Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

An uprising by transgender and gay street youth at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s impoverished Tenderloin neighborhood is thought to be the earliest militant expression of queer resistance by any age group to police harassment and societal oppression. The incident led to new social services for transgender individuals in San Francisco and inspired the transgender rights movement of the following decades.

Summary of Event

The youth uprising at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Urban life;youth in San Francisco[San Francisco] Tenderloin district came at a time in San Francisco with an already well-established homophile community that included groups such as the Daughters of Bilitis, the Tavern Guild, and the Society for Individual Rights. In 1964, riding the decade’s wave of progressive activism and civil rights organizing, radical ministers from Glide Memorial Methodist Glide Memorial Methodist Church Church—including the Reverend Cecil Williams and Ted McIlvenna, a young social worker—joined representatives of the homophile groups to organize the Council on Religion and the Homosexual Council on Religion and the Homosexual Religion and the Homosexual, Council on (CORH). [kw]Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco (Aug., 1966) [kw]Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, Queer (Aug., 1966) [kw]Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, Queer Youth Fight (Aug., 1966) [kw]Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, Queer Youth Fight Police (Aug., 1966) [kw]Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at (Aug., 1966) [kw]Cafeteria in San Francisco, Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s (Aug., 1966) [kw]San Francisco, Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in (Aug., 1966) Police abuse and harassment;San Francisco San Francisco Police Department Compton’s Cafeteria, San Francisco[Comptons Cafeteria] Queer youth;resistance to police by Protests and marches;Compton’s Cafeteria[Comptons Cafeteria] Political activism;early queer resistance[queer resistance] [c]Marches, protests, and riots;Aug., 1966: Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco[0610] [c]Civil rights;Aug., 1966: Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco[0610] [c]Transgender/transsexuality;Aug., 1966: Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco[0610] McIlvenna, Ted Williams, Cecil

While the established homophile organizations had succeeded in reducing police harassment of gay bar patrons and had made inroads into the city’s political establishment, disadvantaged queer youth were largely left out of the picture, since they were too young to frequent the bars and because members of the adult-focused organizations were worried that they would be charged with corrupting minors.

In the mid-1960’s, ministers from Glide, homophile leaders, and neighborhood activists came together to form the Central City Citizen’s Council, which succeeded in obtaining federal poverty program funds. Some of this money went toward providing services for the burgeoning population of gay, lesbian, and transgender youth—many of them runaways and hustlers—who called the streets of the Tenderloin district home. In the summer of 1966, with McIlvenna’s help, local queer youth formed their own organization, Vanguard, Vanguard which had a style and politics at odds with the “respectable” older groups.

Compton’s Cafeteria (part of a small local chain), located at the corner of Taylor and Turk Streets, was a popular all-night gathering place for the Tenderloin’s queer youth, including transgender Transgender youth prostitutes and young hustlers who frequented the diner between tricks and drag queens Drag queens/kings[drag queens kings];and queer youth[queer youth] and street kids who had few other indoor places to hang out. In the spring of 1966, following the death of a gay night manager who tolerated the queer youth, the incoming management decided to discourage the young patrons, who often spent long hours, but little money, at the diner. The cafeteria hired security guards who, along with local police, harassed and intimidated the youths. One of the first actions organized by Vanguard, in July of 1966, was a picket at the diner to protest the discrimination and harassment.

One warm night in August—the exact date remains unclear—Compton’s Cafeteria erupted in chaos. The incident was never well documented, and details remain scarce. According to available accounts, a police officer, late at night, tried to grab one of the young drag queens. Rather than tolerating the affront, the youth threw a cup of coffee in the officer’s face. Mayhem ensued as the enraged young queers threw dishes at the police and guards, broke the cafeteria’s windows, and burned down a nearby newspaper stand. The management closed the diner, and as the youth exited, police tried to grab them. This led to a general melee, with street kids hitting cops in the groin and drag queens pummeling them with their purses. The next day, Compton’s banned drag queens from the establishment. That night, the queer youth—reportedly joined this time by some older, more conservative gays—set up a picket line outside the diner, and the establishment’s newly repaired front window was once again smashed.

Significance

Although New York City’s 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, Stonewall Rebellion which also was carried out largely by young drag queens, gay and lesbian street youth, and transgender persons, most often is credited with sparking the gay and lesbian liberation movement, the rebellion was not the first incident of its kind. The Compton’s Cafeteria uprising was likely the first ever in which queers fought back physically against police harassment. A police raid on a New Year’s Eve fund-raising ball in San Francisco in 1964, sponsored by CORH, produced outrage and prompted liberal ministers to speak out publicly against gay and lesbian oppression, but it did not lead to a physical altercation.

Other early protests against police intimidation followed a crackdown on bars and cruising spots in the Los Angeles area beginning in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day in 1967. Protests included a demonstration at a police station during which protesters “pelted” the cops with flowers. It was not until Stonewall, however, that gay, lesbian, and transgender demands entered public consciousness and the LGBT liberation movement took hold in a sustained manner.

The Compton’s Cafeteria uprising can be regarded as the first glimmer of an incipient transgender movement Transgender rights as well, a moment when the transgender community first became politicized and began demanding its rights. Historian Susan Stryker, whose research was used for the 2005 documentary about the incident, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (documentary film) argues that the formation of Vanguard gave the Tenderloin’s transgender youth a new sense of empowerment.

Also around this time, street queens became aware of advances in the care of transsexuals, Transgender/transsexuality[Transgender transsexuality];San Francisco advances that were pioneered mainly by Harry Benjamin, who had an office in the Tenderloin, and improved procedures for gender reassignment surgery, which provided a new feeling of hope. Soon after the altercation at Compton’s, new social services were put in place for transgender individuals, including city-funded clinics.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the focus was on helping transsexuals permanently transition and embark upon a new life as heterosexual and traditionally feminine or masculine members of their new gender. It was not until the 1990’s that transgender activists began to demand their inclusion within the gay and lesbian community and to demand their right to occupy all positions on the gender spectrum. Police abuse and harassment;San Francisco San Francisco Police Department Compton’s Cafeteria, San Francisco[Comptons Cafeteria] Queer youth;resistance to police by Protests and marches;Compton’s Cafeteria[Comptons Cafeteria] Political activism;early queer resistance[queer resistance]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anonymous. “History of Christopher Street West, San Francisco.” In the San Francisco Gay Pride program book. June 25, 1972.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anonymous. “Young Homos Picket Compton’s Restaurant.” Cruise News & World Report 2, no. 8 (August, 1966).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feinberg, Leslie. “California Resistance Predated Stonewall Rebellion.” http://www.workers .org/2006/us/lavender-red-62/.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California. “MTF Transgender Activism in the Tenderloin and Beyond, 1966-1975: A Commentary and Interview with Elliot Blackstone.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 4, no. 2 (1998): 349-372.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hernandez-Bolden-Kramer Productions. Queer Geography: Mapping Our Identities, Detailing the Experiences of Four Queer Youth. Video recording. A project of the Mission High School Health Science Academy. San Francisco, Calif.: Frameline, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huegel, Kelly. GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens. Minneapolis, Minn.: Free Spirit, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria: Coming Soon to a Theater near You!” Transgender Tapestry no. 105 (Spring, 2004).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silverman, Victor, and Susan Stryker, producers. Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria. Documentary. San Francisco, Calif.: Frameline, 2005.

June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement

July 31, 1969: Gay Liberation Front Is Formed

October 12-15, 1979: First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

1982: Lesbian and Gay Youth Protection Institute Is Founded

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

May, 1988: Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center Opens

December 10, 1989: ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

March 20, 1990: Queer Nation Is Founded

April 24, 1993: First Dyke March Is Held in Washington, D.C.

Categories: History Content