One night in August 1966, a group of trans* women and queer youth rioted against years of stigmatization and routine police harassment. It started at a popular all-night hangout, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, a chain restaurant in the Tenderloin and one of the few places trans* women could relax. In 1966 dressing as the “wrong gender” was still illegal in San Francisco, as in other areas of the country, and years of corrupt policing and harassment for “female impersonation” made for tense relations between the police and the trans* community. Police raided Compton’s that night looking to arrest such “female impersonators,” as they had for years. But on this night the people in the diner rose up.
The riot pushed the police out of the cafeteria into the street, and clearly surprised the officers. Police had made such arrests for years, and met with only limited, individual resistance. But that night in August the anger from years of provocation boiled over. Historian Susan Stryker, who first wrote of the riot and co-directed the powerful, Emmy Award-winning documentary, Screaming Queens, calls it “the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history,” three years before Stonewall — the event most of us know as the “start” of the LGBT rights movement.
Why then doesn’t the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot get the sort of attention Stonewall does? Maybe because Stonewall seems to represent a “final” tipping point? Or maybe because over time the protagonists of Stonewall have been gradually mainstreamed and deradicalized in our historical memory in a way the rioters at Compton’s, many of whom were sex workers, haven’t been. The Stonewall, according to Dick Leitsch, then executive director of the Mattachine Society of New York (an early gay rights organization), was a haven for “queens” and poverty-stricken young LGBT youth with no other place to go. They spearheaded the uprising, but their memory has been all but lost. I mean, Roland Emmerich described his upcoming Stonewall as a movie “about these crazy kids in New York, and a country bumpkin who gets into their gang, and at the end they start this riot and change the world.” WTF. I can only desperately hope he was kidding. But I doubt he was.
The popular memory of Stonewall has been so diluted that I can almost picture the cast of Modern Family in among the protesters and imagine they’d fit right in. But that’s the problem. They don’t fit in; not neatly, anyway.
This is why we need to see Stonewall not as an isolated incident when LGBT people “finally” fought back, but as one in a series of events where a growing, diverse queer community publicly rose up, often militantly, against both oppression and assimilation. Historians like John D’Emilio, Marc Stein, and Susan Stryker have done great work pointing out the militant antecedents of Stonewall, but these stories rarely find their way into popular history.1
Viewing Stonewall as a singular moment when LGBT people decided they’d had enough, or drawing a direct line between Stonewall and Obergefell, flattens (as Ian Lekus wrote here in June) and oversimplifies the history. It obscures the assertive and defiant stance of 1960s groups like the Gay Liberation Front — their name a provocative reference to the North Vietnamese National Liberation Front — which rejected older assimilationist tactics and politics. This sort of whitewashing of Stonewall also helps explain why the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria hardly gets any mention at all.
The Compton’s riot grew out of years of police harassment, poverty, and discrimination, in an atmosphere steeped in protest against the Vietnam War and racial discrimination. The Tenderloin, a San Francisco red light district, had become a residential ghetto for trans* people who had no other home and weren’t welcome outside the district. It was home, Susan Stryker explains, for “trans people who could lose a job at any moment or not be hired, who wouldn’t be rented to, who had to live in crappy residential hotels in a bad part of town, and who had to do survival sex work to support themselves.” Within the Tenderloin, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria became a haven from the threats of violence and persecution trans* and queer people faced on the street. Compton’s wasn’t progressive by any means. It became the refuge of Tenderloin drag queens, hustlers, sex workers, and performers only out of convenience, and really in spite of the management’s efforts to make them leave and have them arrested.
Though a center of gambling, sex work, drug use, and extreme poverty, the Tenderloin was the only place trans* people could live openly. Yet they still endured the constant threat of physical violence and near constant police harassment — despite regular payoffs — and arrest for “female impersonation.” Such arrests often landed people in jail where police tried to force them to cut their hair and change their appearance to match “normal” expectations.
“We just got tired of it,” Amanda St. Jaymes explained to Susan Stryker for the Screaming Queens documentary. “We got tired of being harassed. We got tired of being made to go into the men’s room when we were dressed like women. We wanted our rights.”2
Even before the riot, trans* people in the Tenderloin had started to agitate for change. Some formed a group called the Vanguard to help organize opposition to discrimination and harassment. Such groups formed in other cities as well. In New York, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, both drag queens and Stonewall veterans, organized the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR formed a collective shelter for trans* people to provide support, protection, and shared resources to help alleviate the need to resort to sex work in order to survive.
Though groups like Vanguard and STAR achieved only mixed success, they represent an important movement that radically challenged — and continues to challenge — a status quo that oppressed those who failed to conform to “normal” gender presentation, identity, and behavior.
Why doesn’t the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot get the sort of attention Stonewall does? Maybe because it was a riot led by transvestite, transsexual, and cross-dressing queens, prostitutes, and hustlers. They challenge images of what a “good” activist represents at the same time they create space for alternative — to some threatening — ways of defining ourselves. Addressing the Compton’s riot means addressing a host of messy issues including the gender binary, class, sexuality, and sex work. And that’s a very good thing.
The preference in popular historical memory for politically “clean” activist heroes obscures the complexity of the past and erases powerful events like the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, where a group of “screaming queens” struck back with purses, salt shakers, and chairs against a San Francisco police force, and society at large, that had for years brutalized, harassed, targeted, and humiliated them.
Bornstein, Kate, and S. Bear Bergman, eds. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 2010.
Canaday, Margot. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Silverman, Victor, and Susan Stryker. Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria. Documentary, 2005.
Stryker, Susan, and Stephen Whittle, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, distributed by Publishers Group West, 2008.
Stuff You Missed in History Class, Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, June 17, 2015.
- Wesleyan University professor emeritus Henry Abelove argues something similar in a June 26 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Stonewall Obscures the Real History of Gay Liberation,” June 26, 2015.Return to text.
- Amanda St. Jaymes, in Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, Documentary, 2005. Return to text.