Compton’s Riot Forged Bruce Jenner’s Path

by on April 27, 2015

When onetime “World’s Greatest Athlete” Bruce Jenner announced last Friday night that “I am a woman,” it culminated an over fifty year campaign for transgender rights. And while few movements have a single starting point, this struggle for acceptance got a critical boost in 1966 from  “screaming queens” refusal to accept second-class treatment at the Compton’s Cafeteria at Turk and Taylor in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

Thanks to Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s 2005 film, Screaming Queens (available on DVD), the public can see the dramatization of this long forgotten launching point for transgender resistance to harassment. 1966 proved a critical year for both transgender activism and the growth of San Francisco’s lesbian and gay rights movement. Both had their geographic epicenter in the Tenderloin, as I detail  in my new book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco)

Meetups in Cafes and Bars

The landmark federal civil rights act that passed in 1964 expanded rights for African-Americans and women, but did nothing to enhance gay and transgender rights. Police continued to harass and arrest men and women solely for the “crime” of wearing clothes identified with the opposite gender. Nor did police tolerate men or women socializing in public places who “appeared” to be gay or lesbian.

Bars became the social gathering places for gay men. Some San Francisco bar owners paid off police to prevent any risk of customer arrest, which embarrassed City Hall when the 1961 “gayola” scandal became front-page news. The Tavern Guild’s formation in 1962 highlighted the role of bars as the key social institution for building San Francisco’s gay community.

For lesbians and transgender women, cafes were the prime social environment. And Compton’s Cafeteria proximity to the the El Rosa Hotel at 166 Turk, where many transgender women lived, made it particularly convenient.

Compton’s was an old-school coffee shop. Customers spent hours talking over coffee as occurs in cafes today. Compton’s management understood that conversation was a drawing card, and that lingering over a cup was part of the deal.

But Compton’s decided to impose different rules on transgender customers. In the summer of 1966 they started calling police to remove transgender patrons for spending too much time talking over coffee. This caused two major problems.

First, in the absence of other socially acceptable locations for transgender socializing, Compton’s proved a vital social role; it was not simply a question of going elsewhere for coffee.

Second, calling the police to remove transgender customers triggered the constant police harassment of transgender and gay residents typical in San Francisco in those days. This included physical violence and efforts at humiliation that Bruce Jenner will never have to face.

Like the budding activists they were, in July 1966 the transgender women responded to Compton’s actions with picketing and protests. When this failed to change the policy, it escalated into a dishes and tray throwing “riot” against police efforts to expel them from Compton’s in August 1966.

It was three years before the legendary “Stonewall” riot in New York City. The riot galvanized a very low-income group of queer Tenderloin activists into forging the movement whose latest expression is the 1976 gold medal winner of the decathlon coming out as a women nearly forty years later.

When these young transgender activists refused to accept second-class treatment at Compton’s, San Francisco’s gay rights movement was focused on fitting in with the establishment. The idea was to promote a non-threatening image of a gay and lesbian middle-class that San Francisco’s straight majority had no reason to fear.

These activists instead took a confrontational approach. And while the merits of inside v. outside tactics were long disputed in the gay and lesbian community, transgender activists had little choice but to make waves to gain acceptance.

Compton’s is long gone, but there is a Lost Landmark historic plague on the corner of 111 Taylor at Turk . I am involved with an effort to bring an ice cream parlor to that corner, which I think the screaming queens of 1966 would have enjoyed.

The struggle at Compton’s, as well as other Tenderloin gay, lesbian, and transgender activism of that period are featured in the soon to open Tenderloin Museum. And this activism deserves a place in the national narrative that Bruce Jenner’s interview has unleashed.

Randy Shaw is editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco   Books Inc. in Opera Plaza has plenty of copies if online merchants are temporarily out.

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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