Youth Blog–LGBT History beyond Stonewall: The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot
In case you missed the memo, June is Pride Month! There are many ways to show your LGBT pride over the next few weeks, but celebrating can include more than festivals and parades. Pride Month is also a great time to learn more about LGBT history.
If you read our blog post in 2013, you know that Pride happens in June to mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. This event is considered the start of the modern LGBT rights movement. It was an important moment in history, but it wasn’t the first time that members of the LGBT community in the US demanded better treatment. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in California, for example, happened nearly three years earlier.
In the 1960s, the Tenderloin was an area of San Francisco where many transgender people lived and worked. It was often hard for them to get other jobs, so they worked as performers and sex workers in this neighborhood. Compton’s Cafeteria was a 24-hour restaurant and a popular place for drag queens and other transgender people to meet after the bars closed. In theory, it was a place for them to escape violence and harassment. Unfortunately, officers would often arrest transgender customers at Compton’s for “female impersonation” .
One night in August 1966, police visited Compton’s to remove “unruly” customers. An officer grabbed one of the drag queens, who reacted by throwing coffee in his face. From here, the violence between the police and customers grew and spilled into the street. Transgender customers hit, kicked, and threw objects at the officers. The night ended with a destroyed police car, a burned newspaper stand, broken windows, and many customers in jail .
What this riot stood for and led to was much bigger than just these details. It was the first known example of group protest to police harassment on the part of the LGBT community in US history. It also involved members of the Vanguard, a transgender youth group in the Tenderloin that was the first of its kind in the country .
After the riot, police treatment of the city’s transgender community began to change . Activists and allies created a network of services to support the transgender community, including health clinics and work training programs . These activists also helped to create the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first peer-run support organization in the world . There was still more work to be done, but this signified a major shift in how transgender people in the city were treated.
During Pride Month, the spotlight is often on the Stonewall Riots. However, the LGBT community has a rich history of community organizing beyond this one event. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot was an important moment in history for transgender people. It reminds us that “LGBT history” includes more than just one part of the LGBT community. And it is another great example of the value of collective action for creating change.
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 Stryker, S. (Producer, Director), Silverman, V. (Producer, Director), & Walsh, J. (Producer). (2005). Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria [Motion picture]. USA: Frameline.
 Transgender Activism. (2004). In GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Culture. Retrieved from http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/transgender_activism.html
 PBS. (n.d.). Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/stonewall/