Compton’s Cafeteria: Transsexual and Transgender People’s Stonewall

I spent the summer of ’66  working in the resorts of Lake George Village as a dishwasher and kitchen assistant.

Early that summer I discovered John Rechy’s book: City of Night.

City of Night gave me a road map to a parallel universe that existed within the straight world but which was largely invisible to the straight world. From that book I learned the skills I would need to survive in the pre-Stonewall world of gay men and queens.

The world Rechy wrote about in City of Night was already being superseded by the forces that were building towards the night in June 1969. The gay world was more visible than it had been in the mileau Rechy described in his book.

There had been small riots by gay and lesbian people in various places including Coopers Donuts in downtown Los Angeles and new organizations were taking the place of the original homophile organizations of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Gays and Lesbians in San Francisco already had active political organizations, filled with men and women who worked in the financial district and lived in various districts scattered through out San Francisco.

In August of 1966 there was a riot that centered around Compton Cafeteria on Turk Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. (See) RServen at Daily Kos  The Coffee and Donut Riots

It didn’t make the papers and wasn’t viewed as a major historical event in Gay and Lesbian history.

You see the transsexual and transgender people, the “queens” who rioted that summer were lumpen proles, welfare recipients, drug users and sex workers, only they weren’t called sex workers, they were called whores.

They were the lowest of the low, living at the time in an area that would include the meanest of the mean streets of San Francisco.

But like Stonewall what came of the riot was far more important than the riot itself.

Organizations were born and nurtured in the basement meeting rooms of  Cecil William’s Glide Memorial Church.  A liaison with the San Francisco Police Department was established and Police community Relations Officer Elliott Blackstone became someone we could trust to hear our complaints of police brutality and injustice.

Two different organizations grew out of the riots CATS run by Jerry and Louise Durkin and COG which became the Transsexual Counseling Service run at first by Kathy Grunier, Wendy Kohler and Mandy Taylor.

In November of 1966 Johns Hopkins became the first major university medical center in the US to announce having a sex reassignment surgery program.

Mean while in San Francisco the Center For Special Problems and Joel Fort’s Fort Help started dispensing hormones and counseling to the emerging transsexual community and those who later became the transgender community.

I first heard rumors regarding how transsexuals in San Francisco were becoming organized from a transkid, who was just emerging as a woman. I met her in Greenwich Village in the spring of 1967.

By the late fall of 1967 I was in the Haight Ashbury, learning the sad fiction of the Summer of Love in what had become a hell hole of drugs and violence.

Jim Driscoll was working as a night clerk in a residential hotel on Turk Street, a couple of blocks from Compton’s Cafeteria.  He documented one of those moments in history when things were changing.

The women who started the Transsexual Counseling Service were now running it under the auspices of the War on Poverty and had an office on Third St. and Mission.

The Haight was a terrifying place.  I lived with several activists including a young man named Morey, who I was deeply in love with. I mooned over him and was his constant companion, he was completely oblivious.

I came out in early 1969 and found my way to both the Center For Special Problems and the Transsexual Counseling Service, where I met sisters who had participated in those riots.

They were eager to put that period behind them, to move out of the ghetto and hopefully into a straight job and a middle class life.

The next year I met Gina and Parish, they had both been at the riot.  Gina claimed to be one of the instigators who threw a sugar dispenser at one of the cops.

Even though they were doing sex work they didn’t want to remain in the ghetto and talked about integrating into society beyond the barriers that had limited their lives.

By 1971 the original people who founded the Transsexual Counseling Service had left.  They had their SRS, the funding was being cut and they used their job skills to find other positions.

Jan Maxwell and I took over running the Center.  We secured a grant from Reed Erickson, a brother who operated the Erickson Educational Foundation.

We opened a store front office up Turk Street from Compton’s Cafeteria and across the street from the hotel where Jim Driscoll had written his thesis.

I had discovered that one of the bars Rechy had described in City of Night was still there and Compton’s was still there, the sign on the hotel was faded and they no long rented to TS/TG folks.

But Jan and I were seeing a different generation of transsexuals coming to our office for help.  Jim Dricoll had written about how the process of coming out separated the queens from the transsexuals and we saw very few queens.

It was the era of free clinic provided hormones and the era of gay liberation.  Everyone who took hormones claimed the label transsexual and those who didn’t take hormones chose to call themselves gay men who did drag.

My friend Gina who started out claiming to be transsexual returned to living as a man.

Street wisdom became: “The surgery determines who is really transsexual and who is really a queen.”

It was never that simple but street wisdom is rarely given to nuance.

Elliott Blackstone remained a constant, a supporter who was too often paternalistic and too often clueless but nonetheless stood by us.

When Jan and I left the center it was called the National Transsexual Counseling Unit.  We got the grant continued and handed it over to a friend Leslie St Clair, who ran it for a year letting the project fall by the wayside after her tenure and the grant ran out.

I moved to Los Angeles where I photographically documented a group of trans-sex workers who were similar to the people of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.

Even that scene was a fleeting moment.

More than a dozen years ago Susan Stryker approached me to work on a documentary project that came to be known as Screaming Queens:  The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.

It was released in 2005 and made the rounds of the festivals.

Most of what I knew of the riot was second, perhaps even third hand.  The people who had actually been there were scattered to the winds.  It was a history lacking even in artifacts, almost mythical.

So fleeting that it could only have occurred at that time and place yet so pivotal.

Jan and I were so different from the founders of the Transsexual Counseling Service. Our coming out the year of Stonewall and post-Summer of Love gave us a different perspective.

Our lives and the lives of the people who came through the doors of our Center were less defined by the ghetto than the lives of our sisters a mere six years earlier had been.

Everyone I knew who was involved with the various incarnations of the Transsexual Counseling Service/National Transsexual Counseling Unit has either died or disappeared leaving me to tell the story.

My opinion of the film Screaming Queens is that it lacks focus.  People realized too late that something important happened and couldn’t locate the original participants.

For all that it is still an important documentary.

My friend, Kelli Busey at Planet Transgender pointed out a problem last Saturday.

Frameline Stop Holding The Screaming Queens Hostage

Frameline, the distributor of this documentary is demanding $200 for a copy.

I was given a copy only when I complained that I hadn’t seen it and now lived in a place where it was unlikely to be shown.

This is pretty damn unconscionable considering how those of us who were interview were paid a tiny honorarium for our participation.  The documentary was made on a shoestring budget.

It was shown at all the LGBT Film festivals and on PBS

A reasonable price for this documentary would be the standard $20.00.  It doesn’t even merit the pricing of a Criterion film.

Addendum:  Kelli was mistaken and this film is available on Amazon for sale or rental.

Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria

Transsexual and transgender people are often ignorant of any of our history prior to Stonewall.  They may know of Christine Jorgensen but often know very little else about even the recent past of between forty and fifty years ago.

I have a PDF copy of Jim Driscoll’s article regarding the period just after the Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.

Write me @  suzan.wbt@gmail.com and I will send you an attachment of the PDF.

2 Responses to “Compton’s Cafeteria: Transsexual and Transgender People’s Stonewall”

  1. Jill Davidson Says:

    While you were working in Lake George Village, I was 30 miles away in Hartford, NY, 11 years old. I heard an ABC News radio story about Christine Jorgensen on a Wednesday night that August – and it changed my life. I had a name for what I thought I was (transsexual), and it gave me a shred of hope in an otherwise depressing existence. Thank you for the work you did in SF, and are still doing.

    • Suzan Says:

      For me the real break through was finding a tabloid 4 part biography of April Ashley in 1962. I started getting busted for dressing in 1960 and had a vague idea from having heard the word and concept, but reading April Ashley’s bio made me certain enough to claim the word “Transsexual”

      When my parents confronted me with my clippings and demanded to know if this was what I thought I was? I answered, “This is what I am, isn’t it?”

      My parents lived in Port Henry, on Lake Champlain.


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