Today, the ground floor of the building at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets in San Francisco's Tenderloin district is a nondescript concrete rectangle; it stands unassuming, seemingly unimportant. But as a historical marker in the sidewalk will tell you, this was once the site of Compton's Cafeteria, a background to one of the most historic and little known events in queer history.
Three years before New York’s Stonewall riots, a drag queen at Compton’s Cafeteria, sick of the continued harassment she and her community experienced at the hands of the San Francisco police department, threw her coffee in the face of the officer who grabbed her arm. Other patrons joined the fray; the confrontation erupted into riot of thrown dishware and overturned tables, following the police out onto the street as they called for backup. Sugar shakers went through the cafeteria windows and glass doors, drag queens beat police with their heavy purses, and a corner newsstand went up in flames. As filmmaker Susan Stryker narrates in her 2005 documentary Screaming Queens, so launched the “first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history.”
Screening on KQED Saturday, July 23, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria has a particular resonance now, 50 years after the event that inspired its making, as the need for queer safe spaces becomes a subject of focus once again.
Overshadowed by Stonewall, the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria might have remained a little-known, almost mythical event that took place “one hot August night,” until Stryker dug deep into the GLBT Historical Society archives and tracked down the people who remembered the Tenderloin as it was.
“It was beautiful because it was clean,” says one of Stryker’s interviewees of Compton’s. “It was like Oz,” says another, “something like The Wizard of Oz.” The cafeteria served reasonably-priced food 24 hours a day, acting as a gathering place for drag queens, trans women, sex workers and down-and-out individuals into the wee hours of the night.
Outside the cafeteria, the Tenderloin of the 1960s was a place where transgender people could be themselves, but it was also the only place where they could be themselves. “Police would give the people who were of indeterminate gender the message that they belonged pretty much in the Tenderloin, which at the time was kind of a gay ghetto, a very slummy gay ghetto,” Suzan Cooke says in the film.
Their lives were further limited by the lack of legitimate employment opportunities. “As for me and other girls,” says former sex worker Felicia Elizondo, “we never thought of looking for a job because maybe in the back of our heads we knew they wouldn’t hire us anyway.”
“We sold ourselves because we needed to make a living,” she says, “but we sold ourselves because we wanted to be loved.”
Stryker’s film acutely depicts the danger faced by those who worked the streets. Johns were often violent. A serial killer prowled the Tenderloin, targeting trans women. That stress, combined with a growing LGBTQ civil rights movement and the prejudice and police harassment Compton’s customers faced on a daily basis (the interviewees list off any number of offenses that could lead to arrest for the then-crime of “female impersonation”: lipstick, mascara, hair too long, shirt buttons on the wrong side, obstructing the sidewalk or just being) came to a boiling point in August 1966.
“There was a lot of joy after it happened,” says Amanda St. Jaymes. “A lot of 'em went to jail, but there was a lot of ‘I really don’t give a damn, this is what needs to happen.’”
The exact date of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot is lost to history, a reminder that a violent uprising of San Francisco’s most marginalized citizens didn’t even make the pages of a mainstream newspaper in August 1966. Stryker’s film goes some way to correct that erasure of local LGBTQ history.
“Transgender people today need to change a world that still denies us many of our basic human rights,” Stryker says at the film’s close. “Knowing what happened that night at Compton’s brings the power of our history to bear on that struggle.”
Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria airs on KQED at 6pm Sat., July 23, or you can watch it online today! Visit kqed.org for more information.