The Riot at Compton?s Cafeteria: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You!

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #105, Spring 2004.

by Tapestry Staff

Almost everybody has heard of Stonewall, the bar in New York?s Greenwich Village where drag queens sparked a riot in 1969, and the modern GLBT movement is supposed to have begun. Almost nobody has heard of Compton?s Cafeteria, but that?s about to change, with the impending release of ?Screaming Queens,? a new documentary film by transgender scholar Susan Stryker and historian Victor Silverman.
In August 1966, three years before Stonewall, transgendered people banded together and fought back at Compton?s against the routine and often violent police harassment they experienced on a daily basis. The riot at Compton?s Cafeteria marks the beginning of the transgender struggle for human rights and social dignity.
Amanda St. Jaymes was at Compton?s when the riot broke out.

?You know those big round sugar-shakers?? she asks. ?Well, they?ll go through a plate glass window in nothing flat.?

Tamara Ching is equally descriptive of the usefulness of a well-stocked handbag.
?You hit somebody with one of those on the top of their head, not from the side, and you can drop them down cold.?

Don?t get her started on the street-fighting uses of a high-heeled shoe.

Recovering Transgender History

The story of what happened at Compton?s 38 years ago has been recovered over the past few years by Stryker, who until recently worked as the Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. She left that job in November to finish work on the film, which features St. Jaymes, Ching, and other interviewees, and fascinating archival footage and still images.
Compton?s Cafeteria was located at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets in San Francisco?s seedy inner-city Tenderloin district. Open 24 hours, it
was a popular hangout for the neighborhood?s scrappy inhabitants, including runaway teenage hustlers and transgendered street prostitutes.

?I was doing some research into the history of gay pride parades, which commemorate the Stonewall riots? says Stryker, ?and in the centerfold of the program of the first gay pride march in San Francisco in 1972, I found the story of the riot at Compton?s Cafeteria. I was blown away. I mean, here was this document from an event that was supposed to be about Stonewall, but the parade organizers in San Francisco traced the history of their own activism back to another riot, the one at Compton?s. You?d think somebody would have noticed this before now.?

Transgendered people were at the center of the Compton?s Riot, just as they had been central to the events at Stonewall. According to the 1972 parade program, police were making a routine sweep of the Tenderloin and entered Compton?s to arrest people suspected of prostitution. One of the transgendered patrons threw a cup of coffee in a cop?s face and pandemonium erupted. Plates, trays, cups, and silverware flew through the air. The police and the cafeteria management fled outside and called for reinforcements. Patrons smashed the restaurant?s plate glass windows and poured into the street.
Police tried to make arrests, but they met with fierce resistance. A newspaper stand next to the cafeteria was set on fire, and police vehicles were vandalized. According to the 1972 description, ?general havoc was raised that night in the Tenderloin.?

?As a professional historian specializing in transgender issues, I was stunned that neither I nor anybody else I knew
or anything I had ever read mentioned the Compton?s Riot,? Stryker said. She started digging into archival source material in the GLBT Historical Society?s vast holdings, and context of the riot began
to emerge.

The Riot in Context

San Francisco?s Tenderloin was a neighborhood that had been home for decades to transgendered people who had been denied housing in other parts of the city and who, due to employment discrimination, were often compelled to work in the sex industry to survive. Such people were usually perceived to be on the lowest rung of society, and often suffered abuse from both their customers and the police.
In the mid-1960s, urban renewal was transforming central San Francisco, and most affordable housing in the area was torn down to make way for high-rise office towers, museums, and convention facilities. A wave of new residents flooded into the Tenderloin, displacing transgendered tenants in the neighborhood?s already overcrowded residency hotels.

At the same time, anti-prostitution police street sweeps began to intensify, driven largely by the war in Viet Nam.

In times of war, it?s common for both civilian and military police to crack down on commercial sex in an effort to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted disease among troops heading off to combat.
Unlike in other periods of heightened crackdowns, residents of the Tenderloin started to organize. This was the ?60s, after all, and profound changes in American society were underway?
the hippie movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and a burgeoning sexual liberation movement. The riot at Compton?s was part of this broader wave of social change.
For the first time, transgendered
people living in trying circumstances started to believe they could change
their situation and not merely survive it. Activist ministers from Glide Memorial Methodist Church began working with street youth in the Tenderloin, including many young transgendered people who had left home after their families rejected them. These young people formed a group called Vanguard, which is both
the first known gay youth group and
the first transgender group of any kind
in the United States. Vanguard worked
to improve the conditions in their neighborhood?and the group met at Compton?s Cafeteria.
The final piece of the puzzle was the presence of Dr. Harry Benjamin, whose San Francisco offices were located just a few blocks away from the Tenderloin in upscale Union Square. Transgendered people seeking hormones and genital surgery had been flocking to San Francisco to consult with Dr. Benjamin since the 1940s. In July of 1966, a few weeks before the riot, Benjamin had published his famous book The Transsexual Phenomenon, which proposed a new medical model for treating transsexuals. At the time, it was virtually impossible for people who desired surgery to obtain the procedures in the United States. That began to change in the summer of 1966; a few months after publication of Benjamin?s book, the first ?sex-change? clinic in the country opened in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.

Transgendered residents of the Tenderloin were aware of this historic shift, and they grasped the possibility
of having a better, less marginalized life
if they could gain access to the medical procedures that would help them embody their sense of gender in a way other members of their culture could perceive. The moment had arrived for them to resist their mistreatment and to insist
on a better quality of life.

The spark that finally ignited the riot at Compton?s was a new policy put in place by the restaurant management,
who was trying to limit the amount of time patrons could linger over their food and drinks. The cafeteria also instituted
a service charge designed to keep out poorer customers. Vanguard considered these changes discriminatory, and they organized a picket line in late July to protest the new management policies.
In this state of heightened tension, what once might have been just another routine police raid became the launching pad for a transgender rights movement that still continues to gain strength.

Making the Film

?Susan and I have been watching films together since our graduate school days at UC Berkeley,? recalls Victor Silverman, now an Associate Professor of History
at Pomona College, ?and we?d often
discussed working on a film project together. When she recovered the story
of the Compton?s Cafeteria Riot, we
knew we?d found our subject.?

In spite of the surprising amount of visual documentation the two historians were able to find, the real stars of the film are the interviewees.
?At first we thought we would need
to make this film as a kind of detective story, a story about a historian trying to recover an elusive past,? Silverman recalls. ?Then, as we started doing presentations in the community, people who had a connection to the events at Compton?s started coming forward and sharing their memories. We?re providing a platform for them to tell their own stories.?

Besides St. Jaymes and Ching, other interviewees include Rev. Ed Hansen, now pastor of the West Hollywood United Methodist Church, who as a young seminary intern helped organize the Vanguard youth group. Elliot Blackstone, the San Francisco police department?s liaison to the gay community from 1962-1974, offers his assessment of the tensions at Compton?s. Felicia Eliazado recounts her life as a self-described ?gutter girl? in the Tenderloin of the mid-1960s.

?We sold ourselves because we needed to make a living, but we also sold ourselves because we wanted to be loved,? Eliazado recalls. ?It was pretty dangerous, looking like a girl and still having men?s parts down there. A lot of girls got killed for being men.?
Aleshia Brevard, author of The
Woman I Was Not Born to Be, paints a lively picture of police corruption in the Tenderloin during the years leading up to the riot, when she lived there and worked as a female impersonator at the world-famous Finocchio?s nightclub. Suzan Cooke tells of working as a peer counselor at the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first transgender social services organization, which emerged in the aftermath of the riot at Compton?s.

?Screaming Queens? has garnered financial support from a surprising range of sources. A post-doctoral fellowship from the Social Science Research Council allowed Stryker to conduct historical background research, and a grant
from the California Council for the Humanities allowed the two filmmakers to develop their script. The Frameline Completion Fund, Pomona College Faculty Research Grants, Horizons Foundation, and other groups and
individuals have supported the filming and editing. So far, the film has cost about $75,000, but before it can go
into distribution there are still financial hurdles to clear.

?People are always asking when our film is going to be finished,? says Stryker, ?and I?ve been telling them recently that it will be finished in about $25,000. We still need to finish editing, and we have
to clean up some of the audio. We?ve
gotten to the point in the fundraising process where we need to attract the
support and interest of individual
members of the transgender community who can help us get this story out to the broader public.?
For about $25,000, a rough cut of
the film can be ready for film festivals
in the fall of 2004, Stryker and Silverman say, which could lead to a distribution agreement that would let them further clean up the film for a theatrical release. The filmmakers also aim to air the film on PBS, and then to release a DVD version that could be used for educational purposes.
Benefit screenings to help cover completion costs are now being planned at various locations?so check local listings for a showing near you!