The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot occurred in August 1966 in San Francisco. This incident was one of the first recorded transgender riots in US history, preceding the more famous 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.
Compton’s Cafeteria was one of a chain of cafeterias in San Francisco from the 1940s to the 1970s. The Tenderloin location of Compton’s at 101, open from 1954 to 1972, was one of the few places where transgender people could congregate publicly in the city, because they were unwelcome in gay bars.
In addition, the cafeteria was open all hours until the riots occurred. Most of the fights occurred from 2-3 am so they were forced to close at midnight. Because cross-dressing was illegal at the time, police could use the presence of transgender people in a bar as a pretext for making a raid and closing the bar.
Many of the militant hustlers and street queens involved in the riot were members of Vanguard, the first known gay youth organization in the United States, which had been organized earlier that year with the help of radical ministers working with Glide Memorial Church, a center for progressive social activism in the Tenderloin for many years. A lesbian group of street people was also formed called the Street Orphans.
In the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender and transsexual individuals, who would frequent the restaurant. In response to police arrests, the transgender and transsexual community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria. Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against transgender and transsexual violence in San Francisco. On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton’s called the police when some transgender customers became raucous.
In the 50’s and 60’s police officers were known to mistreat transgender people. When one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face. At that point the riot began, dishes and furniture were thrown, and the restaurant’s plate-glass windows were smashed. Police called for reinforcements as the fighting spilled into the street, where a police car had all its windows broken out and a sidewalk newsstand was burned down. The exact date of the riot is unknown because 1960 police records no longer exist and the riot was not covered by newspapers.