It was after the bars had closed and well into the pre-dawn hours of an August morning in 1966 when San Francisco cops were in Gene Compton’s cafeteria again. They were arresting drag queens, trans women and gay hustlers who had been sitting for hours, eating and gossiping and coming down from their highs with the help of 60-cent cups of coffee.
The 24-hour eatery was a local favorite. It was centrally located — adjacent to the hair salon, the corner bar and the bathhouse — and provided a well-lit and comfortable haven for trans women performing in clubs or walking the streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
From Compton’s “you could walk to Woolworth’s to buy [fake] eyelashes, and it was two blocks from the airline bus terminal,” where Tamara Ching says many drag queens and trans women would go to change from male to female clothes. Ching is an Asian-American transgender woman who grew up in San Francisco. She frequented the Tenderloin during the 1960s and has lived there since 1992. “Everybody that lived in the Tenderloin ate at Compton’s,” Amanda St. Jaymes, a transgender woman who ran a residential hotel nearby, said in a documentary, Screaming Queens, which chronicles a confrontation with police that marked the start of a movement toward LGBT rights.
Compton’s management didn’t want the cafeteria to be a popular late-night hangout for drag queens, trans women and hustlers. Workers would often call the police at night to clear the place out. The Tenderloin, where sex work, gambling, and drug use were commonplace, was one of only a few neighborhoods where trans women and drag queens could live openly. Yet they were still regularly subject to police harassment and arrested for the crime of “female impersonation.”
And when a policeman in Compton’s grabbed a drag queen, she threw a cup of coffee in his face. The cafeteria “erupted,” according to Susan Stryker, a historian who directed Screaming Queens. 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.
“We just got tired of it,” St. Jaymes told Stryker. “We got tired of being harassed. We got tired of being made to go into the men’s room when we were dressed like women. We wanted our rights.”
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