50 years ago next month, a group of pissed off trans women and hustlers who frequented Gene Compton's Cafeteria at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets in the Tenderloin revolted against police and rioted, smashing windows and breaking dishes and furniture in the country's first noted revolt by LGBTQ people. This was August 1966, three years before the Stonewall Riot in New York, and like Stonewall it came in reaction to police harassment, it spread over more than one day, and it became a formal protest in a neighborhood known to be the city's only haven for gay and trans people at the time.
The exact date of the riot, because it was not covered in the media and was not formally recorded by the SFPD, is actually lost to history, but some of the women who were there tell first-person accounts of that legendary night in a documentary airing on KQED this weekend called Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria. The film actually premiered at Frameline in 2015, at which point NPR picked up the story and spoke to several trans women who frequented Compton's at the time. It was known to be a nightly gathering spot for trans sex workers in particular who weren't welcome in gay bars, because it was open 24 hours.
Resistance was in the air that summer in San Francisco and anti-war protests were ramping up, and a picket at the cafeteria had already occurred on July 18, 1966 after management at the cafeteria which was one of a chain across town began kicking trans women out. Police were called to the place one August night after a report of people being rowdy, and one trans woman, tired of being threatened with arrest, threw a cup of coffee in a policeman's face, setting off a riot that would be repeated the following night with Compton's plate glass windows getting smashed twice.
In the trailer below you can hear from Amanda St. Jaymes, a trans woman who ran a residential hotel near the cafeteria and who talks about getting arrested multiple times by police despite the fact that she wasn't a sex worker. "If we had lipstick on, if we had mascara on, if our hair was too long, we had to put it under a cap," she says. "If the buttons was on the wrong side, like a blouse, they would take you to jail because they felt it was female impersonation." At the time, any type of female impersonation was considered a crime something that led local activist Jose Sarria to make pins for drag queens to wear one Halloween that said "I'm a Boy" on them, in an effort to skirt the law.
Director Susan Stryker calls the riot "the transgender community's debut on the stage of American political history," and she was inspired to track down members of the community who were there after finding that so few details of the event had been recorded.
A longer trailer, below.