Moments in Queerness: The Compton Cafeteria Riots

Every movement has an event that sows the seeds for its growth. For the trans, non-binary, and the intersex community this event is known as the Compton Cafeteria Riots. Angel Rojas takes a look at this often forgotten moment in LGBTQ+ history.  


Now before we discuss the event, it is important to know that science – including the fields of medicine, psychology, biology, neuroscience, biochemistry, and physiology – has come to the conclusion that gender is fluid. That society at birth decided gender, therefore it is a societal construct. How you define yourself whether as a boy, girl, transgender, or non-binary is up to you. The terms sex and gender have been used interchangeably but they don’t mean the same thing. Sex refers to the biological capacity for reproduction. Gender is a cultural thing. This refers to the common thought that action figures are for boys and dolls are for girls. Pink for girls and blue for boys. However, that is not the case. There have been instances of boys admiring the stuff that girls wear and play with. And the same with girls as well. Gender is a construction. Therefore, we should as a society allow our children to decide who they are, instead of determining it for them. That brings up the next term which is intersex.

Intersex refers to a group of people who are born with chromosomal conditions affecting genital development meaning that intersex people are born with characteristics typically assigned exclusively as ‘male’ or ‘female’. Cis people struggle with this as they want to assign them the gender of boy or girl based on genital examination. This leads to an issue where the parent or physicians often without consulting the child assign them a gender, without consent. Intersex people are still erased in society, to the extent that many do not even know what the label ‘intersex’ means. Now that we’ve discussed the basics it is time to discuss the before the riots.

That society at birth determines the gender, therefore it is a societal construct.

There have been instances of transgender and gender non-conforming people throughout the history of the world. The Pirates the time of the American revolution sometimes cross-dressed. Ann Alweye and Mary Hamilton were some of these people whom our founding fathers here in the United States might have seen. They were noted in their time by others who with prejudice saw them as carrying features commonly and falsely associated with being men. Daniel Sweeney was wearing women’s clothing and slept with other men. He was arrested for being seen as a nuisance and for what society called “indecent.” A book that was checked out a lot during pre-revolutionary America was called The Adventures of Roderick. The book that featured pirates wearing clothing normally associated with women and having wild sex with people of the same gender. If you wonder where these activities took place, they took place at the wharfs and taverns and brothels in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia. The owners of these places didn’t care as long as you are a paying customer.

The American founding fathers such as  John Adams, James Madison, were appalled at these actions which are how after the revolution activities like crossdressing began to be outlawed. Fast forward a couple of decades and we get some of our modern laws against crossdressers and homosexual activities. In 1863, San Francisco passed an ordinance that made it illegal for a man or woman to be wearing clothing that didn’t belong to their assigned gender. However, there was harassment and often murders of transgender people which is still a prevalent feature of society today. This transphobia was heightened during the lavender scare of the 1950’s when the U.S government became “convinced” that the Soviets were going to try to topple “American democracy” by exposing society to what they saw was immoral. They began a crackdown and started to arrest, fire, and publicly humiliate anyone who was queer. The FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and McCarthy were infamous at this time as they helped carry it to extreme levels.

The founding fathers like John Adams, James Madison, and such were appalled at these actions.

So the seeds for what would become the Compton riots were sown. There were years of discrimination and hate. Even though capitalistic society had created possibilities for a transgender community they were still marginalized by the puritanical rules that dictate capitalism. The time was the 1960’s a time of youth rebellion and disillusion with the government. You had the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, anti-war, and the LGBTQ+ movement.

In 1966, in San Francisco in the Tenderloin district, there was a place called Compton. It was an eatery where all the queer folks, sex workers, runaway teens, and homeless people would come together and eat, dance, drink, and pick up strangers. Since the 1900s’s the Tenderloin district housed brothels and dance clubs. It was a place where discrimination of sexual orientation and race were almost non-existent. However, things changed in the post-war era. There were crackdowns on the areas that displayed queer behavior and activity. Police would beat and arrest genderqueer folk. Trans sex workers were often targets for rape and abuse. Soon the Tenderloin district became one of the few places left where genderqueer folk could live in peace. Housing and employment discrimination was rampant throughout the United States. Even though Compton Cafeteria was an area of equality and safety, the management did not like the clientele they attracted. The management became annoyed by their activties and who they were that they had enough. They called the police to oust them out. A police officer manhandled one of the transgender women and she threw hot coffee in his face. Then, trays of food, plates, forks, and spoons started to fly across the room against the police. The police rushed outside to call for backup. When backup arrived the transgender community flipped over tables, threw chairs, and beat the officers with their purses. Within hours a full riot commenced along the Compton vicinity. It was commemorated in 1972 when San Francisco held its first pride parade.

Soon the Tenderloin district became one of the few places left where genderqueer folk could live in peace.

Problems that created the Compton riots are not new as they have occurred before the event. And they are still occurring now. As society becomes much more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community there is still discrimination and hate. Even within the LGBTQ+ community as the gays people and lesbians tend to erase or expose hatred towards bisexuals and genderqueer folk from their parades and community. The bathroom bills passed in South Carolina and now Texas reflect this still happening discrimination. Discrimination and stigma still exist against sex workers who are often killed and raped with no help from the police. There are genderqueer people who are disappearing and end up being killed. There are teens who are ousted from their families because of who they are. We should be ashamed that a theocratic government like Iran accepts transitioning from male to female and female to male when then two U.S states who so proudly exclaim equality for all do not. This is not only hypocrisy but idiocy as well. However, we do have hope. We have a young generation that is more accepting to inclusion and diversity. They are the future and will help usher in a new era of rights and equality. The path is a struggle but it is one that can lead to progress and harmony.

Follow Angel Rojas on Twitter @angelrojas450

Books that are recommended

1. Transgender History by Susan Stryker

2. Arresting Dress: Cross-dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco by Clare Sears

3. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Carribean by B.R Burg

4. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson

5. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States by Joanne Meyerowitz

6. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman by Leslie Feinberg

7. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton

8. Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility edited by Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton

9. The Transgender Studies Reader (Vol. 1) edited by Susan Stryker

10. The Transgender Studies Reader (Vol. 2) edited by Susan Stryker

11. The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens by Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney

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