Before Stonewall: Compton's Cafeteria
Guest Post from Max Bellman-Seeskin
A late-night scene in Gene Compton's Cafeteria. The cafeteria was a popular destination for queer people of all kinds: hustlers, queens, hair fairies. This photo shows an Imperial Court of San Francisco event at the cafeteria. The date and names of the subjects are unknown.
Photo: Henry Leleu, Courtesy the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society
It feels like a miracle that the SCOTUS ruled in favor of gay and Trans employees (Bostock v. Clayton County, 2019) as an offshoot of the Civil Rights Act, and a rare moment where cases of both gay AND trans people were heard and weighed, and justice was served. What stands as remarkable to me is how much change has continued to occur in a relatively short time span since Spade (2008) published the piece “Methodologies of Trans Resistance. A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies” calling out mainstream gay rights lobbying groups for abandoning Trans* folx in order to make “progress” with legal gains that primarily impact those who already have a relative level of privilege in western society.
Stryker (2017) mentions how much of trans activism arose from social gathering spaces, where repeated police harassment led to revolutionary moments (Cooper’s Do-Nuts, Compton’s Cafeteria, Stonewall). Patrons of these establishments were not seeking equality and civil rights; they were often people of lower income, people of color, and sex workers who simply wanted a place to eat without being bothered. While most queer folks are now aware that the 1969 Stonewall riots were started by black and Latinx queer pioneers like Marsha P. Johnson and Syliva Rivera, not as many people are familiar with the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.
In the 1960s, the Compton's Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender individuals who went to the restaurant. Management felt that transgender customers were loitering and causing them to lose more desirable business. In response, they implemented a service fee directed at transgender individuals and blatantly harassed them in an attempt to get them to leave the restaurant. In response to police arrests, the transgender community launched a picket of Compton's Cafeteria. Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against police violence directed towards transgender people in San Francisco. On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton's called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. Police officers onsite were known to mistreat transgender people; when one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face, and this was followed by drag queens pouring into the streets, fighting back with their high heels and heavy bags (Stryker, 2017).
Bostock v. Clayton County, 2020. United States Supreme Court. No. 17–1618. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/17-1618_hfci.pdf
Spade, D. (2008). Methodologies of Trans Resistance. A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies, 237-261. doi:10.1002/9780470690864.
Stryker, S. (2017). Transgender history (2nd ed.). Seal Press.
Max Bellman-Seeskin is a Master's level intern studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch University, working towards becoming a licensed counselor to serve the LGBTQIA* community.. Max has been a Board-Certified Music Therapist since 2007, with an undergraduate degree from California State University, Northridge. In addition to providing individual therapy, Max also facilitates our Youth Transgender Support Group, and previously facilitated the Adult Transgender Support Group prior to COVID-19.