The Compton's Cafeteria Riot: The Trans Uprising Three Years Before Stonewall

A view of Compton

By Suzi Fox

On an unknown date in August 1966, almost three years before the Stonewall riots, trans women and drag queens made the first stand against the authorities at a small cafe in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

The unassuming Compton’s Cafeteria was the backdrop for an event that would pave the way for transgender rights and ignite a spirit of resistance among the local LGBTQ+ community. It marked a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ history, where for the first time, trans people rose against systemic oppression, fighting for their dignity and rights.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot didn’t get anything like the recognition that the New York riot achieved, in fact it was almost entirely forgotten, but now is starting to be recognised as an inspiring tale of resilience, solidarity, and the quest for liberation.

Background To The Riot

As with many forms of civil disobedience, the reasons for it are complex. But there were two overarching reasons why it was inevitable. The first was the growing impact of gender affirmation surgery. 

In 1952 Christine Jorgensen had been one of the first trans woman to undergo this surgery in Denmark and had been a media sensation when she returned to America. 

The endocrinologist who had treated Jorgensen, Harry Benjamin, published a book called The Transsexual Phenomenon, which had legitimised trans people. 

This had woken people to the possibility of gender transition. Many people in the LGBTQ+ community at that time were describing themselves as drag queens or transvestites but were effectively trans women. Suddenly their path to being able to transition to female, a promised land they had never envisioned before, became a reality. And they began to seek out treatment. 

Harry Benjamin had opened a clinic not far from the Tenderloin, at 450 Sutter Street, which had attracted a large number of trans people to the city, especially trans women. Benjamin's patient list began to grow significantly.

On a collision course with this was the increasingly intolerant attitude of the city authorities to what it viewed as 'alternative lifestyles'. In the 1960s, San Francisco was known for its vibrant counterculture centred around the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. 

But for the city's trans community, it was also a time of extreme marginalisation and police harassment. Trans people, especially trans women of colour, faced constant discrimination in housing, employment, and accessing social services. Bars and restaurants often refused service or kicked out trans patrons.

Finally, in an act of homophobic cruelty that seems alien to the vibrant queer city we now know, the city authorities decided to force the gay community into a ghetto. That ghetto was the Tenderloin. Singled out because of the abysmal housing conditions.

Getting work as a trans woman was next to impossible due to open and widespread discrimination, so in order to earn money to survive, let alone pay for their treatment, many of the trans women were forced into prostitution, working the streets in the area.

The dangers they faced were horrific: regular attacks by violent men were never investigated by police, who themselves were intent on harassment, beatings and arrests. The police simply didn’t think anyone cared enough to stop them.


Compton’s Cafeteria And The Preceding Struggles

Compton’s was a chain of 24-hour diners that had been a feature of San Francisco since the 1940s. But the one located at the corner of Taylor and Turk had become a nightly hang out for the trans women and queens in the area. It was seen as a haven from the violence that was prevalent on the streets.

Unfortunately by August '66 the management had become impatient with trans customers, who they claimed were bad for business, and often called the police to clear them out.

Activists, such as Felicia "Flames" Elizondo, who was present at the riot, recalled the oppressive environment: "We were tired of being treated like garbage. We were tired of being who we were."

Fed up of the constant victimisation, harassment, arrests and violence from police, and inspired by the recent civil rights uprising, the trans women and queens formed an organised pressure group called Vanguard, and when Compton’s started throwing out members of the organisation there was anger.

As a response to Vanguard members being banned by the Cafeteria management the local community picketed Compton's on July 19, which started to get some media attention.

The Compton's Cafeteria Riot

One hot Saturday night in August (the exact day is unknown, but some evidence suggests the last Saturday 27th) the pent up anger boiled over. A member of staff had called the police and asked them to clear out the trans women who, they said, were being raucous. 

When the police arrived it was the final straw. A policeman grabbed one of the trans women in the cafe and tried to put handcuffs on her. She responded by throwing a pot of steaming hot coffee in his face. And the riot began.

"We decided we weren't going to take it anymore,” said Elizondo. “And I think that's the important thing about the Compton's Cafeteria Riot: that we all got together and said, 'We have rights too.'"

Sugar shakers went through windows. Chairs were thrown at the police. Such was the ferocity of the battle that the police were pushed out into the street. More queens and trans women quickly arrived, a police car was destroyed and a newspaper stand went up in flames as fighting broke out up and down the street. 

It was a groundbreaking act of resistance. For the first time, the trans community fought back against police harassment. Police reinforcements rushed to the scene as angry customers barricaded themselves inside the cafeteria.

Susan Stryker, a historian and filmmaker who later made an award winning documentary about the riots, aptly described the atmosphere: "The whole neighbourhood erupted in violence that night. People fought back. It wasn’t just about the cafeteria but about the whole neighbourhood and its inhabitants finally having enough."

After hours of rioting, the police arrested everyone they could. The customers who had barricaded themselves in, had escaped out of the damaged cafeteria by a back window into an alley. 

But most importantly, it had marked a turning point in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. It was the first instance of organised queer resistance to harassment by the authorities in the US, and unexpectedly it had a hugely a positive impact.

The Legacy Of Compton’s Cafeteria

The Compton's Cafeteria Riot, though overshadowed by later events like Stonewall, had a profound impact on the fight for trans rights in the city. It inspired local LGBTQ+ activists to begin organising to protect trans rights. 

One month after the riot, trans activists and allies picketed Compton’s in protest. The upshot of the riot was an unexpected one: One of the leading policemen in the area advocated on behalf of the community, and together with pressure from activists, San Francisco’s first transgender advocacy group, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, was formed to help set up programmes to help the trans people get jobs, get education and live normal lives. 

As longtime trans activist Christina Hayworth said: "Stonewall was five days of rioting, whereas Compton’s was three years of activism and community building.”

The legacy of the riot lives on through organisations like the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) in San Francisco, which is carrying forward the torch ignited at Compton's Cafeteria, advocating for the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals within the prison system.

The report in the Cruise News paper of the picket that happened a month before the riot. The headline says: Young homos picket Compton
The report in the Cruise News paper of the picket that happened a month before the riot.

How Did Compton’s Cafe Get Forgotten

So how did Compton’s Cafeteria Riot almost slip into forgotten history when The Stonewall Riot attained mythical status as the beginning of the LGBTQ+ movement? Sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage offer an answer to this question.

They suggest that, “it was not viewed as newsworthy or politically relevant by San Francisco’s predominantly gay male establishment.” This was mainly due to the gay movement being focussed on assimilation into heteronormative society.

In contrast to Compton’s, those who participated in The Stonewall uprising included more privileged elements of the gay community. In other words: well off white men with access to resources. 

A plaque that now sits at the sport where Compton
A plaque that now sits at the sport where Compton's Cafeteria once stood 

The affluent gay men with powerful networks had resources already at their disposal. They ran newspapers, had legal practices, had the power and connections to capitalise on the New York uprising. As Compton's was just desperate and desperately poor trans women it was simply pushed to one side.

But the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot deserves to be remembered for empowering trans people to stand up against oppression. It launched San Francisco's vibrant transgender community into political organising and laid the groundwork for future activism.

Though discrimination and violence against the trans community continue today, that pioneering fight for basic human rights at Compton's Cafeteria in 1966 was an important early victory on the path to equality.

More Blogs