'Screaming Queens' before Stonewall: The Compton's Cafeteria Riot


Before there was Stonewall in New York City, there was Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco.


Compton’s Cafeteria was a lunch counter located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. In the ‘60s, the Tenderloin was where drag queens, trans women, and hustlers - often people of color - went to make their living.


For many LGBTQ+ people, especially trans and gender nonconforming people, the streets of the Tenderloin were the only home they could afford. They worked there, often turning tricks to survive and facing abuse from the police who would cruise the district. The queens violated San Francisco’s anti-cross dressing law - something the SFPD were all too eager to enforce. Compton’s was one of the few places in the Tenderloin where queens and hustlers could go late at night or early in the morning after a long night’s work before hitting the street again.


On a night in August 1965 - almost 4 years before the Stonewall riots - the people at Compton’s said “Enough!” to police harassment, when officers tried to arrest a drag queen in the restaurant. She fought back, throwing her coffee in one of the officer’s faces, and the restaurant exploded with patrons wrecking the dining room, smashing out the windows, and setting fire to a nearby newsstand. Following the riot, restaurants banned trans women and drag queens, prompting immediate protests from other LGBTQ+ people in the community.


The documentary Screaming Queens, available on Amazon Prime and Youtube, goes more in-depth about the Compton’s Cafeteria riot.

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