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June 27, 2022

The 1966 Compton's Cafeteria Riot

On a hot weekend night in August 1966 trans women fought back against police harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. Although the Compton’s riot didn’t spark a national movement the way Stonewall would three years later, it did have an effect, leading to the creation of support services for transgender people in San Francisco, and a reduction in police brutality against the trans community.

Joining me to discuss the riot, its causes, and its aftermath, is historian Dr. Susan Stryker, co-writer and co-director of the Emmy-winning 2005 documentary, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria, and author of several books, including Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Image origin is unknown; it is used as the cover image of the documentary, and appears in many related news stories without attribution.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.

Today's topic is the 1966 riot at Compton's Cafeteria. Compton's Cafeteria was part of a small San Francisco chain, owned by a man named Gene Compton from the 1940s to the 1970s. This particular Compton's Cafeteria was located in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, and had opened in 1954 at 101 Taylor Street, which was at the intersection of Taylor and Turk. In 1966, Compton's cafeteria was open 24 hours a day, making it as much a meeting place as a restaurant. Trans sex workers who were not welcome in gay bars at the time, met up at Compton's in the late night and early morning hours, socializing and checking up on each other. Their work was often perilous. Compton's management was not supportive of their trans customers, and they would often call the police on them. Female impersonation and cross dressing were illegal at the time, so the cops could arrest the trans women and drag queens just for being themselves. Many trans women turned to sex work, because they were marginalized and discriminated against in other professions. Those who could pass as women could sometimes find employment in office work. But their identification cards would often out them in the employment process, keeping them from being hired. Except for those who could sing or dance, many others ended up on the streets. Sex workers faced the constant threat of violence from both their clients and from the police. For a time, a serial killer operating in the Tenderloin targeted trans sex workers. Sex reassignment surgery was not yet widely available. Most Americans didn't even know such surgery was possible, until American Christine Jorgensen, traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1952 for surgery. Upon her return to the US, her story was published in the New York Daily News and she became something of a celebrity. One of Jorgensen's doctors, Dr. Harry Benjamin, published a book called "The Transsexual Phenomenon" in 1966, and in the same year, he opened a practice in San Francisco, not far from the Tenderloin. It was around the same time in 1965 that the first known gay youth organization in the US was founded. Vanguard started in the Tenderloin, and many of the trans sex workers joined. In June, 1966, the radical ministers at GLIDE Memorial Church, a progressive church in the ,neighborhood, started to sponsor the work of Vanguard. Vanguard held meetings in the church basement, but another place that they often met to organize was at Compton's Cafeteria, until that is, they were kicked out for loitering without buying anything. Vanguard had for several months been picketing small businesses that wouldn't serve LGBTQ youth, and on July 19, 1966, they picketed Compton's Cafeteria. The picket ultimately wasn't successful. But it was written up in the local newspaper and had a lasting impact. In August, 1966, everything reached a boiling point. On a hot weekend night, the exact date is lost to history, an employee at Compton's called the police, claiming that some of the trans customers were being rowdy. The police arrived and started to arrest one of the women.

But this time, when they grabbed her, she threw hot coffee in a cop's face. That act of resistance set off a riot, with customers throwing plates and silverware, even furniture at the cops and at the windows of the cafeteria, and hitting police with high heeled shoes and purses. The cops retreated to the street and the riot followed them, damaging a police car and burning a news stand. The police fought back using what one police officer later called unnecessary violence as they arrested the rioters. The next day, a crowd showed up to picket when Compton's would no longer allow trans people to enter. Once again, the windows were smashed. After the riot, Compton's established a midnight closing time, but business dwindled, and the cafeteria closed for good in 1972. The Compton's riot didn't spark a national movement, the way Stonewall would three years later, but it did have an effect. In 1968, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit was established, providing peer run support services for the community. The city of San Francisco started to take seriously the needs of the trans community. And over time, police harassment and brutality lessened. Joining me now to discuss the riot. its causes, and its aftermath, is historian Dr. Susan Stryker, co-writer and co-director of the Emmy winning 2005 documentary, "Screaming Queens: the Riot at Compton's Cafeteria," and author of several books, including "Transgender History." Welcome, Susan, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Dr. Susan Stryker  7:53  
Yeah, it's really great to be here, Kelly.

Kelly Therese Pollock  7:55  
Yeah, so I am just delighted to be learning about the Compton's Cafeteria riots, something that I didn't know a lot about before. And I noticed as I was watching your documentary, you use the word "unsung," and I was like, "Aha, perfect for this Unsung History podcast." So I would love to start by hearing a little bit about how you learned about this story and started to get into researching it. 

Dr. Susan Stryker  8:22  
Sure,it's a story, gosh, about 30 years in the making, at this point that I was just finishing up my PhD in US History at UC Berkeley. I was transitioning as a trans person, right at the end of my PhD process. I you know, to not put too fine a point on it had a snowball's chance in hell of getting an academic job right at that particular point in history. And but, you know, I needed to transition for my own reasons. And I just thought, well, you know, I'm trained as a historian, I'm not going into the academy right now. Like, let me get busy doing community based historical work. And my, my dissertation work had not been in history of sexuality and gender that, you know, was long enough ago that that really wasn't considered something one did yet. And so I thought, well, you know, like, let me let me like, look into trans history, you know, since I kind of live in it 24/7/ 365. And, and I just thought, well, let me let me just get involved with the, the the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society, which was a community based archive and historical society. I started volunteering, I learned how to become an archivist and I just kind of spent my days in the archive, you know, nosing around, and I found a document that that described it was actually written in 1972, that was describing this riot that had happened in San Francisco in 1966. That document was actually the program for the first Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, which was in 1972. And the program basically said, you know, to synopsize that it was like, you know, "Hey, y'all, we're here to, you know, commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion in New York in 1969, but don't forget, Gay Liberation started in San Francisco three years earlier, in 1966. It all began one hot August night at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets in the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood, you know, where the drag queens and hair fairies and hustlers were, you know, sitting around the, you know, the tables in the middle of the night and the cops came in to do their usual job of harassing them, but that night, you know, they did not, you know, go willingly into the paddy wagons," and, you know, sort of the rest is history, you know, that they set up, a queen threw a cup of coffee in a cop's face, all hell broke loose. You know, there was fighting, you know, inside Compton's. You know, the windows were smashed out, people poured into the streets from the surrounding bars and SRO, hotels, there were the police were pouring in. And I now have better documentation from eyewitnesses to the event who were there, it's like, and it was a big deal. It's like there were there were reliable estimates of several hundred people in the streets and, you know, dozens and dozens of police cars, and that it wasn't just a one night event. I mean, there was the spark that went off that erupted. But there were there was a continuing agitation at the intersection of Turk and Taylor streets where this Compton's Cafeteria was located. That went on for a few days, and that it is kind of amazing to me that something that was that significant, kind of sank without a trace. You know, we remember Stonewall, why don't we remember Compton's?

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:10  
Yeah. So I want to get back to that question. But I want to hear about the detective work that you did. I mean, that's essentially what you had to do to figure out what happened from this little snippet to find anything and to reconstruct this story. So how did you pursue that?

Dr. Susan Stryker  12:28  
For a very long time. That's, that's, that's the easy answer. You know, I found the document that described the thing and I thought, "Well, is it even true?" You know, it's just like, written in '72, about something that had happened earlier. And I thought, "Was this you know, a local activist, exaggerating? Was it some kind of like, East Coast West Coast rivalry, it's kind of like, you know, yo, East Coast, you know, you got Stonewall, so we've got Compton's. We were here first." And I, you know, I had no idea, you know, what it was. And my first thought was to go look at police records, you know, it's like, oh, you know, like, let's go to the city archives and find police records from August of 1966. I asked the city archivist for those records. And her words were I quote, it's like, "Those records have been disappeared." And I said, "What?" And she said, "Yeah, you know, it's like, people think about San Francisco as this, you know, progressive or leftist place, but you know, the 60s, it's like there was a war going on. It's like, you know, the sort of the old power structure and then, you know, ethnic white, you know, Irish Italian Greek cops on the force that didn't like all those dang hippies, with their long hair and love beads." And those anti war protesters and those like psychedelic countercultural people. And that, yeah, there was, there was a war going on. And the cops lost, ultimately. It's like San Francisco became something else in the 70s, you know, or by the 70s, it had become something than it had been when the 60s rolled around. And, you know, the the old sort of more conservative power structure was out. And according to the city archivist, just vast amounts of police records were disappeared, because they just didn't want evidence of any kind of misconduct. And that's like, there's no, no record. It's like, oh, let me go to the newspapers. And there was no mention in the newspapers there. And you know, and as I've thought about it, since then, as I piece the story together more I really do think it has to do with that question of, you know, the cops got their ass kicked by, you know, street queens. And they, it was it was just not talked about. The mainstream press did not cover it. The mainstream press had been covering weeks and months of escalating police crackdowns in the Tenderloin, I mean, raids on drag bars and you know, that of sex work venues as the war in Vietnam was escalating, and there were more service members passing through San Francisco on their way to Vietnam, you know, the military police crackdown, like all of that was reported. I mean, you can you can see, retrospectively, you can see this, like, escalating pattern of violence targeting trans people in the Tenderloin. But no mention of the riot. Even in the queer press, you know, the the gay and lesbian press, no mention. There was mention of a queer youth group called Vanguard that had been organizing in the Tenderloin, had been at Compton's, they kind of hung out there. That's where they held their meetings.

You know, there was plenty of coverage of community organizing in the Tenderloin, because there was a neighborhood campaign going on right at that time to to qualify the neighborhood for anti-poverty funding through the War on Poverty, you know, plenty of reporting about all of that about how the pot is getting stirred. But did they talk about the denizens of this late night cafeteria, like kicking butt? Nope. And I think part of what was going on there is that around the same time, that violence was, you know, coming down on people, and it was being resisted in the Tenderloin, there was the first big national homophile convention, like this group of more, I would say, accommodationist, you know, more, I don't want to use the word conservative, because they think what they were doing was actually quite important. But gay and lesbian groups were more interested in a kind of respectability politics. There was this big national meeting of different homophile organizations from around the country happening in San Francisco in August. It was called "Ten Days in August." And I think the respectable gays just like did not want to talk about the gender trash out there in the streets, I think I really think that is what was going on. So there are many reasons why I think it it fell between the cracks. But, you know, I thought, "Well, then how am I going to find out if this thing actually happened?" And like I said, a moment ago, I was working, volunteering, spending much of my time in the archive of the GLBT Historical Society. I think I read the entire archive, you know. I think I feel like I looked through all of the periodical publications, the newspapers, the ephemera files, organizational records, people's personal records, I was just deeply, deeply, deeply familiarizing myself in San Francisco's queer history. And anytime I saw anything about trans whatever, or about the Tenderloin, or about Compton's, just like I was, I would photocopy it, I'd stick it in a folder. And I just kept, you know, this is back, you know, before, before the interwebs, you know, it's, it was still a very analog way of doing doing history. And over time, you know, I just kept finding little puzzle pieces like, "Oh, this looks like a piece that fits into the puzzle that I'm looking for, oh, this looks like a piece." And just, it was just very gradual that I built up what I thought of, as, you know, a plausible story for how it bumped like, actually looks like it could have happened. The other piece, I will say that, that turned out to be really important for me, is that there was another volunteer at the historical society, who was a geographer, and who entered, like, all of these, like addresses for like, where gay bars and organizations had been, and fed it into an early mapping software. And it's like, all of a sudden, it's like you could do like, where were the gay bars in 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970? And I got this like, spatial sense of like, "Oh my God, look, it's like all of these SRO hotels that catered mostly to trans people. They're all clustered right around Turk and Taylor. It's like all of like, sex work bars are like right around there. It's like all of these places that were central in the lives of trans people, unhoused youth, street hustlers, you know, it's like all it's like it. Compton's was at the crossroads of that neighborhood." And then, I was able to, to put in kind of what I knew, just as, you know, formally academically trained US historian. It's like, I knew some of the social movement history. It's like I knew some of the major political events that were going on. And it just, the more I thought about the bigger context, the more and more it made sense, it's like, you know, it's like that, that event, it's like, it totally makes sense for its time and place. And then once I kind of had that story, I went out started doing oral history, I started. And I, for the longest time could not find anybody who was a firsthand witness or participant. I mean, I did find this like trans woman of color who was incarcerated in a men's prison, who I was told used to be a cook, at Compton's. But California prisons, like they, you know, they there's a media blackout, you couldn't interview the prisoners, and she wound up dying in prison before we could ever interview her. So, you know, which I just think is is indicative of the kind of necro-political violence that lands so heavily on trans feminine people, particularly trans feminine people of color. It's like, they just were not alive, to be interviewed. So my kind of after I had what I thought of as like a plausible scenario, a preponderance of evidence, I wanted to tell the story in public. And I decided that I wanted to make a film about it. And part of that was feeling like this is a really important story. It's like it is like a Stonewall-like riot before Stonewall. It is an event that clearly centers the lives of trans people who are active in sex work. It is very clearly a kind of anti- carceral, you know, moment of mass resistance. And I thought, you know, I don't want to bury this in a history journal someplace. And just like, I don't want to write an article about it, I don't want to write a monograph, I want to tell the story in public. And so let's make a film. And let's make the film for public television, because at the time, you know, remember, this is the 90s, that was the way to, like reach the most people for the, you know, for free. So, I had a good friend, actually, from grad school, who was also interested in filmmaking. And we started applying for grants and we got some grant money, and "Screaming Queens" was the result. I think the very act of publicly saying that you're making a film about something can become a part of the recovery process and the educational process because we we started doing work-in-progress screenings at community groups. It's like just sort of talking to the project up, asking people for information. And that we were initially thinking that we would structure the film as kind of like a paper chase, you know, that it would be "a Susan Stryker, trans historian, like trying to figure out the truth of the Compton's Cafeteria, riot. Did it really happen? It's like, what's that city archivist? Those records have been disappeared? Where will we go next, you know, for our information?" And that we would wind up saying, "No smoking gun, but a preponderance of evidence. And if it happened, it would have happened just like this," and then we would do a recreation reenactment. But when we started telling the story in public, people started coming forward. You know, it's like somebody who was one of the interviewees in the film, Felicia Elizondo,

she like called me the next day. I didn't know her at the time, she called me the next day, and she says, "You need to talk to Amanda. It's like Amanda was there. You know, it's like Amanda has told me that story before, just like, you know, you need to talk to Amanda." It's like, okay, and we found one of the principal witnesses. It's like this woman, Amanda St. James, who's featured in the film, who was there, you know, and, and, you know, I thought, this is complicated. It's like, I don't want to lead her too much. I don't want to like suggest things that then she'll just say back to me like, "Oh, yeah, that's totally right. I was there." Didn't tell her much of anything. I just asked her these very broad questions as, "So like, I heard there was a riot at Compton's Cafeteria," and she was like, "Oh, yes, honey," and like, and she just starts telling it to me. And it's like, and it was the story that I had pieced together, you know, and to me that felt like such, you know, such a great corroboration of the archival sleuthing and of the spatial analysis of the urban geography. And everything just kind of kept lining up. And in the years since we've made the film, it's like, I've now found more people who have filled in additional gaps and holes in what I was able to piece together and it's like, yup, Compton's Cafeteria riot August, 1966, probably the I'm gonna forget the exact date probably August 27. We don't know the exact date, but circumstantial evidence suggests it was probably the last Saturday of the month. So, yeah, it's a thing.

Yeah. I'm so glad that the the film you ended up making does include those women that you talked to, in part because it tells such a vibrant story, not just of the riot itself, but of what life was like then, the what sort of led up to that. Can you talk some about that sort of what what the Tenderloin was like for these trans women, the the kinds of lives they were leading, trying to lead, you know, in this lead up to the riot?

The Tenderloin, I think of it as a containment zone. It is a carceral organization of space. It is the part of the city that is set aside for tacitly allowed criminalized activities. So red light district, it's where gambling would take place, it's where drug dealing happened, it's where you had after hours entertainment venues, it's where the brothels were, it's where the drag clubs were. And, you know, so it was it was the so called vice tourism district. You know, the the idea of a Tenderloin is not something that's unique to San Francisco, it's like most US cities of any size in the 19th and 20th centuries, had a Tenderloin district. The term actually started as a name for just such a district in New York City, but that other cities would then talk about their Tenderloin. San Francisco is the only city I know of where that place name stuck. It's still called the Tenderloin, used to be a more generic word. Now, it's just downtown San Francisco. But what what I think is really important to note is that most people could come in and out of the Tenderloin, you know, that it was like, it was the vice vice tourism. It's like, you know, you live out in the suburbs, you wanna like score some heroin, it's like, y'know, you can go to the Tenderloin, like you, you know, buy your balloon, you know, you get your nickel bag, and then you know, you go home. Or you want to go pub crawling bar hopping, it's like you come in you do it, you leave. It's like you're looking for commercial sex. It's like you go there, you find it, you pay your, you know, your your worker, and then you go home to, you know, wife and kids. But for trans women, because of employment discrimination, like most trans women could not find work in, you know, the so called legitimate economy. It's like they were consigned to like gray market, you know, and criminalized black market activities. So they worked in the Tenderloin, and they, they were often not allowed to live anywhere else. If you were visibly trans, it's like people wouldn't rent to you. And there were all of these hotels in the Tenderloin at one point, there were like 10 or 12 SRO, hotels that had mostly trans women living in them. I've seen estimates at the time of there being a trans population in the Tenderloin in the 1960s of around 300, 300-400 people that were also, the other thing I would want to say is that the Tenderloin at the time was largely white, but that there were other like venues for trans sex work and other ethnic enclaves in the mostly Latinx mission or around Chinatown or in some of the predominantly Black neighborhoods, but that you would have trans women who lived in those neighborhoods coming into the Tenderloin to do to do sex work. So it was the the Tenderloin was many kinds of ghettos, but it was very specifically a trans sex work ghetto that was created through corrupt policing that you know, the cops kept tacitly tolerated criminalized activities in that location, you know, it's like fish in a barrel. They often profited from it in a corrupt way of taking bribes and kickbacks, you know, not raiding madam's house in exchange for a cut of the profits or not raiding the bar if the bar owner paid them off. 

So yeah, you know, that those were the conditions that trans women were were living in, in the 1960s. And they were, you know, they were regarded by and large as like the, you know, below the bottom rung of the ladder. You know, one of the interviewees in the film says, like, we were the gutter girls, and that police thought they could abuse trans people with impunity. And it's like, I people tell stories in the film. And, you know, I've heard other stories that didn't make it into the film of basically, one, as one of our interviewees says, "It's like, the cops would walk into the bar and say, 'You, you, you and you come with us,'" you know, when they would tell stories of, of, you know, being driven around in the backseat of a police car all over the city for hours of, you know, police officers, like forcing them to give them blow jobs in the patrol cars, they were like, you know, take them to jail, they would like, you know, strip them and parade them in front of the other prisoners, they would shave their heads. I mean, it's just like, it was just, it was just straight up abuse. And, you know, those are the conditions that feed into

a riot. Yeah, yeah. So, you know, my, my question, as a historian was, like, well, these kinds of these forms of oppression that trans women were living under, like, they were systemic and structural, and, and, you know, ongoing. "Why," you know, it's like, why on this night, you know, of all nights, you know, why why did they why did they riot one night? And I, I wanted to think of about that, and the storytelling in the, in the film of, you know, trying to provide some, you know, some some explanations for why, why then, you know, rather than some other time, and I do think it has to do with the social mobilizations that were going on in the neighborhood. I mean, there were, you know, there, there was mobilization around accessing federal money for the anti-poverty programs. There was a lot of neighborhood based activism, trying to access that money there was there was actually a deeper backstory than we were able to tell in the film, but the Watts riot, in Los Angeles, one of the major triggers for that was after President Johnson had announced down these, these, like federal community block grants through the, you know, the Equal Opportunity and Employment Commission, so the War on Poverty programs, that there were people who thought like, great, we're gonna get some money into our neighborhoods. But then at the city level, it's like, city administrations would often like vacuum up that money for their, you know, political cronies, and you know, not necessarily direct it to where it most needed to go. And when that happened in Los Angeles, people in Watts are basically like, "hell no"can you know, and right, and then people in San Francisco, were going like, "you saw what happened in Watts, you don't want that to happen in San Francisco, do you?" and the powers that be in the city were like, right. And there was a much more neighborhood based campaign to like, bring that federal money and to address local needs. But because of because of the way that poverty was thought of correctly, as being deeply linked to structural problems of racism, that the neighborhoods that were organizing to access that money, it was the Bayview Hunters Point, which was largely Black, Chinatown, the mission which was was, you know, Latin X neighborhood. And the Tenderloin was not part of the mix, because it was largely white. Right. And so, part of what I find actually quite inspiring about the community mobilization that was going on in the Tenderloin is that it was led largely by gay and lesbian people, as well as by progressive ministers at GLIDE Memorial Methodist Church, and that what you saw was mostly white queer people saying to like very political people of color, it's like, "We see what your problem is. We have some of the same problems. Our problems are more related to being queer than to being of color, but this big pie of federal money that's coming in, it's like in the name of justice, we need to split that five ways, not four ways and we need to get our slice." And that's how it played out. I mean, there was, I think I call that in my book "Transgender History." It's like the first gay, straight, multiracial alliance for economic justice in US history. You know, and that happened in the Tenderloin. It's a really, to my mind. extremely inspiring story. And, you know, without that kind of activism, community organizing, mobilization, it's just like, I don't know, if the seeds would have been planted for the kind of resistance that happened. People were agitated, you know, it's like, you know, agitate, educate, organize, right, there was agitation, there was organizing. And then when that when the cops came in that one night is just like, it was different. It was different because the community was different. It was different because people had been organizing before the event. They were ready. And it's like, the next time the police raid came in, boom, there was that "hell no" moment.

Kelly Therese Pollock  36:03  
Yeah, and part of what makes a difference then is what happens after. So you mentioned in "Transgender History," you know, it's not the first time that anyone had ever resisted the police. There's Cooper Do-nuts in LA and I think that was 1959. What makes this different is that there were actually things that came out of it, that it wasn't just like a one time thing and nothing happened. So can you talk some about that? That piece of it the the sort of repercussions of what happened? 

Dr. Susan Stryker  36:33  
Yeah, you know, I do, I do see the Compton's, Cafeteria riot as being the thing that put trans issues on the map for the, you know, the powers that be in the city. It's like it was, you know, there was a particular police officer named Elliot Blackstone, who we profiled on the film, who, you know, he and I said, I have many criticisms of police departments and the way police forces work. You know, Elliott was somebody who said, "I think of myself as a social worker with a badge. And it's just like, I think, you know, laws shouldn't criminalize people for just like being who they are. It's like, if you're leaving people alone, people should leave you alone." You know, so he actually had this kind of, you know, not not radical, but I would say liberal perspective on, you know, trying to decriminalize nonviolent crimes, you know, and it's like, why are we arresting, like, people for prostitution? Why are we arresting people for drugs? It's like, why are we arresting people for cross dressing? You know, it's just like, he really did have that, that mindset. And, you know, like, he was like, trying to get the police to stop doing like, you know, bathroom entrapment. He would, you know, do advocacy work on behalf of trans and gay people, you know, and yeah, like, you know, pretty cool. It's like, he was like trying to change police practices in the city. The city public health department started offering a trans clinic. And it's like, people were, you know, the people who were involved in legal advocacy work, like were starting to help trans people change names on identity documents. Trans people were able to access job training programs through, you know, through the EEOC, you know, workforce development funding. So it, it it was a dramatic sort of flare up, that then produced some structural changes. And then I think the trigger for those changes was forgotten, you know, for for a variety of reasons, but that I do see me like, unlike Cooper Do-nuts, which you mentioned, it's like, a very similar kind of events, you know, a late night hanging out for street active people who were, you know, queer, trans and yeah, would draw police attention. Apparently, one of the, the triggers at the Cooper Do-nuts riot is that police were asking for people's IDs. And you know, a lot of, you know, a lot of gender nonconforming people  or trans people would have an appearance that did not match their state issued ID and that would be something that would like trigger their further involvement with the, you know, police power structure. And they fought back. They fought back when you know, what, one night, but it didn't really go anywhere after that. You know, it was just like something got out of hand. Queer folks fought back against the police, ran off into the night, and then that was that. With Compton's, I do think there was there was a structural change that took place afterwards partly because of the organizing that was going on. It's like that, that activist communities and neighborhood residents and LG and T people were were ready, you know, they were ready to do something they were organized in a way that allowed the pushback to actually like, move them a little further down the road.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:21  
Yeah. So the million dollar question that you asked earlier. Why does everyone remember Stonewall and until you brought it back up, y'know Compton's had just sort of disappeared?

Dr. Susan Stryker  40:33  
Yeah, well you know, in, gosh, when would that be 1995, 1994 on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, the eminent gay historian, Martin Duberman, who wrote a book on Stonewall was being interviewed in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, and was asked that question about, like, why the mythologizing of Stonewall? And he says, "Well, you know, that's, you know, people are always looking for like some, you know, myth, you know, like, why Bastille Day, you know, for all, like the French Revolution?" And he said, "You know, there were a number of other, you know, moments of militancy before Stonewall and including the Compton's Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco, just like why we remember Stonewall and not Compton's is a bit of a mystery, mostly because I think it happened on the West Coast." That was his take on it. And, you know, all Duberman really knew was the same things that I knew when I started out. It's like, he knew there was that one document at the historical society that suggested there was something that happened at Compton's Cafeteria, but he'd never done any research on it. So that was actually one of the things that led me to go like, "Yeah, well, like if Marty Duberman knows about this, but doesn't know anything more than what I know, it's like, this would be like a great thing to like, dig into a little bit more." I think one of the other, so I mean, you know, a number of things. You know, one of them was, I think Compton's happened a little too early, at some, some level, you know, that it was right at the beginning of the war in Vietnam, it was right at the beginning of the youth counter culture, it was right at the you know, it's, I think I've just like by the time, Stonewall comes along, there's a lot more combustible material, there's been like three years of activism, three years of movement building, the feminist movement's in a different place, you know, the Black power struggle has really come into its own. Black Panthers were formed in Oakland in 1966, right at the same time as the Compton's Cafeteria Riot, you know, they were just getting started. And I just think that, that by 1969, there were a bunch of queer people who were just kind of saying, like, you know, it's like, it's time for our revolution, you know, and then when Stonewall happens, you know, this is it, you know, to the barricades, comrade, you know, this is what we're gonna organize around. And in 1966 It just wasn't there yet. So, you know, obviously, like same spark, but like, different amount of kindling and combustible materials, so just Stonewall was bigger. And also, you know, it's like San Francisco is a pretty small place, ultimately, you know, it is a small city. New York is huge. There were more people there. I'd say New York was the media capital of the world. It's like the Stonewall was down the street from the Village Voice, you know, the New York Times was covering it, you know, so it's kind of when something happens in San Francisco, it happens in San Francisco. And when something happens in New York, it's like the world shall know. So I think that was part of it. The other piece, I think, is that

kind of the, the, the keeper of the flame, bearer of the torch for the Compton's Cafeteria Riot memory, was this guy, Raymond Broshears, who was a gay activist. He was actually a minister. He did a lot of social justice street ministry, had like street church kind of stuff. He was the person who was in the Tenderloin. He hung out at Compton's. He knew about what went on there. And that he was the organizer for that 1972 Gay Pride Parade where he told the story of Compton's. But most people in the organized gay and lesbian community in San Francisco would not give Ray Broshears the time of day. You know, it's like it was that same kind of like radical versus respectability politics. Also Broshears was a famously difficult person. I think the way I read it, he had actually had a really serious gay bashing incident in the later 50s and had a traumatic brain injury. And you know, I really think that some of Broshears' emotional lability, you know, and and his, like sudden bursts of you know, aggression. It's like I you know, to me it sounds a lot like, you know, frontal lobe injury, but Broshears was not widely beloved by by many people. And actually the next year, 1973, more I would say respectability oriented gays organized what they thought was the first Pride Parade in San Francisco and they kind of like sidelined what Ray Broshears had done the year before. And they were sort of a famous story in San Francisco about how Broshears said that there was to be no violence. It was a non- violent march. And then it was a kind of a lesbian separatist group who showed up to March carrying these signs that said, "Off the pricks," and that Ray decided that that constituted an act of violence because they were advocating violence towards pricks, and that he tried to prevent them from marching. And they said, No, we're going to march and then he tried to take the signs away from them, and they wouldn't give him the signs that he wound up in a fistfight with a bunch of lesbian separatists. And that was the, you know, it's like, every all of the other activists it sounds like, "That's it, like we're done with Ray, you know, next year, you know, Ray's not involved." And they also, you know, they excluded trans people from the March it's like they were, it was more like the Castro oriented gays rather than like the Tenderloin oriented street hustle and sex work and young unhoused gender variant crowd. And, and so, the community based and cultural mechanisms for remembering Compton's got, you know, they got disarticulated from the events in just like they, that the history that the official gay culture was remembering was not the Compton's history. It's like the people who are remembering that we're part of that community, were not enfolded into the gay and lesbian community that took shape in the 1970s. And, you know, moved increasingly into, you know, the, the liberal power structure of the city, you know, the Harvey Milks of the world. And so, you know, I see Compton's being forgotten, largely because much more radical and diverse movement in the 60s, got narrowed down into something that was, you know, mostly white, mostly cis, mostly, you know, liberal inclusionist rather than, like, radically, like, structurally transformational. And people forgot about Compton's until some, you know, unemployed trainee historian with a PhD is like, looking for something to do. And I, you know, found this great story.

Kelly Therese Pollock  48:32  
Yeah. And it is a terrific story. So tell people how they can watch the film,

Dr. Susan Stryker  48:37  
we have a website, that will tell you where you can access all of the streaming options. It, it was, it was a film that was funded by ITVS, which works with independent media producers to develop content for public television. You know, we have had a national broadcast, but you know, like that was almost 20 years ago, the film came out in 1995. It's been in distribution ever since. It's available for, and increasingly it's like everything is sort of looped into streaming platforms. And so you can watch it on Kanopy which is available to a lot of public libraries and universities. It's available on Amazon Prime and if you have an Amazon Prime account, it's part of the free streaming content that you can access. It streams on the YouTube channel of our local PBS affiliate, KQED. And you know, if you're interested, you can buy a you know, DVD or Blu ray or you know, download a digital file, but so It will tell you all of the different ways you can access the film, but it's out there. It's pretty easy to find. Just Google it, you'll find it.

Kelly Therese Pollock  49:52  
Yeah. And I'll put a link in the show notes to to that movie website and enter your book as well, "Transgender History," where you talk some about this event too and provide some context. Thank you so much for joining me. This was it's just a terrific story and I I'm so thrilled to have learned about it and I really appreciate your time.

Dr. Susan Stryker  50:14  
And I appreciate your time and it sounds like you've got a great lineup of programs for the whole month of June, so I'm happy to be happy to be part of it.

Teddy  50:23  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or our used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Susan StrykerProfile Photo

Susan Stryker

Susan Stryker is Professor Emerita of Gender and Women’s Studies. Since retiring from UofA, she has been Presidential Fellow and Visiting Professor of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University (2019-2020); Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership, Mills College (2020-2022); and Marta Sutton Weeks External Faculty Fellow, Stanford University Humanities Center (2022-2023). She continues to serve as executive editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and as co-editor of the Duke University Press book series ASTERISK: gender, trans-, and all that comes after. She is the author of Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution (2008, 2017), co-editor of the two-volume Transgender Studies Reader (2006, 2013) and The Transgender Studies Reader Remix (2022), as well as co-director of the Emmy-winning documentary film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005). She is currently working to complete her book manuscript, Changing Gender: A Trans History of North America from Colonization to the Present (under contract to Farrar Straus Giroux), and developing a variety of film and television projects. For more information, please visit