Technically, it started with a single cup of espresso thrown in a policeman’s face. However as with virtually all riots, the one at Compton’s Cafeteria centered much less on a specific second than the years of abuses that led to it.

There are not any experiences of the temperature of that espresso—all particulars from the riot stay sketchy—however I wish to think about that when it hit the officer’s pores and skin, the espresso sizzled like a pan of hen grease. That this police officer carried the burns for the remainder of his life. That on his dying mattress, his kids gazed down at his face and puzzled—for the millionth time—the place their father had gotten this constellation of scars he’d forbidden point out of.

Who, his kids puzzled, had fought again?

Suzan Cooke:

Amanda St. Jaymes:

We don’t know the title of the trans girl who threw the espresso in that early morning hour of August, 1966, however again then Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was the spot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district for trans girls and drag queens to congregate. One cup of espresso may purchase hours sitting in a vinyl and chrome sales space on the Hopper-esque nook diner. In a 2017 interview with Man Repeller, patron Felicia Elizondo described Compton’s as “the middle of the universe for a complete bunch of the queens, the sissies, the hustlers, the children who had been thrown away by their households like trash.”

Felicia Elizondo, interviewed by Zachary Drucker for Vice in 2018:

The recognition of Compton’s Cafeteria represented the top results of a focused marketing campaign. From 1863 to 1974, San Francisco’s municipal codebook included a regulation stating that it was unlawful for any particular person to seem “in a gown not belonging to his or her intercourse.” As Tenderloin resident Suzan Cooke tells historian Susan Stryker within the 2005 documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, “Police would give the individuals who had been indeterminate gender the message that they belonged [only] within the Tenderloin, which on the time, was sort of a homosexual ghetto, a really slummy homosexual ghetto.”

And even within the Tenderloin, trans girls typically remained unwelcome—turned away from homosexual bars, pushed off the sidewalks by police. Elizondo characterised the selection of Compton’s as easy: “[W]e had nowhere else to go. The top.”

Pushed into the Tenderloin, pushed into the one enterprise the place they knew they might linger, and nonetheless, the cops appeared recurrently when quotas wanted filling.

Amanda St. Jaymes:

After that first cup of espresso, occasions escalated rapidly.

In Screaming Queens, Amanda St. Jaymes, the one identified participant within the riot to be interviewed, tells Susan Stryker, “Somebody had espresso thrown in his face, and there was tables turned over…Oh, the sugar shakers went via the home windows and the glass doorways. I believe I put a sugar shaker via a type of home windows.” Quickly the battle moved exterior, with a newsstand set afire, a police automotive smashed up. “And naturally, they'd the paddy wagons, and so they had been placing folks within the paddy wagons as they'd come out and begin combating.” St. Jaymes smiles as she speaks. “They fought up and down the streets.”


For a lot of the final 12 months, I’ve been researching riots and making comics from the phrases of riot contributors and authorities experiences. I’m constantly struck by the descriptions of pleasure (italics mine):

Mayor LaGuardia’s Fee on the 1935 Harlem Riot (by no means formally launched to the general public): “[M]any kids who couldn't be categorised as criminals joined the looting crowd within the spirit of pure journey.”

Two teenage ladies consuming looted wine in the course of the 2011 London Riots, interviewed by Leana Hosea for the BBC: “It was insanity. It was good although. Good enjoyable.”

Amanda St. Jaymes, speaking to Susan Stryker: “There was plenty of pleasure after it occurred. Lots of them went to jail, however there was plenty of, ‘I don’t give a rattling. That is what must occur.’”

Information experiences sometimes emphasize the violence and destruction attributable to rioting, and positively, the preliminary results on a neighborhood might be devastating. However maybe the aspect of pleasure must be represented as effectively: the “pure journey” of performing, nevertheless briefly, exterior the oppressive strictures of the state. The “good enjoyable” of all of it.

The 2 youngsters interviewed by the BBC in the course of the 2011 London Riots go on to explain the perform of rioting: “That’s what it’s about: displaying the police we will do what we would like… displaying the wealthy folks we will do what we would like.”


In 1966, not a single information report talked about the Compton’s Cafeteria riot. It wasn’t till 1995 that Susan Stryker discovered a short reference to the riot in San Francisco’s GLBT Historic Society Archives. Virtually a full decade later, she lastly introduced the occasion into public consciousness with the discharge of her documentary.

Nonetheless, nobody is aware of the precise day the riot occurred. By their nature, historic narratives drastically simplify—excising some particulars and amplifying others—and when the unique occasion itself goes unrecorded for therefore a few years, maybe any cohesive narrative is suspect. Felicia Elizondo, maybe probably the most eloquent spokesperson for Compton’s Cafeteria’s legacy, can’t even bear in mind if she was within the diner that evening.

Contemplating that, one element I’m uncertain whether or not to incorporate right here was the presence of the Vanguard Homosexual Liberation Youth Motion and Group within the Tenderloin. This short-lived activist group sporadically met at Compton’s Cafeteria earlier than being banned by administration. To protest their banning, Vanguard picketed Compton’s for a day in July, and Susan Stryker sees the group’s nascent activism as key to the abrupt choice of that unnamed girl in August to throw her cup of espresso in a policeman’s face.

Like Elizondo (“We didn’t give a shit about organizing”), Tamara Ching seems extra skeptical of a connection between Vanguard and the riot. Ching tells Stryker in Screaming Queens, “We heard about Vanguard, however being an individual of shade, I didn’t really feel like I belonged.”

Felicia Elizondo, interviewed by Neal Broverman for The Advocate in 2018:

Tamara Ching:

The months following Compton’s noticed a number of the nation’s first stirrings of trans activism—primarily based totally within the Tenderloin. At Glide Memorial Methodist Church, positioned two blocks from Compton’s Cafeteria, activists based the primary identified trans help group, Conversion Our Aim (COG). Whereas quick lived, COG was notably integral, in accordance with Susan Stryker, as “an preliminary level of contact for transgender folks in search of medical companies.” Across the similar time, the town started providing Tenderloin-based anti-poverty and job coaching packages, beforehand unthinkable alternatives for trans girls who needed to depart intercourse work.

Whereas the Compton’s Cafeteria riot remained unreported by the media and was largely forgotten in San Francisco by the seventies (the police declare to don't have any ensuing arrest experiences), the developments within the Tenderloin following that evening attest to its influence. After Compton’s, the town may not declare to not see the Tenderloin trans neighborhood.


Tenderloin residents additionally recommend police harassment lessened in these months following the riot, however the regulation forbidding “gown not belonging to his or her intercourse” continued as a foundation for arrest till lastly faraway from the municipal code e-book in July, 1974.

At this time, the ACLU identifies 49 “anti-trans payments” making their method via state legislatures. From October 2018 to September 2019, the Trans Homicide Monitoring report documented thirty murders of transgender folks in america, with 90 p.c of the victims recognized as “trans girls of shade and/or Native American trans girls.”

In San Francisco, six blocks of the now gentrifying Tenderloin have been formally designated because the “Compton’s Transgender Cultural District.” In 2018, the close by Tenderloin Museum premiered a theatrical reenactment of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot that ran for practically three months.

As for the location of Compton’s Cafeteria? It now holds a Federal Bureau of Prisons “reentry facility,” a midway home run by the personal jail operator Geo Group. Within the constructing, ankle-monitored inmates from state and federal prisons serve the final six months of their sentence.


On the 2019 Queer Liberation March held on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, demonstrators chanted, “Stonewall was a riot! We won't be quiet!”

When reporting on the march, progressive information outlet Democracy Now! quoted this chant and moments later referred to “the Stonewall rebellion” (italics mine).

Writing of the 1992 LA riots in her e-book Carceral Capitalism, poet-scholar Jackie Wang describes the leftist behavior of substituting the phrases “rise up” or “rebellion” for “riot”:

This try to reframe the general public discourse is born of “good intentions” (the need to fight the conservative media’s portrayal of the riots as “pure criminality”), but it surely additionally displays the impulse to include, consolidate, applicable, and accommodate occasions that don't match political fashions grounded in white, Euro-American traditions.

Protests are, by definition, reactive to oppressive programs, however at their apex, riots perform as if these programs don’t exist. Phrases corresponding to “rise up” and “rebellion” equally signify political intent, and whereas typically applicable, they can be reductive. The moments after the primary thrown brick or cup of espresso in a policeman’s face provide a short glimpse of a wholly alternate world: one wherein the rioters dwell uncontained and free.

Compton’s Cafeteria occurred three years earlier than Stonewall, and like that extra chronicled and mythologized occasion, Compton’s Cafeteria was a riot.

Tamara Ching, interviewed by Nicole Pasulka for NPR’s Code Change in 2015:

The phrases of Martin Luther King, Jr.—probably the most steadily quoted and misquoted of all US revolutionaries—can nonetheless shock, and the civil rights chief’s incisive definition of “a riot” is not any exception. In a 1966 interview, coincidentally airing on CBS solely weeks after Compton’s Cafeteria, King instructed Mike Wallace, “I believe that we’ve obtained to see {that a} riot is the language of the unheard.”

After which he requested probably the most pertinent query: “And, what's it that America has failed to listen to?”


A word on sources:

Until in any other case famous, all quotes from Suzan Cooke, Amanda St Jaymes, Felicia Elizondo, and Tamara Ching are from interviews with historian Susan Stryker within the 2005 documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.

Further references:

Arresting Costume: Cross-Dressing, Regulation, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco by Clare Sears (2015)
Transgender Historical past: The Roots of At this time’s Revolution, by Susan Stryker (second version, 2017)