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'Equal' docuseries on HBO: What was Compton's Cafeteria riot? Historic trans-led uprising came before Stonewall

The management or staff at Compton's Cafeteria would call the police frequently to deter the trans women and drag queens who would meet there. In that era, trans people could be arrested under the Masquerade Law
UPDATED OCT 22, 2020
'Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria' (Frameline)
'Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria' (Frameline)

HBO Max's latest docuseries chronicles the forgotten events and people of America's LGBTQ++ history. The second of four episodes is especially filled with people who are nearly forgotten and revolve around the movement of trans rights in the country. Besides introducing and telling viewers about the lives of Lucy Hicks Anderson, Jack Starr aka Jacques Moret, and Christine Jorgensen, the episode also delves into Compton's Cafeteria Riot in 1966.

Here is the level into how forgotten this event is: the exact dates of the riot are not known because police records of the 1960s do not exist anymore and the transgender uprising was not covered by newspapers. Knowledge of the event exists because people spoke about what happened at Compton's Cafeteria which was located in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

In the 1950s and '60s, Gene Compton's Cafeteria was one of the few places where transgender people, especially trans women, could come together publicly in San Francisco because they were unwelcome in gay bars due to transphobia. It's not that the management or staff at Compton's Cafeteria were particularly welcoming -- they would call the police frequently to deter the trans women and drag queens who would meet there. In that era, trans people could be arrested under the Masquerade Law.

When the riots broke out in August 1966, the trans community of San Francisco had regularly been the target of police harassment. At the cafeteria, the management implemented a service fee directed at transgender individuals and blatantly harassed them in an attempt to get them to leave the restaurant. On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton's Cafeteria called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. When one of the responding police officers attempted to arrest a trans woman, she threw her coffee in his face -- we see Isis King as Alexis, a composite of the trans and queer people who participated in the riot, do the same to the camera as she speaks of the riots.

Compton's Cafeteria Riot Commemoration 40th Anniversary Historical Marker, San Francisco (Wikimedia Commons)

According to an NPR report, the cafeteria then "erupted." The report states, "People flipped tables and threw cutlery. Sugar shakers crashed through the restaurant's windows and doors. Drag queens swung their heavy purses at officers. Outside on the street, dozens of people fought back as police forced them into paddy wagons. The crowd trashed a cop car and set a newsstand on fire."

According to Susan Stryker, who interviewed many people for the Frameline documentary. 'Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria', the Compton's Cafeteria riot "was the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history."

Although the conflict at Compton’s was mostly ignored by the media, including publications run by the nascent gay community, 1966 would prove a major turning point in the battle for transgender civil rights, a year when cultural shifts aligned to begin improving the trans community’s access to health care and its relationship with law enforcement.

According to the now-defunct, "In the aftermath of the riot at Compton's, a network of transgender social, psychological, and medical support services was established, which culminated in 1968 with the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit [NTCU], the first such peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world." Stryker also said that though the riot "did not solve the problems that transgender people in the Tenderloin faced daily," the city to begin addressing them as citizens rather than as a problem to be removed.

'Equal' is available for streaming on HBO Max on October 22.