The Clio

Today is International Transgender Awareness Day. It's held on August 15 every year to commemorate an event in 1966, at Gene Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, a popular hangout in the Tenderloin for members of the transgender community. After police raided the cafeteria and attempted to make several arrests, Compton's regulars and allies protested and rioted, leading to greater recognition of transgender rights and the transgender community in general.

Terry Penrod

The people who frequented Compton's did it for a number of reasons, as revealed in Screaming Queens, a 2005 documentary about the riot and the San Francisco scene in the 1960s.

"It would be open all night," says one.

"It was its own little fairyland," says another. "It was beautiful because it was clean."

"Everyone would dive for window seats, just to show off," says yet another.

Compton's was also scene of several police raids throughout the years. One night, as police officers entered the cafe, the patrons inside decided they'd had enough. Like a similar riot at the Stonewall in New York three years later, the Compton Cafeteria Riot was also a powder-keg moment: After a cafeteria worker called the police on some unruly customers, there was an attempt to arrest one trans woman, who threw her coffee in the officer's face. This led to a scuffle where windows were smashed and other property was damaged. The message was clear though: Enough was enough. From Queerty:

Trans people, hustlers and disenfranchised gay locals picketed the cafeteria the following night, when the restaurant’s windows were smashed again. Unlike the Stonewall riots, the situation at Compton’s was somewhat organized—many picketers were members of militant queer groups like the Street Orphans and Vanguard.

That group, The Vanguard, had been founded the year before to protect gay youth, many of whom were on their own in San Francisco. It was one of the first groups of its kind in the country.

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The Compton Riot and the subsequent protest did not become quite the landmark event that Stonewall did – perhaps because the city reacted so positively.

Again, Queerty:

"The city’s response was quite different from the reaction in New York: A network of social, mental and medical support services was established, followed in 1968 by the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, overseen by a member of the SFPD."

That SFPD member was Elliott Blackstone, who since 1962 had served as the official San Francisco police liaison to the LGBTQ community (at the time, known as the "homophile community"). Blackstone was appointed to his position after the city found out that "gayola" — police extortion of LGBTQ people and business owners—was running rampant and needed to be curbed.

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Blackstone passed away in 2006 at 81 and is regarded as a hero in the LGBTQ community. Just before he died, he attended an event where a plaque was installed and dedicated to the riots.

You can learn more about San Francisco, the riot, and the gay rights movement's early days in Screaming Queens, which is available in full on YouTube.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: david.matthews@fusion.net