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Members of the Transgender Cultural District painted a Black Trans Lives Matter mural in front of the Compton’s Cafeteria site
Transgender District/Instagram. photo by Gooch

How a Riot at a Tenderloin Cafeteria Kicked Off the LGBTQ Rights Movement

54 years this month, the Compton’s Cafeteria riots sparked a revolution

As the legend goes, on a “hot August night” in 1966, officers with the San Francisco Police Department entered Gene Compton’s cafeteria at 101 Taylor Street. This was a common stop for the cops, as owners of the business often called the police to roust the late-night patrons of the restaurant, many of them transgender sex workers grabbing a bite or coffee during their shift. But that night, one of the women the police tried to drag out of the cafeteria fought back. That’s how the riot began.

Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s 2005 documentary Screaming Queens (which you can watch in full above) tells the tale of that civil uprising, perhaps the most culturally significant moment ever in San Francisco restaurant history. Back then, San Francisco cops were well known for their harassment of the city’s transgender residents, targeting and harassing gay men, drag queens, lesbians, and trans folks. It’s a situation that had persisted for decades, a systematic persecution of people that even SFPD Chief Bill Scott has admitted to, and — for the first time in the Department’s history — offered an apology for in 2019, but only after pressure from local LGBTQ rights advocates.

That so much of the Compton’s Cafeteria riots’ story, the first such civil uprising of trans and gay folks in the country, involves “standing up to the police” and smashed cafeteria windows meant that “for years, the community felt like they had to sugarcoat it,” San Francisco trans advocate Aria Sa’id tells Eater SF. “Over the years, when Pride comes around, there’s always been this fear of promoting fighting against the police.”

In the wake of the protests about the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and far too many others at the hands of law enforcement officials — as well as this week’s well-publicized police shooting of Jacob Blake — that fear has lessened, allowing folks like Sa’id to be even more candid than before about how police brutality has affected the LGBTQ community, which has “faced a particular kind of marginalization” that echoes what “Black people are still facing today.”

Sa’id’s the co-founder and executive director of the Compton’s Transgender District, a neighborhood in SoMa and the Tenderloin that encompasses where Compton’s once stood (part of a chain, it shuttered in 1972). Established in 2017, Transgender District is the first such officially recognized neighborhood in the world...something that probably wouldn’t have happened if trans folks hadn’t repeatedly protested against the police at the restaurant, chanting, picketing, smashing windows, all while being beaten and shoved into SFPD vehicles.

The demonstrations were the “catalyst for gay liberation,” Sa’id says, and even before protests for racial equity and against abusive police officers swept the nation, the district had big plans for the 54th anniversary of the Compton’s event. “We’d planned a series of events for all month, leading up to this weekend,” Sa’id says.

With the pandemic in play, those plans were curtailed. Instead, socially-distanced community members painted a trans-flag-colored mural reading “Black trans lives matter” in front of where Compton’s once stood, the District’s way to “raise visibility for black trans people across the globe,” Sa’id says.

Then, on Friday, August 28, from 5–8 p.m. there will be a “virtual party” over Zoom to commemorate the riots, with performances from trans and gay creatives, many of whom have been out of work in the pandemic. “We could have involved many people with a national presence,” Sa’id says, but it was important to us to keep the focus on San Francisco queer culture and history.” Expect appearances from drag artists like Black Benatar and Rexy Amaral Tapia, Transcendent star Bionka Simone, and a keynote from Stryker (arguably the riot’s most thorough historian). Hosts will be Sister Roma (the SoMa restaurant named after her is now open for business, BTW) and Transgender District co-founder Honey Mahogany, who before she joined District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney’s office as an aide was one of only two San Francisco performers to ever appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The link to the Zoom event can be found here, and while it’s clearly not what Sa’id had visualized for this year’s celebration, it’s still more than we had a few years ago, when the Transgender District was just a dream. And in these troubled times, “we get to dig deeper,” Sa’id says. “We’re at an unprecedented time where people are opening their eyes, and finally seeking enlightenment” about the systemic oppressions that many have always taken for granted. “It makes sense that we’re leading the charge,” Sa’id says, “for celebration and for change.”