Before Stonewall: The LGBTQ movement behind Compton’s Cafeteria riot

Aug 3, 2021

Screenshot from "Screaming Queens."

Author’s Note: Out of respect for the ways people described their identities at the time, this article uses several terms now considered archaic by the LGBTQ community. A Spanish translation of this article is available here.

Three years before the 1969 Stonewall Uprising that galvanized a generation of LGBTQ activists, and more than a decade before Harvey Milk led the fight against the Briggs Initiative as San Francisco’s first gay city supervisor, a group of trans women and drag queens revolted against bigoted police violence in San Francisco’s heavily oppressed Tenderloin district. These courageous fighters turned the tables on their oppressors and ushered in a new wave of class-conscious organizing by queer youth, especially from working class and oppressed communities.

Although it was almost forgotten, the uprising at Compton’s Cafeteria is part of our revolutionary history, demonstrating that militant resistance is nothing new. The uprising reminds us that our struggles today both build on our ancestors’ fights and shape those to come.

Oppression and resistance in a “Gay Ghetto”

In the mid-1960s there were an estimated 90,000 LGBTQ people in San Francisco, but the city’s transgender population was herded into the central Tenderloin district. Police who arrested trans people in other parts of the city would dump them in the Tenderloin or direct them there after being released.

During this time, there were few clear delineations between homosexuality and transness; both were lumped under the transgressive umbrella of “gay.” Many gay men cross-dressed in private or for performance, but placed a priority on “passing” as straight men in public. Those who refused and adopted a permanently feminine appearance—many who would soon identify as transsexuals or transvestites, but who we would call trans women today—were derided as “hair fairies” and were often unwelcome even within the gay community. While the entire LGBTQ community faced discrimination, violence, and oppression at this time, trans women in particular were targeted by the police and exploitative landlords.

“Police would give the people who were indeterminate gender the message that they belonged [only] in the Tenderloin, which at the time, was kind of a gay ghetto, a very slummy gay ghetto,” Tenderloin resident Suzan Cooke told Susan Stryker in the 2005 documentary “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria” [1]. Stryker is the former executive director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco who “rediscovered” the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot and helped reintroduce it into the present-day LGBTQ political consciousness.

Housing discrimination was rife everywhere, as LGBTQ people had no protections against the bigotry of landlords. Cooke explained that in the Tenderloin it was common for queer residents to live out of hotel rooms, unable to afford an apartment or find a landlord willing to rent to them. Into these rooms they would pile sometimes up to a dozen people so they wouldn’t have to sleep on the street that night, and they would rotate between rooms to avoid getting caught.

The Tenderloin was a district left out of the urban renewal projects that were transforming much of San Francisco, one of the last places with affordable housing in the city. It was a heavily oppressed red-light district run by corrupt cops where most people found employment as sex workers or in seedy entertainment venues that operated under the thumb of the police, but where many also lived and worked on the streets. For the Tenderloin’s LGBTQ residents, these lines of work were often the only employment available to them.

Life in the Tenderloin existed in constant precarity, subjected to the whims of the police. Periodic sweeps and crackdowns would land sex workers and trans people in jail, often based on selectively enforced laws like “obstructing the sidewalk.” This charge and the related “anti-loitering” laws are still used in many US cities to profile trans women as sex workers and to harrass both groups—something trans women call “walking while trans.” A common charge at the time was also “female impersonation” under a law that banned wearing clothes from the “wrong” gender. This criminalized the very existence of trans women and could be used to arrest any trans woman on the spot.

After the start of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, as tens of thousands of U.S. troops passed through the port city on their way to Southeast Asia, these police sweeps became more harsh and more frequent, putting additional pressure on Tenderloin residents.

Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, an all-night diner at the corner of Taylor and Turk Streets in the heart of the Tenderloin, became known as a refuge from the constant dangers of the street. A gay night manager was tolerant of the homeless queer youth who would sometimes spend hours sitting at tables even if they didn’t order food. They began to think of the cafe as “their” place, and when this oasis of tolerance was threatened in the summer of 1966, they erupted explosively in its defense.

Queer youth fight back

By itself, the specific incident that sparked the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot wasn’t extraordinary, and any number of everyday injustices could have potentially sparked the uprising. However, a month before the uprising, several key developments took place that prepared the ground for a decisive confrontation between queer youth and police at the late-night diner.

In July 1966, sexologist and endocrinologist Harry Benjamin published a landmark text on trans medicine called The Transsexual Phenomenon, based in part on his work with the trans people of San Francisco [2]. Benjamin was among the first doctors to argue that transgender people aren’t moral deviants and that trans identity cannot be changed. Although he defined trans identity as a mental illness, he argued that helping trans people to transition was a “treatment” that could help them live happy and affirming lives. He helped import medical practices pioneered in Europe that had been unavailable in the U.S., such as gender affirmation surgeries and hormone therapy.

At the time, trans people were regarded as cross-dressers or “impersonators,” and rarely if ever recognized as members of their actual gender. In the hands of trans Americans, Benjamin’s book became a weapon, giving trans people a basis to argue for social tolerance and medical access, to take pride in themselves and to recognize that there wasn’t anything wrong with them. Several trans women from the Tenderloin who spoke with Stryker said they became willing to fight for equality due to Benjamin’s work.

Glide Memorial Church, a radical offshoot of the United Methodist Church, located just two blocks from Compton’s Cafeteria, had a youth program aimed at reaching the Tenderloin’s homeless queer youth on a different basis than other churches. Glide pastor Cecil Williams spoke to LGBTQ people about the material challenges of their lives and worked with several homophile groups like the Daughters of Bilitis for lesbian women, the Mattachine Society for gay men, and the Society for Individual Rights to host community LGBTQ events and to begin to agitate for gay rights on the model of the Civil Rights Movement.

The homeless queer youth who came to Glide formed their own group, Vanguard, which aimed to promote a sense of self-worth among its members, to offer mutual support and companionship, and to bring youth issues to the attention of older people. Their motto was “You’ve heard about Black Power and White Power, get ready for Street Power” [6].

Vanguard called attention to the contradiction and class bias of the homophile movement’s agitation against laws that criminalized gay sex by emphasizing the right of people to do what they want “in the privacy of their own home.” This formula offered no protections for homeless people or sex workers. Vanguard members began to treat the Tenderloin’s streets as their home, turning the tables on the notion of “homelessness” and challenging others to pick up their refuse, including needles and empty bottles, and breaking up fights.

In July 1966, Vanguard launched its first explicitly political action after Compton’s—their favored hangout spot—stepped up its discrimination against LGBTQ clientele. A new night manager hired guards to rough them up and the restaurant began applying arbitrary “service charges” to their bills, so Vanguard organized a picket outside Compton’s with Glide ministers and area homophile organizations.

The July 18 picket ultimately failed to influence management’s behavior, but it created a unity of purpose among those who protested and they became more willing to militantly resist.

“The transsexuals got bolder because it was time to make a move,” said Amanda St. Jaymes, who was considered the “mother” of the Tenderloin queer community at the time. “We got tired of being harassed. We got tired of being made to go into the men’s room when we were dressed like women. We wanted our rights” [3].

“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,” Felicia “Flames” Elizondo, a Tenderloin resident who took part in the uprising, recalled in 2018 [4].

The exact date of the uprising is unknown and its history was only reconstructed by historians like Stryker decades later through newspaper clippings and interviews with Tenderloin residents who took part in the uprising [5].

One hot summer night in August 1966, it all came to a head. When a police officer grabbed a trans woman sitting at a table inside Compton’s, she indignantly threw her coffee in his face and the restaurant erupted into chaos. Plates and glasses flew, heavy purses and high heels fell upon officers’ heads, and the cafe’s plate-glass windows shattered as the conflagration poured into the street. 

Before it was over, a newspaper stand and a cop car were set ablaze, and dozens fought with police in the street even as more police vans arrived to cart them off to jail. When area restaurants banned trans women in retaliation for the riot, they were picketed, and when Compton’s refused to relent, their newly replaced windows were smashed once again.

“All trash is before the broom”

Although the uprising at Compton’s Cafeteria was largely ignored by the corporate press at the time, it had a profound effect on the Tenderloin. The queer community won new unity and new allies, sometimes in unexpected places.

Vanguard’s actions steadily expanded, creating a publication that gave both political and artistic voice to the concerns of their community and helped direct them to social services and other resources. By the fall of 1966, some 50 members staged another demonstration of sorts. In a protest that reclaimed both public space and the humanity of the Tenderloin’s LGBTQ community, they borrowed large brooms from the city and swept the streets of the Tenderloin of refuse, carrying signs with them that read “all trash is before the broom.”

Vanguard and Glide Church also worked with the city to create a Center for Special Problems (CSP) under the San Francisco Public Health Department, which provided trans people with necessary medical connections to area hospitals like Stanford University Medical School, which had begun providing trans services. 

Perhaps CSP’s most impactful action was providing trans people with ID cards carrying their chosen name and actual gender, since transphobic laws still banned changing them on state-issued IDs. These cards enabled trans people to find legal, legitimate work as themselves without explicit connection to their deadname or gender assigned at birth, and many Tenderloin residents used them to get into War on Poverty-directed job training programs.

The city also created a Central City Anti-Poverty Program Office (APPO) that included someone who became an unlikely ally: Elliot Blackstone, an SFPD officer who served as the community-relations liaison to the LGBTQ community. As Stryker tells it, a Tenderloin trans resident named Louise Ergestrasse stormed into Blackstone’s office shortly after the APPO opened, threw a copy of Harry Benjamin’s book on his desk, and demanded he do something for “her people.” 

Blackstone took the job seriously, educated himself on LGBTQ issues and became a force for reform in the SFPD. Before being transferred out of the office for stirring up too much trouble on behalf of an oppressed minority, he sought to change police policies toward trans people based on Benjamin’s findings and to stop police from persecuting trans women for using women’s facilities or dressing like women, since it was based on a law that had already been overturned.

Resistance creates history

That one explosive night of militant resistance, when trans people stood up and said that enough was enough, yielded substantial positive changes in the lives of community members for years afterward and far beyond the edges of the Tenderloin district. Although the Stonewall Uprising in New York was still 3 years away, the trans people of San Francisco’s Tenderloin showed that wherever there is oppression, there is also resistance.

Now in 2021, as hundreds of anti-trans bills are introduced by bigoted legislators and anti-trans violence becomes worse than ever, it is important that we remember and celebrate our community’s legacy of militant resistance. While the fight for queer and trans liberation continues, gains such as marriage equality, the removal of homosexuality and trans identity from the category of mental illnesses, and LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections were not won thanks to individual bourgeois politicians or establishment-oriented LGBTQ nonprofits, but from grassroots struggle and militancy. Events like the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot remind us that we are not helpless targets of oppression and violence, but are active agents of historical change capable of taking action in collective self-defense and winning lasting material gains.


[1] Stryker, Susan and Victor Silverman, director/writer. (2005). Screaming queens: The riot at Compton’s Cafeteria. Frameline.
[2] Benjamin, Harry. (1966). The transsexual phenomenon. New York: The Julian Press.
[3] Stryker and Silverman, Screaming queens.
[4] Broverman, Neal. (2018). “Don’t let history forget about Compton’s Cafeteria riot.” Advocate, August 02. Available here.
[5] Stryker, Susan. (2017). Transgender history: The roots of today’s revolution (New York: Seal Press).
[6] Worley, Jennifer. (2011). “‘Street Power’ and the claiming of public space: San Francisco’s ‘Vanguard’ and pre-Stonewall queer radicalism.” In Captive genders: Trans embodiment and the prison industrial complex, ed. E.A. Stanley and N. Smith (Oakland: AK Press).

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