Three years prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, San Francisco experienced one of the earliest known acts of queer resistance against police oppression. The riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, as the 1972 program for Pride in San Francisco noted, took place “in the streets of the Tenderloin, at Turk and Taylor on a hot August night in 1966.” With no news coverage at the time, the exact date is lost to history. Gaining significant attention after Susan Stryker’s documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005)was released, the story has been making its way into the mainstream LGBTQ narrative.
With ever-increasing real-estate development around the building that housed Compton’s, its history has taken an important place in debates about planning and diversity in San Francisco. One of the activists leading these discussions is Aria Sa’id, a senior policy advisor, cultural strategist, writer and founder of the Kween Culture Initiative. Sa’id also cofounded the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, recognized by the city in 2017. In this interview with History Happens, she offers her thoughts on why Compton’s matters and on the role history can play today for the transgender and greater LGBTQ communities.
What makes the story of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot meaningful for the LGBTQ community — and particularly the transgender community?
What makes the story of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot meaningful for the LGBTQ community is the reality of how powerful queer and transgender people are. Transgender people have been intimately involved in social justice and liberation since the dawn of our existence, yet we are rarely acknowledged for that labor, that sacrifice and that altruism.
Often transgender people are the most visible targets of discrimination, systemic oppression and violence — so often the only option we have is to fight back. I think it’s an experience that still resonates with queer and transgender people today and is a core reason why we gravitate to the legacy of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. It’s also a story of unity, where transgender people and queer people were in the fight for equality together. There’s a nostalgia in our community for that sense of unity.
How can this story and other moments in transgender history inform organizing for our communities today?
The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot teaches us that our voices are powerful and they matter. The police would consistently harass and arrest male-assigned individuals who wore more than three articles of “feminine clothing.” Transgender and gender nonconforming people were tired of this harassment. They had had enough — and that’s what led them to riot. Yet, transgender people are still having to fight for basic human rights: the right to use the suitable bathroom; the right to change government documents to affirm who we are — and the list goes on.
When I think of community organizing for today, it’s essential that transgender people — and in particular, transgender women of color — be provided leadership roles. Too often, we are an afterthought, and we are consistently disallowed from spaces that claim to empower us. That’s it. That’s the lesson. It is the responsibility of queer communities to empower transgender communities both socially and economically. Simply put, queer liberation exists because of transgender people. History tells us that over and over again.
How can we make stories like the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, and transgender history in general, more widely known?
The reality is that much of queer and transgender history, especially involving people of color, is oral history because institutions did not deem us as possessing a culture worth documenting. Transgender people have existed since the dawn of time, and we’ve been called a host of different names and references — but that history is inaccessible to us.
It’s important that we broadcast our history and our culture in as many different ways as possible. It’s important that we also acknowledge all the aspects of our history, both history that makes us proud to be a part of a magnanimous legacy and history that makes us deeply uncomfortable.
That’s why the GLBT Historical Society is necessary. It’s why I created Kween Culture Initiative. It’s why we need the Generations: Black LGBTQI+ Celebration every February in San Francisco and why we need projects like the Queer Cultural Center and Peacock Rebellion. They allow us to embrace both the here and now, as well as the past.
Nick Large is an LGBTQ, API and Japanese American activist studying LGBTQ movements and place-based organizing in San Francisco. He recently joined the GLBT Historical Society Board of Directors.