While the emphasis on this year’s Pride celebrations are deservedly focused on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, there is an event that occurred three years before in the streets of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco in August 1966. These riots launched the transgender activism movement and was one of the first recorded acts of the queer community standing up against the forces of oppression. Ironically enough, this event occurred in San Francisco a year before 1967, the famous Summer of Love period in which thousands came to the city to participate in the free love and peace movement. It was an exciting period in the city’s history for music, art and culture as a new generation paved the way for political activism and pushing the envelope on the concept of traditional relationships and sexual identity.
The Compton Cafeteria, located in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district was a meeting place for local transgender people who would come to hangout, meet with their friends and share a meal as they were not welcome at the neighborhood gay bars due to transphobia. The internal divides that exist today in the LGBTQ community were prevalent back then on a harsher scale as the transgender members of the community were regarded as less than desirable due to rampant transphobia. Many could not find gainful employment due to discrimination and sex work became their only option. In those days many of the arrests of transgender people were unethical but not unlawful as there was a law on the books in San Francisco which made it illegal to cross dress in public which the SFPD used to apprehend and arrest members of the transgender community. By enforcing this, the police were able to consistently harass and arrest those who walked the streets of the Tenderloin. During these times, transgender people were thrown out the windows of the residential hotels that populated the area, in many cases they were butchered with parts of their genitals sliced off as those who were supposed to protect and serve looked the other way. This was a law that would remain until it was overturned in 1974. this story is tragically overlooked as an important story in LGBTQ history as not a single publication covered these riots as it was thought necessary to protect the public from such deviancy. It wasn’t until the year 2006 when a plaque was erected on the sidewalk in front of the shuttered cafeteria at the corner of Taylor and Turk streets following the filming of the documentary, Screaming Queens which was released the year before.
On a summer night in August 1966, the exact date is unknown due to loss of records from that time, the tensions had built to such a level that the patrons of this establishment had enough of the abuse and ostracization. While the nearby progressive Glide Memorial Methodist Church had reached out to the community, there was little to no help at all from other organizations as a maelstrom of hatred had been building steadily for years. For three consecutive nights, the patrons fought against the police after a cup of coffee was thrown into a policeman’s face which led to broken glass windows, furniture hurled across the room along with dishes and sugar shakers on the first night. None of the city’s publications even bothered to cover these riots as there was no desire to give any type of coverage to the plight of those many deemed to be nothing more than deviants, a scourge on the city by the bay. It wasn’t until the early 70’s that the discrimination and violence towards the transgender community notably decreased and it was because of these riots that the improper profiling, unethical arrests and brutality that the community suffered at the hands of law enforcement were brought to light.
In recent years, we have witnessed the increase in the brutal deaths of transgender men and women and as a collective community we must speak out against violence, raise awareness and stand in solidarity with our transgender brothers and sisters. We can’t allow this to continue, we are a strong and resilient community and we have faced and defeated adversity time and time before, history has shown that when we hold each other up, raise our voices, band together and organize, we can move mountains together. The time has come for all of us to look to the past lessons of the Compton Cafeteria riots and the Stonewall riots to pave the way to the road to equality and protection for all.