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Compton's Cafeteria Riot

Compton's Cafeteria Riot

In this episode of the Mattachine Podcast, we’ll be looking at the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, which occurred in San Francisco, in the late summer of 1966.  We’ll investigate the riot’s significance, and how it set the tone for gay rights moving forward—particularly within the scope of rapid social civil rights advancements in the tumultuous 60s.

The Compton's Cafeteria Riot occurred in August 1966 in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. This incident was one of the first recorded transgender riots in United States history, actually preceding the more famous 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.


Compton's Cafeteria was one of a chain of cafeterias, owned by a gentleman named Gene Compton, in San Francisco from the 1940s to the 1970s. The Tenderloin location of Compton's at 101 Taylor Street—was open from 1954 to 1972 and was one of the few places where transgender people could congregate publicly in the city, because they were heretofore unwelcome in gay bars in the city. The cafeteria was open 24 hours until the riots occurred.  Because cross-dressing was illegal at the time, police could use the presence of transgender people in a bar as a pretext for making a raid and closing the bar.

Many of the militant hustlers in the neighborhood, and street queens involved in the riot were members of Vanguard, the first known gay youth organization in the United States—we’ll be covering that organization in a later podcast.  Vanguard had been organized earlier that year with the help of radical ministers working with Glide Memorial Church, a center for progressive social activism in the Tenderloin for many years. A lesbian group of street people was also formed called the Street Orphans.

Cause of the riot

Starting in the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender and transsexual individuals, who would often frequent the restaurant in the neighborhood. In response to police arrests, the transgender and transsexual community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria. Although the picket was ultimately unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against transgender and transsexual violence in San Francisco. On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton's called the police when some transgender customers became loud and unruly. In the 50's and 60's police officers were known to mistreat transgender people—often their behavior was sanctioned. When one of these officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she got angry and threw her coffee in his face. That was the flashpoint for the riot to begin. Dishes and and even furniture were thrown, and the restaurant's plate-glass windows were smashed. Police called for reinforcements as the fighting spilled out into the street, where a police car had all its windows broken out and a sidewalk newsstand was burned down. It escalated very quickly. The exact date of the riot is unknown because 1960 police records no longer exist and the riot was not covered by newspapers, which was another societal signal of how this group was ignored.

The next night, more transgender people, hustlers, Tenderloin street people, and other members of the LGBT community joined in picketing the cafeteria, the owners of which would not allow transgender people back in. The demonstration ended with the newly installed plate-glass windows being smashed yet again.

Effects of the riot

The riot definitely marked a turning point in the local LGBT movement. 

In the aftermath of the riot at Compton's, a network of transgender social, psychological, and medical support services was established, which culminated in 1968 with the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit [the NTCU], the first such peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world.

Serving as an overseer to the NTCU was Sergeant Elliott Blackstone, designated in 1962 as the first San Francisco Police Department liaison to what was then called the "homophile community." According to Susan Stryker, the local historian and transgender activist who spent nine years uncovering the Compton's Cafeteria saga and making it into a documentary called Screaming Queens, Compton’s Cafeteria riot was “the first known incident of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history." Transgender people finally stood up to the abuse and discrimination by police officers. Following the riot, transgender and transsexual individuals were allowed to live their lives more freely and openly because police brutality towards them subsided—a direct result of the riots. For example, they had much less fear of being heckled by the police department for dressing how they chose to during the daytime, in the neighborhood.

The tired transvestites who clashed with police at an all-night greasy spoon here in 1966 never would have expected the city's political elite to show up for a dedication ceremony honoring their struggle as a civil rights milestone.

Yet there, at the site of the Compton's Cafeteria riot, among a crowd of unusually tall women and noticeably short men were a pair of city supervisors, the district attorney, the police chief, and a transsexual police sergeant. The California Assembly and the mayor sent proclamations that

"Trans has become part of polite society," said Susan Stryker,  "You can't be openly anti-trans the way you could before."

Until Stryker teased it out, the story of the Compton's Cafeteria riot remained as hidden as its main characters' true identities and carefully concealed razor stubble. Now the event is quietly challenging New York's 1969 Stonewall Riots as the dawn of the modern gay rights era.

While not every city is ready to celebrate the contributions of its cross-dressing citizens, San Francisco — which in 2001 extended its health insurance to cover sex reassignment surgeries for municipal employees — is no longer alone in the landscape. Across the nation, transgender residents are quickly winning rights and recognition they began to demand only recently.

In the last three years alone, New Mexico, Illinois and California have updated their anti-discrimination laws to protect transgender home buyers and renters; colleges in Vermont and Iowa have dedicated "gender neutral" dorm rooms; and corporations have adopted policies for helping employees stay on the job during sex changes. "When we are getting phone calls from people who have lost their jobs, and e-mails from people who are facing violence, it's sometimes easy to think everything is still really bad," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C. "But to see that people were able to stand up for themselves 40 years ago is a very wonderful reminder to us of how far we've come."

The sea change is especially obvious this month as cities in the United States and Europe observe gay pride events.

Although so-called "drag queens" have been a visible part of pride marches since the 1970s, gay and lesbian groups were long afraid to embrace transgender causes for fear of being tainted by the more extreme prejudice they provoked, said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "There was a time when nobody wanted to even mention transgender issues or have transgender people accompany you on lobbying visits to members of your state assembly because that was pushing the envelope too far," Foreman said. "There was a myth in our community, and frankly I was part of that myth, that including transgender people would set our cause back."

"The history of transgender civil rights and Pride was that it was OK as long as it was gay men in dresses and it was about spectacle," said Chris Daley, director of the National Transgender Law Center in San Francisco. "The shift we are seeing is that the broader LGBT community has been able to embrace not only the more comfortable parts of the community, but everybody."

Observing the range of lawyers, entertainers and openly transgender professionals who were on hand as the sidewalk plaque marking the Compton's Cafeteria riot was installed, Stryker was struck by how much had changed in the last 40 years. "Back then, you couldn't be out as trans without huge costs," she said. "To see all these people honoring a bunch of drag queens who rioted against the cops is amazing."

Today, a granite historical marker installed in San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin District would be unremarkable if it didn't honor men who dressed in women's clothes and once walked the streets selling sex.

[Music Out]

Thank you for listening to the Mattachine Podcast.  This episode was researched, written, narrated, and produced by Brad Dunshee—yours truly.  Our logo was designed by Matt Smith. 

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Montgomery Clift

Montgomery Clift

The Mattachine Society

The Mattachine Society