Drag queens fought back at a Tenderloin coffee shop in 1966
It was the place, deep in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, where gay street hustlers, drag queens, and transsexuals could linger over a cup of coffee for hours. At Gene Compton’s Cafeteria the food was cheap and the management tolerant. And Compton’s was open all night.
Then, back in 1966, there was no such thing as a gay rights movement. The Castro was still a working-class Irish neighborhood, and it would be seven years until homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder. The Tenderloin was the gritty, down and out part of the city, heir-apparent to the infamous Barbary Coast, where the city’s castaways could drift, and the swells could come to slum. “The place to go for sex and drugs and late night fun,” said historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker.
And Compton’s was at its center, the place to meet. But by August 1966, tensions in the Tenderloin had been building for years.
Drag queens were routinely harassed and arrested by police—for obstructing the sidewalk, for loitering, for “same-sex touching,” and for cross-dressing. “If the buttons were on the wrong side, like a blouse, you could get thrown in jail,” recalled one Tenderloin resident, Amanda St. Jaymes.
Most of the time they went quietly. “You, you, you, and you,” a cop would gesture, remembered Tamara Ching, who was a drag hustler during the period—“come with us.”
“You could be dragged off to jail at any time—for no reason at all.”
“They’d drive us all around North Beach. Drive us all around the Tenderloin before they’d take us to jail,” said St. Jaymes. Once there, they were humiliated. Paraded in front of the other prisoners. Their heads shaved. “I refused to let them shave my head, and they put me in the hole. One girl was in there 60 days, in the hole, because they wouldn’t let them cut her hair,” she said.
Then, one hot August night, the exact date lost to history, as queens and hustlers crowded Compton’s booths, a small phalanx of cops entered the teeming restaurant. One cop, expecting the “girl” to come quietly as the girls always had before, grabbed an arm. But this time a cup of coffee flew in his face.
Nightsticks were drawn. Mayhem. For the first time the drag queens fought back. Heavy glass sugar shakers hurled by the queens shattered the restaurant’s big plate-glass windows. Fighting spilled onto the street. Reinforcements arrived, sirens blaring. Shocked cops retreated as they were hit with high-heeled shoes and heavy purses. For a moment, the drag queens got the better of the cops. The corner newsstand went up in flames. A police car was destroyed.
“Years of pent-up resentment boiled out into the night,” said Stryker.
Forty years ago this August, three years before very similar riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn, Stryker says that America’s gay rights movement was born, not on Christopher Street, with the rebellion commemorated every June in gay pride celebrations across the country, but in San Francisco’s Tenderloin at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria.
“It was the first known instance of collective, militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history,” Stryker said.
“We have an old expression in the police department, ‘clubs are trump,’” remembered San Francisco police Sergeant Elliot Blackstone of the ease with which cops resorted to their nightsticks. “Well, clubs were trump then.”
“A lot of them went to jail,” St. Jaymes said, but added “There was a lot of joy after it happened… there was a lot of ‘I don’t give a damn — this is what needs to happen.’”
Fast forward 40 years.
Another sweltering day in the Tenderloin, this time in June, this time a few days before San Francisco’s giant pride celebration. The cafeteria closed in 1972, became a porn emporium, and is now a drop-in help center for the women who still work the streets of the Tenderloin.
About 100 gathered on the street corner in front of what was Compton’s. In the crowd—a dozen or so drag queens, beads of perspiration forming beneath their makeup, three or four television news crews, lots of reporters, city bureaucrats stuck to their suits, two city supervisors, the district attorney, the gay city treasurer, a mayor’s office aide with a proclamation declaring it “Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot Day”—all gathered around a new granite plaque on the street corner.
“Here marks the site,” it says and the crowd ballooned out into the street around it. But the cops! There’s a full-on lieutenant directing traffic. They stand, at ease, but perspiring, a solid line of brass and blue. The chief. Two commanders. “Pretty much the whole command staff,” said Theresa Sparks, a trans member of the Police Commission.
They’re there to say a few words, and say it’s not like that anymore. It took until 1997, but then San Francisco got an ordinance protecting trans people from discrimination.
They’re also there to honor Sergeant Blackstone, the LGBT community’s first supporter on the San Francisco force. He was driven from the department, Stryker said, after enemies planted narcotics in his desk. Last week, from a wheelchair in front of Compton’s, he collected proclamations from a lesbian state senator and the full Assembly and a thanks—but no apology—from Police Chief Heather Fong.
One of the city’s cross-dressing trans-religious Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence inaugurated the plaque: “Amen, A-women and A-the others,” she intoned as she sprinkled gold glitter into the air.
And Stryker spoke. Stryker is the director, along with Victor Silverman, of the movie “Screaming Queens, the Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.” In 1995, Stryker unearthed evidence of the then-forgotten riot while doing research at San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society. Her film maintains the riot was not an isolated incident; violence exploded at the corner of Taylor and Turk in San Francisco’s Tenderloin because of the confluence of many factors. And the riot itself triggered other forces that flowed into the modern gay rights movement.
The Tenderloin had long been the place to satisfy “the fleshly needs of men,” says a voice-over in Stryker’s movie. “A marketplace of vice, degradation, and human misery.” But it was a vice-ridden district run by corrupt police who demanded payola from the prostitutes and illegal clubs.
“Police would give people of indeterminate gender the message that they belonged in the Tenderloin, which at the time was a gay ghetto—a slummy gay ghetto,” said Suzan Cooke, who walked the streets there.
“The Tenderloin was populated by the pimps and the whores and the drag queens and I felt very comfortable there,” said Aleisha Brevard, who was a female impersonator.
“We sold ourselves because we needed to make a living,” said Ching.
But it was dangerous too. Some girls had been beaten up by johns surprised that they were men. Some had been killed.
Then came the Vietnam War. Long hair and love beads became a symbol of a man against the war, not a man who wanted to be a girl, said Stryker. Soldiers crowded the Tenderloin on their way to Vietnam. Police raids escalated. A few blocks away the black civil rights movement moved into the Tenderloin when Reverend Cecil Williams took over as pastor of Glide Memorial Methodist Church. And that movement fueled the new LGBT militancy, said Stryker.
In July 1966, a new activist organization called Vanguard, mostly street hustlers and drag queens, formed. They met at Compton’s, but the management didn’t like “the uppity new political attitudes some of its customers were starting to express,” said Stryker, and put them out. And so Vanguard picketed the cafeteria on July 18. That boiling resentment led directly to the riot, she says.
After the riot, partly because of Blackstone’s work, police attitudes slowly changed. Stanford opened a sexual-reassignment clinic in 1968. The city’s health department started issuing ID cards for people who had changed their sex—something the state would not do—so they could get regular jobs.
“I am so proud of these women,” Stryker said. “It brings the power of our history to bear on the struggle.”
“Once you feel good about yourself,” said St. Jaymes in the kicker to Stryker’s movie, “nobody can hurt you.”
Others say that the while the riot might have been an important milestone in gay history, its real importance is to each of the people whose lives it made possible.
“ I went from being a teenaged sissy boy to being a woman,” said Felicia Elizondo, a Compton’s veteran at the dedication. “Being a woman now is just fantastic.”
Susan Stryker’s “Screaming Queens” documentary will air on Channel 13 on July 4 at 3:30 a.m. It is available on DVD at screamingqueensmovie.com.