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 â€œan 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.