Historian Susan Stryker made the amazing discovery the way that many of her peers do: by pure accident. She wasn’t looking for it, but she found evidence of a forgotten chapter in the history of LGBT community in America.
In 1995, Stryker a transgendered historian, and co-author Jim Van Buskirk were working on Gay by the Bay, their soon-to-be published, best seller capsule history of the San Francisco LGBT movement, when they came across an interesting item in the program for the 1972 Gay Pride march.
The article described an August 1966 riot at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin, a poor and working-class area of the city where many transgenders and drag queens lived, and still do. The incident started after a rowdy queen refused to leave the popular hangout and management called the police.
The account of the riot from the Pride program reads like a description of a lot of the social unrest of the 1960s: “Gays began breaking out every window in the place, and as they ran outside to escape the breaking glass, the police tried to grab them and throw them into the paddy wagon, but they found this no easy task for gays began hitting them “below the belt” and drag-queens smashing them in the face with their extremely heavy purses. A police car had every window broken, a newspaper shack outside the cafeteria was burned to the ground.” Though many positive changes occurred after the riot, including a better relationship with the local police district and the establishment of social services for the trans community, the incident didn’t give birth to the kind of national mass movement that followed a similar night of rioting in New York’s Greenwich Village after cops raided the Stonewall bar.
Nearly three years after Compton’s, the Stonewall riots were the spark that gave birth to the modern gay liberation struggle. Literally, overnight, thousands of students and others, many from the antiwar and other radical movements, came pouring out of their closets to form the in-your-face organizations that eventually replaced the existing “homophile” groups. “Compton’s happened too early,” says Stryker. “In 1966, things were just starting to bust out all over: The Black Panthers, the anti-war movement, the kids using psychedelics. Three years later, a lot more gay people were waiting for their own moment. Stonewall happened. A lot more people were primed to take advantage of it.”
Word spread about the rebellion in New York. Eventually, the Compton story was forgotten.
Inspired by what she read, Stryker went on to make a documentary about the incident at Compton’s.
Co-produced with Victor Silverman and Jack Walsh, it’s appropriately entitled Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria. It aired on PBS stations nationally in June 2006. An official San Francisco city plaque was installed in the sidewalk near the site of the riot that same summer.