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Before Stonewall: The Raucous Trans Riot that History Nearly Forgot

May 12 2016 2:10 PM
Before Stonewall: The Raucous Trans Riot that History Nearly Forgot

Photo courtesy of 'Screaming Queens'

How one trans woman helped excavate the rebellion that came before the one that everyone remembers.

Fifty years ago this year, on a hot night in August in 1966, the transgender community of San Francisco was fed up.

For years, they'd gathered at Compton's Cafeteria, an all-night diner in the Tenderloin, nursing their cups of coffee and trading stories, waiting for the sun to rise. Now and then, cops would raid the restaurant on the pretence of prosecuting the act of cross-dressing—illegal at the time—but those incidents always ended peacefully enough. But when the cops showed that night, things got out of hand.

Maybe it was because members of Vanguard, the militant gay liberation organization, were on the scene that night. Maybe they were angry because a trans woman was denied service at another diner the day before. Maybe it was just years of resentment and frustration at police persecution boiling over. Maybe it was everything. But when one trans woman threw her coffee at the approaching cop that night, it was the spark which ignited a full-blown riot.

By the next morning, the corner looked like a focal point for a wrathful god's smite: All the windows in the diner were broken, dishes were smashed on the ground, furniture was loosened and overturned, the remnants of a newsstand smoldered. Upwards of 100 people participated in the riot, yet no newspapers told its tale, no police records record arrests from the incident. In mere months, the entire night of disorder seemed to disappear completely.

So, why was a transgender riot that occurred three years before New York's Stonewall Inn lost to history? And how did it get rediscovered?

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Susan Stryker had been working at San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society Archives for years, trying to figure out her next step in life. She'd transitioned from male to female after graduate school, and she wanted a career as an academic historian. So, she began searching the archives for any and all bits of transgender history. In 1995, she found a 1972 program for the first Gay Pride Parade. In the centerfold was a short piece written by gay activist and co-founder of the city's legendary parade, Rev. Raymond Broshears, mentioning the riot at Compton's."I had this WTF question mark exclamation point moment," says Stryker, now a professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Arizona. Not only because of it being a undocumented moment of history, but because of what it possibly could signify.

"The debate over who threw the first brick at Stonewall has become a kind of proxy battle. Trans people say it was trans women of color, gay white men say it was all white gay men, don't try to co-opt our history," she says. "If the story of Compton's was accurate, it very clearly was queens who initiated the militancy. If I could document this happened, maybe it would reframe the debate."

The story also allowed Stryker to tell a different story than the familiar trans narratives, where individuals are highlighted for what hardships they've through in order to change their bodies. "It's very much a medicalized, pathologized story," says Stryker. "Compton's was about resistance, protest, people taking collecting action to resist the unjust circumstances they had to live in."

So began the long search to uncover the hidden history of the riot. To assist Stryker enlisted her longtime friend from UC Berkeley graduate school, Victor Silverman, who was in San Francisco on sabbatical. But even with two working in the weeds, the search was long and arduous. "Events in the Tenderloin in the mid-60s were something people didn't want to pay attention to. People would go there to party, get wild, but didn't want to talk about it," says Silverman. "We were really stuck. How do we put this together?"

While there were no smoking guns, there was circumstantial evidence. Here was a mention by a newspaper columnist Herb Caen that "the tray gays" at Compton's "got a little rowdy" the other night. There was a letter to the editor by a drag queen named Sandy Green saying that if people thought Stonewall was something, they should've seen what happened at "Turk and Taylor [the cross streets of Compton's] in '66." Stryker supplemented these historical breadcrumbs with her own oral history projects, and spatial analysis of the Tenderloin's single room occupancy hotels in the 60s. "I was triangulating this huge amount of information, and getting a clearer and clearer picture of why it was extremely plausible the riot happened as described," she says.

Courtesy of Screaming Queens

With the frame constructed, they went on the road to fill it in. They began showing a slideshow presentation around town in hopes of luring out more information. After one screening at Frameline, a San Francisco non-profit focused on presenting queer cinema, they received an email. "'I was just coming out with my boyfriend, and we were in the Tenderloin when it happened,'" Stryker recounts of the email's message. "'I'd never seen anything like that, we were scared to death, we didn't participate but watched it across the street. But I'm so glad you're telling the story because no one ever believed me that it happened.'"

More witnesses came forward, including one trans woman who put them in touch with Amanda St. James, who was at Compton's during the riot. "At that point, we could go forward and say this happened," says Stryker. St. James' account ultimately became the narrative heart of what ended up being Stryker and Silverman's Emmy award-winning documentary, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria, which is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

After the release, it was on to the next mystery, which has yet to be fully unpacked: Why is Stonewall treated as ground zero for the gay liberation movement while Compton's, which happened earlier, wasn't remembered at all?

The reasons are both integral (Stonewall went on longer and was bigger) and happenstance (it took place near the Village Voice office). There's also the argument that Stonewall couldn't have happened without incidents like Compton's—along with other gay liberation riots around the country—first taking place. "The countercultural movement was just starting to bust out in 1966," says Stryker. "By the time Stonewall happened, a lot of people were saying, Yes, this is our revolution." So when Stonewall happened, participants realized the significance enough to immediately form a committee meant to commemorate the event one year later.

Why is Stonewall treated as ground zero for the gay liberation movement while Compton's, which happened earlier, wasn't remembered at all?

But perhaps the biggest reason Compton's was forgotten is the local aftermath. "The city of San Francisco responded to [Compton's]," says Stryker. "It was a bunch of people saying, 'Hey, I hate it when you do that, don't do that!' And the city was like, 'Oh, sorry.'" New programs were instituted to help the city's trans population find employment and change documents, and access to hormone therapy was opened up. "The city responded in minor quotidian ways, but ways that made life more liveable for trans people."

All of these events may not have occurred as quick as they did without the rioters at Compton's, but without the film and research provided by Silverman and Stryker almost no one would know about it. "It was completely forgotten," says Silverman. "But when you do history right, you help people reflect on the past and recover it in a way that it can have an importance in their lives today."

In 2006, to commemorate the 40th anniversary, the city held a celebration and installed a plaque at the site. It reads:

Here marks the site of Gene Compton's Cafeteria where a riot took place one August night, when transgender women and gay men stood up for their rights and fought against police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination in the Tenderloin. We, the transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual community are dedicating this plaque to the heroes of our civil rights movement.

What was once relegated to the forgotten corners of a dusty archive is now, officially, a piece of history. "I don't want to overstate this," says Silverman. "But [our research] helped give the community a sense that, yeah, we have a history, we can claim this history. We're not just a group that pops out of the latest reality TV show. We're people who have struggled for years, who have fought to get where we are. That gives people the strength to keep working and continuing to organize."

"It gets to be this thing that smarty pants gender queer kids who take gender studies in college who say the gay movement started at Stonewall, they can say, 'Nuh-uh, it started in Compton's first,'" says Stryker. "It has entered the conversation about the recent queer past, and I could not be more pleased."

But this piece of history has one sticking point, still. That phrase "hot August night" written by Broshears doesn't jive with the meteorological historical record. There weren't any "hot" August nights that year. So while there was definitely a riot, and it happened in 1966, and probably happened in August, no one's quite sure. "It's one of those funny, historical things," says Silverman. "The exact date remains a mystery."

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