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Before Stonewall: How the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot Sparked the LGBT Civil Rights Movement

Every June, Pride events around the world mark the occasion of the Stonewall Riots at the foundation of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. But although it’s the most famous, Stonewall certainly wasn’t the first explosion of outrage on behalf of the queer community. Three years earlier, the Compton’s Cafeteria riot was a significant — though often overlooked — moment in the fight for queer liberation.

What Was Compton’s Cafeteria?

Back in the 1960s, there was a chain of diners — then called cafeterias — in San Francisco. The Tenderloin location was particularly important to the city’s queer community, since the Castro had yet to emerge as a gathering place for more affluent queers. Along with the cruisy, industrial South of Market Neighborhood, the Tenderloin was a gritty area where LGBTs could gather.

It wasn’t always a safe location, thanks in large part to the police who harassed and victimized the queer community. Citizens could be arrested at the time for a mis-match between their clothing and their perceived gender.

In particular, trans people found themselves targeted not only by law enforcement but also by gays and lesbians, who ostracized people perceived as transgender. Even Compton’s Cafeteria staff discouraged trans patrons from entering the establishment.

The Night of the Riot

It began during a late-night argument that grew physical between patrons. Police were summoned, and everyone knew what to expect next: Widespread arrests of anyone who looked like they weren’t wearing what their gender dictated.

But this night in August 1966 (the exact date is lost), something was different. Someone threw coffee in a cop’s face, furniture was overturned, food and plates were thrown. The cafeteria’s windows were shattered, as were the windows of a nearby police car. Most of the protesters were able to escape without the police taking any action against them.

The Fallout from the Riot

The unrest continued into the next night. The cafeteria replaced their main shattered window, but protesters returned to break the replacement when it was announced that trans customers would no longer be allowed in.

But the response to the riot didn’t end with the street actions. Over the next weeks and months, advocates established new social services for the trans community, which was determined to end the persecution by authorities.

A New Day for Trans Rights

Local organizers established a group they called The National Transsexual Counseling Unit to offer social services to the trans community. Crucially, one of the leaders of the group was a police officer named Elliott Blackstone. He was the first-ever liaison between police and the community.

It took years, but the authorities’ hostility towards the trans community gradually reduced, thanks in part to the cooperation fostered by the NTCU. The violent protest highlighted an urgent need that had, until then, been covered up by police brutality. Working together with its former victims, the San Francisco Police Department was able to reduce some of its deeply-entrenched prejudices over the next few decades.

Today, the only physical evidence of the riot is a plaque erected in 2006, and a street sign designating the area “Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way.” But the freedom that the trans community now enjoys lingers to this day — as well as the spirit of protest and refusal to accept anything less than full acceptance.