity.

Patrons of the Gilded Cage, a Tenderloin club and afterhours youth hangout. 1968. Courtesy of the Peter Fiske collection at the GLBT Historical Society.
Patrons of the Gilded Cage, a Tenderloin club and afterhours youth hangout. 1968. Courtesy of the Peter Fiske collection at the GLBT Historical Society.
The “Meat Rack,” located along Market Street at Mason, was known for “trade,” a term referring to heterosexual-identified, traditionally masculine or “rough” young men, as well as individuals we would now refer to as transgendered. In 1962, a letter to the editor in LCE News complained about the “Walking Eyesores of Market Street” made up with “Lipstick, Rouge, Pancake, Eyeshadow, Spraynet and Bobby Pins,” and “the Hustler,” “lounging in the doorways of Market and Mission looking for the married man from down the Peninsula or over in East Bay.”[3]

“A few are quite honestly married with children,” a 1968 article noted of the “Meat Rack” hustlers, “and proud to wheel the carriage down past the meat rack on Sunday afternoon, introducing the wife to the johns and other hustlers.”[4] These youth were also thought be less educated and more likely to be involved in drug use and crime. “This is the male who is more likely to claim that he is straight …who is temporarily out of work and is transient to the city,” criminologist Martin Stow wrote in the early 1970s. He is “not likely to have completed high-school and comes from a family of conflicts.”[5]

Gay-identified prostitutes, many of them thought to be in college or with higher education levels, worked outside Union Square’s St. Francis Hotel, where the upscale “men-only” Oak Room was a well known cruising spot among gay men in the 1950s and early 1960s. “His goal,” according to a 1968 article, “will be to meet a truly generous sugar daddy, not too hard to take and too demanding of time, that will set him up as a keptie, put him through college, buy him a car, or place him in a life-time business career.”[6]

In this economically depressed area, aboveground businesses depended on the money generated by the sex trade. “The Plush Doggie…has suffered mightily from the gay trade,” Guy Strait wrote sarcastically in 1964 of a 24-hour diner. “They have suffered so badly they are still in business, otherwise they would have had to close their doors many months ago.”[7]

Vanguard Magazine, 1966. Courtesy of the GLBTHS.
Vanguard Magazine, 1966. Courtesy of the GLBTHS.

Vanguard, a short-lived queer youth organization that arose out of liberal ministers’ anti-poverty work in the central city, characterized the economy as exploitative in the mid-1960s: “We Protest the endless profit adults are making off youth in the central city,” one mid-1960s flier read. “We demand justice and immediate corrections of the fact that most of the money made in the area is made by the exploitation of youth by so called normal adults who make a fast buck off situations everyone calls degenerate, perverted, and sick.”[8]

Vanguard "Street Sweep" Protest. Courtesy of the GLBTHS.
Vanguard "Street Sweep" Protest. Courtesy of the GLBTHS.
  1. “Excavating the Postwar Sex District in San Francisco,” Josh Sides, California State University, Northridge, 359.
  2. Vector Magazine, Jan 1966.
  3. LCE News, March 4 1962.
  4. Orpheus…in-bound, Vector Magazine, May 1968.
  5. No title, c. early 1970s, by Martin F. Stow, Toby Marotta Collection, GLBTHS.
  6. “Orpheus…in-bound,” Vector Magazine, May 1968.
  7. LCE News, May 1964.
  8. Vanguard “We Protest” in Don Lucas papers, GLBTHS.

“A ‘Secularized’ Church Pursues Its Mission In Unorthodox Causes

Wall Street Journal, March 13, 1967
“A ‘Secularized’ Church Pursues Its Mission In Unorthodox Causes
San Francisco Homosexuals Helped by Glide Methodist; Some Members Unhappy

Movement “part of a wider trend called ‘secularization.’” “The clergy is a major source of recruits for the civil rights movement.” “Essentially, they say, their job is to apply Christian ideals of charity to urban problems.” “Glide’s members are especially concerned about homosexuality. It is widespread in San Francisco. Police estimate that 80,000 to 90,000 San
Franciscans, or more than 10% of the city’s 790,000 people, are homosexuals.

Glide permitted the Vanguards, a group of young male prostitutes, to have a dance in the church. Glide also has made office space available to the Vanguards, helped them secure a clubroom and bought them furniture. “We were the only ones who would respond to the needs of these people, says Mr. Williams. “If you make yourself available to people, there’s got to be a complete commitment. A commitment just to help those its easy to help is hypocritical.”

Glide ministers haven’t tried to ‘reform’ the homosexuals. But Mr. Durham says some have responded to the sympathetic treatment they have received. “One fellow who was really struggling with his sexual identity has gotten married and found a job,” he says. “Two or three have joined the church. Some who have gotten away from the kind of life they were leading have even come back to help those still caught up in it.”

Whatever else may result from the aid to the Vanguards, it already has opened some communication between homosexuals and the police department. A policeman has been assigned to counsel the group. Oddly, among those unhappy with the Glide, Vanguard relationship were leaders of several other homosexual organizations. “We thought the publicity (about dances and prostitution) would tend to perpetuate in the public mind a stereotype of the homosexual as irresponsible and sexually permissive,” one says.

…[mentions Saul Alinksy preaching, abortion “defender” preaching, CCH, etc.]…

If Glide’s activities appear unorthodox, its ministers say, it is largely because of a strong ‘anti-urban’ strain in American Protestant thinking. While most denominations have willingly, even eagerly, dispatched missionaries to primitive and sometimes savage foreign lands, many religious leaders have sied away freom work in the domestic ‘jungles.’ Heretofore, says Mr. Durham, “The role of the church in the city was somehow to save people from the evils of the city and to remind them of the sanctity of their rural heritage.” But no matter how “atheistic, Godless, immoral, demonic” modern city life may seem to be, Mr. Durham says, God create it and loves it.”

Vanguard Covers

[Images courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society Archive]