Historic SF riot remembered

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday June 28, 2006
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Nearly 100 transgender activists and allies turned out in the Tenderloin on Thursday, June 22, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1966 riot at Gene Compton's Cafeteria.

Among the celebrants were members of the San Francisco Police Department, including Chief Heather Fong, on hand to honor one of its own, retired Sergeant Elliott Blackstone, this year's Pride Parade lifetime achievement grand marshal.

"In many ways, we can attribute our success in the transgender civil rights movement and the larger LGBT movement to our courageous predecessors at Compton's Cafeteria," said Cecilia Chung, deputy director of the Transgender Law Center and also one of this year's grand marshals. "Without straight allies like Elliott Blackstone, we wouldn't have come this far."

The ceremony featured the unveiling of a commemorative sidewalk plaque at the former Compton's location at the corner of Turk and Taylor, now the home of the Oshun Center, a women's drop-in facility run by the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics.

"Here marks the site of Gene Compton's Cafeteria where a riot took place one August night, when transgender women and gay men stood up for their rights and fought against police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination in the Tenderloin," the plaque reads. "We, the transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual community are dedicating this plaque to the heroes of our civil rights movement."

The Compton's riot was "the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history," according to transgender historian Susan Stryker, who co-directed the Emmy Award-winning documentary Screaming Queens . The riot took place one night in August 1966 – the exact date is unknown – three years before the better-known Stonewall riots in New York City.

That night, the transgender women, hustlers, and queer youth who frequented the popular all-night hangout finally became fed up with routine harassment from the police, which sometimes included arrests for female impersonation. After one young woman threw her coffee in an officer's face, a general melee ensued as drag queens beat cops with their purses, the cafeteria's plate glass window was smashed, and a corner newsstand was set on fire.

Today, transgender individuals have made their way into the police force and onto the city's Police Commission.

"I'm well aware that myself and those younger than me stand on the shoulders of those who came before, like the transgender women and gay men at Compton's," said Sergeant Stephan Thorne, the SFPD's first out transgender officer.

Last Thursday's commemoration honored Blackstone for his pioneering work with the transgender community. As reported in a profile in last week's Bay Area Reporter, Blackstone, now 81, was appointed the first SFPD gay community liaison in 1962 after the "Gayola" bar pay-off scandal. After the Compton's riot, he helped organize the first U.S. transsexual support group, Conversion Our Goal, at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and, with funding from transgender philanthropist Reed Erickson, established the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first-ever peer-staffed transgender social services agency.

When asked why he took such an active role on behalf of transgender and gay people, Blackstone simply replied, "Because it was the right thing to do."

But Blackstone paid a price for his support of the queer community. In 1973, the SFPD tactical squad raided the NTCU office and, according to a peer counselor present at the time, planted marijuana in Blackstone's desk. He was reassigned as a beat cop, working in the Mission and until his retirement a year later.

Theresa Sparks, the first out transgender member of the Police Commission, presented a first-of-its-kind commendation to a retired officer. From his tribulations in the 1970s to having "most of the command staff honoring him," said Sparks, "is a huge achievement in a very short time."

"He planted the seed to ensure that San Francisco is welcoming and that all people are treated equal," added Fong. "We commit ourselves to representing every one in the community."

Blackstone thanked members of the queer community for being open about who they are, saying, "I love this community and I hope this community loves me."

Despite the blazing noontime heat, the commemoration included remarks from numerous activists, advocates, and politicians, including Supervisors Bevan Dufty and Chris Daly, Treasurer Jose Cisneros, District Attorney Kamala Harris, and representatives from the offices of Democratic legislators Assemblyman Mark Leno and state Senator Carole Migden.

Mayor Gavin Newsom's LGBT community liaison, Jimmer Cassiol, presented a proclamation declaring June 22 "Gene Compton's Cafeteria Riot Day in San Francisco."

Recalling his activism on behalf of the queer community dating back to the 1960s, the Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial summed up the day's sentiments, stating, "I doubt in any other city they'd be this open to what we have going on here."

For more information about the Compton's commemoration, see www.comptonscafeteriariot.com.