Liberation Before Stonewall: The Compton Cafeteria Riot

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Liberation Before Stonewall: The Compton Cafeteria Riot

Thanks to the extensive archival work of noted historian Dr Susan Stryker in 1991, we know that in August 1966 at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, police raided Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, an all-hours coffee shop popular with “gay hustlers, ‘hair fairies,’ [drag] queens, and street kids,” during a stand-in picketing. “During the raid,” Stryker explains, “one particular drag queen patron,” threw her coffee cup at one of the officers in retaliation to their hostility and aggression. What then followed was nothing short of a violent riot by the queens, or what Stryker hails as the “first recorded act of militant queer resistance to social oppression and police harassment.”


Naturally, this contradicts the popular notion that it was the 1969 Stonewall in New York City which created, catalysed, and catapulted the queer movement into a political action of resistance. Yet, it was in fact the queens and patrons of Compton’s Cafeteria Riot within the working-class district of Tenderloin in San Francisco who paved the way for the mythology of Stonewall to brew within the crucible of Western society.


Amanda St. Jaymes was one of such patrons and rioters, identifying at the time as a drag queen but later living as a transgender woman (as much-was the custom). She recounts in Stryker’s eye-opening documentary Screaming Queens how Compton’s Cafeteria had become somewhat of a haven for “transvestites, homosexuals, and drag queens” in the neighbourhood of Tenderloin. Tenderloin was a San Francisco district impervious to the invasion of hippie white-culture which rocked the Californian city at the onset of the 1960s, largely due to racist and classist redlining of the district which left it sitting in abysmal and dire material housing conditions. As activist and participant of the riots Tamara Ching describe in Screaming Queens, trans women and transvestites, in particular, were forced into prostitution in the Tenderloin due to the ongoing rampant job discrimination they faced from the city at-large (of which still occurs today). In the forgotten pocket of a supposed liberal utopia, they found a sisterhood, and, more importantly: a class.

But what exactly led to the riot? Until 1974, cross-dressing was illegal in San Francisco, and so the law gave an excuse for the police to enact repressive tactics and raid homosexual ‘hot spots’ as they deemed fit, particularly looking for ‘cross-dressers’, such as was the case at the New Year’s Day Ball of 1965 in San Francisco. After gay male activists on the city board protested the police harassment that ran rampant at the ball, the San Francisco police department went under reform to end homosexual harassment: namely that which targeted cisgender, affluent, white men. Consequently, in 1966 – now under the guise of procuring a ‘homosexual friendly’ regime – police were able to seize on the transphobia that homophiles had let slip between the fissures of their activism. That same year, management of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria started to discriminate and drive out the trans women, drag queens, and transvestites who frequented their establishment. In response, the patrons and a San Francisco-based queer youth group known by ‘Vanguard’ decided to picket the establishment. Police were summoned and were quick to raid the cafeteria looking for trouble and arrests. However, Compton’s patrons were still shaken by the raid of the New Year’s Day Ball a year prior and found general inspiration from the ongoing Civil Rights Movement across the country to resist brutality by the hand of the state. 


As such, the women resisted arrest, and then erupted into full-blown resistance: cutlery was hurled across the cafeteria, tables were flipped, heavy handbags used as weapons, windows were shattered, a police car destroyed, and a newsstand set ablaze. St. Jaymes described the proceeding mood of “joy” after the riot. Even though “a lot of them went to jail,” she explains, “there was a lot of ‘I don’t give a damn, this is what needs to happen,’” between the women. “We didn’t give a shit about organizing,” activist and former Compton’s patron Felicia Flames said in an interview with the Advocate. “We were just trying to survive,” she clarifies. 

Sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage specifically note that “despite the fact that Compton’s involved a pre-Stonewall street riot (albeit a small one), it was not viewed as newsworthy or politically relevant by San Francisco’s homophile establishment.” How then, did Stonewall Riot gain mythic stature as the pinnacle of queer resistance and Compton’s Riot did not? This was namely due to the homophile movement. Homophile activism was a movement in the mid-20th century which adopted a heternormative assimilatory nature to their gay political campaigning, and had an array of bourgeois social resources at-hand that the working-class patrons of Compton’s simply did not. In Herbert Haines’ historical research on Stonewall, he details that in contrast to Compton’s, those on the scene of Stonewall included both the marginalized and more privileged elements of the homosexual community. Ultimately, Stonewall had what Compton’s did not: high-resource radical white gay men willing and able to capitalise on rioting. As Haines notes, at the height of the gay rights moment, the affluent and politically connected gays had readily-mobilised resources, ran newspapers, and engaged in extended legal practices. That left the less-privileged individuals of the ‘community’ to serve as the source of innovation and a “radical flank” of the movement, most of which continues today in the unfolding of radical resistance movements.

So, just as the women of Compton’s Cafeteria Riots were widely inspired by those fighting for their humanity in the Civil Rights Movement, the patrons and rioters of Stonewall stood on the shoulders of Compton’s. Yet, by continuing to erase Compton’s as the rightful origin of queer militant resistance, we become guilty of the same violence that both Compton’s and Stonewall riots were seeking to repeal. It risks letting the history of LGBTQ+ rights unfold into an ahistorical and apolitical narrative, becoming nothing but baseless platitudes, commodities, or media (see: the 2015 film rendition of Stonewall). 


As Flames notes in her interview with the Advocate, the patrons at Compton’s were simply tired of trans women being forgotten, they were tired of being “thrown out of hotels […] stabbed […] mutilated because of their genitalia,” and so they fought back. Yet, this still happens today. According to the oft-problematic but nonetheless resourceful Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 2020 saw at least “44 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women” in the United States. Figures such as these remind us why it is vital we remember Compton’s Cafeteria Riots, not only as a mythology of violent resistance but as a commemorative social action which was both thwarted and forgotten by the community it sought to free. By looking back to these brave women and queens, we can only hope to carry forward this direct praxis of militant resistance against today’s oppressive institutions. 

Images from KALW, Wikipedia & SFChronicle