LGBTQ History: Compton Cafeteria Riots

By Kelly McDonnell 

This article was first published October 20, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

Three years before the Stonewall Riots, transgender activists fought police brutality in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, 1966, transwomen resisted police intimidation and brutality outside of a popular LGBTQ gathering spot and all-night diner.

Gene Compton’s restaurant chain was a popular spot for transgender women, who had been denied entry to gay bars, to hang out, but management frequently called police on transgender patrons. Police arrested transwomen for the crime “female impersonation” because cross-dressing was illegal.

Transgender and gay people picketed police injustice and the restaurant’s management outside of Compton’s Cafeteria. Police arrived and attempted to arrest protesters, then one transwoman threw coffee at the police. A multi-day riot began, though it’s unclear for how long or how intense the protests were since police records of the year no longer exist, and the event wasn’t covered by newspapers.

A plaque at the former Compton’s Cafeteria site says, “Here marks the site of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria where a riot took place one August night when transgender women and gay men stood up for their rights and fought against police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination.”

Many people involved in the riot were part of the first American gay youth organization, Vanguard, founded in 1965. Vanguard and the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church organized multiple equal rights protests against businesses that refused to serve LGBTQ people.

Documentary filmmakers Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman interviewed riot survivors and local transwomen of the San Francisco Tenderloin District for her 2005 film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.

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