Return of the Repressed

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot gets two new retellings.

the red shades musical
The Red Shades

The modern gay rights movement has long had a well-known, well-defined starting point: June 28, 1969, when patrons of a Greenwich Village gay bar finally had enough of constant police raids. Fighting back, and soon joined by sympathetic community members, protesters fanned the standoff into a prolonged melee that would be dubbed the Stonewall Riots. The uprising ignited a politicized, not-gonna-take-it-anymore stance that rapidly took shape as the gay liberation movement.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Of course, history is written not just by the winners, but by their publicists—and those NYC queens and queers, living at the center of the media universe, were perfectly positioned for star billing. Probably none of them were even aware that a similar incident had occurred in San Francisco a full three years earlier. In fact, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot remains obscure today—though perhaps it won’t be for much longer.

In the late summer of 1966, San Francisco was already something of a West Coast gay mecca—though very much without the approval of city authorities. Laws against same-sex dancing and “cross-dressing” were used as excuses to raid bars, balls, and any other part of the “homosexual underground.”

The worst abuses were often directed at trans women, who could be arrested simply for being seen in public. Most lived in the Tenderloin, “a marketplace of vice, degradation and human misery” (as one sensationalist TV report put it then)—if only because police were even less tolerant of their existence anywhere else.

A popular hangout for many queer people was a diner at the corner of Turk and Taylor, conveniently near both a gay bathhouse and a bar popular with trans people. Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was a budget restaurant chain with several local outlets. The Tenderloin branch’s management wasn’t thrilled by having such a conspicuous, flamboyant clientele in its big picture windows—both streetwalking “gutter girls,” as one person quoted in a documentary referred to herself and her community, and their upscale sisterhood working the stage at fabled cabaret Finocchio’s—but they tolerated it. The same could not be said for the SFPD, whose harassment was incessant. “You could be taken to jail at any second for no reason at all,” one habitué later recalled.

Irked by the purported “uppity new political attitude” (per one historian) of a short-lived gay youth activist group called Vanguard, Compton’s management got less tolerant. The staff began kicking people out, triggering a protest picket, which further provoked the cops.

Recollections differ about a fateful night in August 1966 when, as historian Susan Stryker put it, “years of pent-up resentment boiled out.” But it is generally agreed that one queen being strong-armed by San Francisco’s finest threw her coffee in the officer’s face, sparking a melee that spilled onto the sidewalk. This was, in Stryker’s words, "the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history.”

The events of that night remained largely unknown outside the Tenderloin. (Curiously, the arrest records from that night “vanished” from the police files.) The restaurant itself never quite recovered from the incident and was eventually abandoned by its main patrons. (It was replaced by a porn shop.) Decades later, the story of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot was given new life by Stryker’s research, which resulted in the 2005 documentary Screaming Queens, in which several surviving participants, including Amanda St. Jaymes, Felicia Elizondo, and Tamara Ching, were interviewed. (It can be seen for free on public radio station KQED’s website.) In 2018, the Tenderloin Museum produced a play based on firsthand testimonies called The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.

Now, in a cultural landscape in which conservative fears of “gender ideology” and unisex bathrooms have turned transgender people into political targets again, the story of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is inspiring new dramatizations.

Billed as a “Trans Superhero Rock Opera,” The Red Shades began previews on October 19 and will run through November 5 at Z Space’s Steindler Stage in San Francisco’s Project Artaud complex (450 Florida Street). The imagined story finds teenage transfemme Ida running away from an abusive Nevada home in the mid-1960s and settling in the Flip House, a squat inhabited by hippie “hair fairies.” Like her real-life counterparts, Ida experiences affirmation, as well as conflict, in the gender-fluid heart of 1960s Tenderloin life.

The Red Shades is written by Adrienne Price and directed by Rotimi Agbabiaka and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe. Blending the real and the imagined, it utilizes archival photo projections and name-checks real-life San Francisco people, places, and things, from Playland at Ocean Beach and North Beach’s Black Cat Café to Glide Memorial Church.

Price isn’t the only artist drawing inspiration from this back chapter of LGBTQ history. Actor turned novelist James Brandon’s new young adult novel, The Edge of Being (Nancy Paulsen Books), came out last week. Brandon’s book centers on a gay protagonist whose quest for his absentee father’s buried history leads him to San Francisco—and a riot at a certain long-gone diner.

The intervening decades may have seen U.S. laws and social attitudes evolve in ways beyond the wildest hopes of gays and lesbians in 1966, but the present remains fraught. Given the right’s current fixation on public library Drag Queen Storytime programs and other forms of LGBTQ visibility as alleged “sexual grooming” of children, it’s clear that bigotry still flourishes—and that trans people remain a favored target. The Compton’s Cafeteria story is sure to keep emerging from the shadows as the first round in a fight that’s far from over. •

Dennis Harvey is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle and a longtime correspondent for Variety.
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