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Don't Let History Forget About Compton's Cafeteria Riot


Three years before Stonewall, drag queens and transgender women stood up to police violence during a tense August night.

San Francisco's Compton's Cafeteria riot of August 1966 may have started with an unethical though not unlawful arrest and a cup of coffee hurled in a cop's face, but the fuse was lit decades earlier.
The uprising of 52 years ago came after the drag queens, transgender women, and, to a lesser degree, LGB community of the Tenderloin district had been targeted and abused for years by the San Francisco Police Department. Often arrested for violating the city's anti-cross-dressing ordinance as well as the sex work they were often forced to do, the "screaming queens" erupted one night after one of their own was being hauled away from the cafeteria. After she emptied her steaming cup in the police officer's face, all hell broke lose. Chairs, dishes, and sugar shakers went airborne and the restaurant's dirty windows were smashed; outside, queers broke the windows of a squad car and lit a newsstand on fire.
Immediately following the chaos, restaurant owners banned trans women and drag queens. The community picketed against the decision the following night, and Gene Compton's replacement windows were soon reduced to shards on the sidewalk.
It's hard to imagine an inner-city battle between citizens and police -- not to mention the novelty of a confrontation between cops and gender-nonconforming people -- getting ignored by the media. But a half-century ago, no San Francisco publication would touch the Compton's Cafeteria riot; that's why it's unclear what day it actually occurred (a commemorative panel from 10 years ago simply gives the date as August 1966). To the press and public, LGBT people were so odious then -- in '60s "peace and love" San Francisco, ironically -- that even something as newsworthy as their street battle with police needed to be kept from innocent eyes.
"[LGBT] people were thrown out of hotels, they were stabbed, they had their breasts cut, they were mutilated because of their genitalia," remembers Felicia Flames, a self-described transsexual woman who frequented Compton's Cafeteria in the '60s and still lives in San Francisco. "We were something that could be thrown away in a trash can."
The police responded in kind to the public's disgust of sexual and gender minorities, Flames says. The riot happened because, "We were tired of being arrested for nothing. Arrested for being who we wanted to be. Thrown in jail for obstructing the sidewalk. Thrown in jail for dressing like a woman, because in those days it was illegal. Anything they could think of to make their quota or just to make our lives a living hell, they would do."
As hostile as it was, this rough corner of San Francisco was seen as a refuge.
"The Tenderloin was the gay mecca of San Francisco," says Flames, who came to California from Texas. "Anybody and everybody who was [queer] came to San Francisco. It wasn't in the news or in the paper; it was by word of mouth that people came to the Tenderloin."
The area was inundated with gay bars -- Flames can remember the names of nearly 20 of them -- but drag queens and transgender women were often not allowed in. Excluded from everything, including gainful employment, many women like Flames turned to prostitution for survival. At the end of the night, the queens would head to Compton's, at the corner of Taylor and Turk, to commiserate over coffee and a hot plate of food.
"Gene Compton's Cafeteria was open 24 hours a day," Flames says. "It was the only place we could meet people. Not organize, because we didn't give a shit about organizing. We were just trying to survive. Our parents had thrown us out or didn't want a queer in the family and we didn't know where to go. But when we heard about the Tenderloin and Compton's, we knew where to go."
Whether because of the drugs she was dabbling in then or simply the fact that it was 50 years ago and never recorded for posterity, Flames can't remember if she was at the cafeteria when the violence broke out. She does remember that things didn't start getting easier for queers in San Francisco until the '70s -- the cross-dressing law was repealed in 1974 -- but then by the '80s, AIDS would soon devastate the city. Flames, HIV-positive since 1987, would then get involved in organizations battling the disease.
Flames knows that AIDS and Stonewall -- the New York uprising that came three years after Compton's -- dominate the narrative of the modern LGBT rights movement, with mainstream films and TV shows documenting what happened there. But Compton's is mostly forgotten, which is doubly disappointing; it was one of the first known acts of resistance by queer people to police brutality, and the issue of improper policing remains one of the nation's biggest flashpoints. Targeting, improper arrests, and police violence remain a huge issue for LGBT people of color.
Without a trace of bitterness in her voice, Flames expresses a desire for younger LGBT people to respect the bravery and fortitude it took for the queens of Tenderloin to stand up to their abusers.
"Now there's more stuff for [LGBT] kids," she says. "Television shows where young kids transition; it makes me happy. But if it wasn't for those girls from the '60s, at places like Compton's and Stonewall, they wouldn't be where they are today."
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