It had been a particularly warm summer in 1966 and the city of San Francisco was finally enjoying the cool Pacific winds that the month of August brought in. The Bay Area metropolis bustled alive with sailors, hustlers, immigrant families and tourists, all scurrying atop the seven peninsula hills like ants over great concrete mounds. Already reputed as an “anything goes” kind of place, San Francisco had been able to maintain a number of “libidinous” establishments open for years – including “homosexual gatherings” like The Black Cat Café and Finocchio’s Nightclub in North Beach. These bars stayed open through an extensive negotiation with local law-enforcement and assistance from the local *Homophile organizations located in the city. Cross-dressing, however, was still illegal in 1966 and SFPD could use the presence of transgender people in a place of business as a pretext to make a raid and close down a bar. As a result, many trans-people (or hair fairies, as they were often referred to) were not welcome. The only place trans-people could really congregate safely was in a little chain restaurant, on the corner of Taylor and Turk, called Compton’s Cafeteria. It is here that a civic revolt took place – one that would pre-date Stonewall as the first recorded transgender riot in United States history.
*Homophile: A term used in the 1950’s and 1960’s to describe LGBT-rights organizations. With the emergence of the Gay Liberation, the word began to disappear from the LGBT vernacular.
On this one August night, SFPD was called in under the premise that a group of hair fairies had become increasingly raucous at Compton's. The SFPD, assuming a routine deviant arrest, promptly showed up and proceeded to manhandle the clientele – as it happens, this was also a routine thing for them to do.
There are several accounts as to what occurred next or what prompted the riot itself, but the most popular version is that a trans woman, exhausted with the abuse implemented by the San Francisco police, threw her hot coffee in the face of the officer who was roughening her up. In a matter of mere seconds, dishes, furniture, wigs and high-heeled shoes went flying about the cafe. Shouts and screams were heard from the outside, and the restaurant’s plate-glass windows were violently smashed. The riot spilled out onto the dark, wet streets of the Tenderloin District. Police called for reinforcements as a sidewalk newsstand was toppled over and burned to the ground. The first night of the riots had begun.
The following night, the plate-glass windows at Compton’s Cafeteria were replaced, just as an even larger crowd of street hustlers, drag queens, transgender women and gay men picketed outside the restaurant. When news broke out that transgender people were not to be allowed inside Compton’s again, the newly replaced plate-glass windows were once again smashed. That shattered glass became a bold symbolic call to action for American transgender people, demanding equitable treatment and respect for their identities and lives.
Although the riot marked a major turning point for transgender rights in the U.S., the struggle continues somewhat-incipiently – not just for transgender rights, but for any movement that promotes freedom from oppression based on gender-identity and expression, economic status and class.
This violent, angry event resulted in peaceful demonstrations and better negotiations with the city. It is these negotiations that eventually created more access to city healthcare for trans-people, trans-support services and an annual transgender-march down Market Street – and it all began with a cup of coffee.
This year, as we move forward in fighting for LGBT equal rights, let us remember those places, events and people who fought the first rounds before us and won – or sometimes lost. Let us honor those who stood up for their rights, even when it wasn’t the coolest or hippest thing to do. Let’s never forget that it is because of these people, who celebrated themselves amid persecution and injustice, that we are able to celebrate ourselves a little more today.
I encourage you to consider actively searching for your LGBT activist ancestors, take their strengths and courage and continue to fight for your share of the American Dream.
What LGBT activists or events inspire you?