On an warm summer August night in San Francisco in 1966 (No one knows the exact date since SFPD files have been lost) at Compton’s Cafeteria, in the seedy Tenderloin district, it is hopping with its usual assortment of drag queens, young gay street hustlers, and down-and-out regulars. The management, who was annoyed by the noisy crowd at one table, called the police. When a surly cop, accustomed to manhandling the Compton’s clientele, attempted to arrest one of the queens, she threw her coffee in his face and mayhem erupted. Windows broke, furniture flew through the air and the drag queens fought back. Police reinforcements then arrived, and the fighting spilled into the street.
For the first time, the drag queens and hustlers banded together to fight back, getting the better of the cops, whom they kicked and stomped with their high-heels and beat with their fists. For everyone at Compton’s that night, one thing was certain — things would never be the same again.
There is so much more to the story of the Compton Cafeteria than those bare-bones facts. In 1966 San Francisco it was unlawful to crossdress and it was unlawful to “impersonate a female.” Drag performers, transvestites, effeminate gay males, and rough trade hustlers experienced frequent harassment by police, including arrests and demeaning jailhouse treatment. With no rights, employment or public accommodation protections, prostitution became survival sex work — it was the only way a drag queen or a down and out hot young guy could make a living.
The violent reaction of the drag queens and gays at the Compton’s Cafeteria did not solve the problems that they were having in the Tenderloin on daily basis. It did, however, create a space in which it became possible for the city of San Francisco to begin relating differently to the community — to begin treating them, in fact, as citizens with legitimate needs instead of simply as a problem to get rid of. That shift in awareness was a crucial step for the contemporary social justice movement — the beginning of a new relationship to state power and social legitimacy.
*Below is a vintage clip of a transgender woman complaining how hard it is to keep a job from Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria which you can watch online via Amazon video for $1.99 or FREE with Prime Video