Site of SF's Compton's riot nominated for national historic register

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Friday October 21, 2022
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Volunteers put the finishing touches on a Black Trans Lives Matter mural at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets in August 2020. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Volunteers put the finishing touches on a Black Trans Lives Matter mural at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets in August 2020. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Fifty-six years ago, an angry drag queen in Compton's Cafeteria, a 24-hour diner in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, threw a cup of hot coffee in the face of a police officer as he tried to arrest her without a warrant. A riot ensued between the cops and the trans women and drag queens who frequented the diner. The following night, the battle continued. The fighting cost the diner owner two plate glass windows and, whether the incidents' participants realized it or not, history was being made.

Unfortunately, the exact date for the incident remains a mystery. Nonetheless, the site of that historical event is now on its way to being permanently memorialized on the National Register of Historic Places.

On Friday, the seven members of the California State Historical Resources Commission, meeting virtually from all over the state, voted 6-0 to nominate the site of the 1966's Compton's Cafeteria riots for addition to the federal registry. The recommendation will next be forwarded to the State Historic Preservation Officer for nomination to the National Register, with a final determination to be made approximately 45 days after its receipt by the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C.

While fitting for the national register, this isn't the first time the site has been recognized as a landmark. A commemorative sidewalk plaque denoting the Compton's Cafeteria riot was installed by the city at Turk and Taylor streets outside the former diner in 2006 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the riot, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

In 2016, the city christened the 100 block of Taylor Street as Gene Compton's Cafeteria Way to honor the 50th anniversary of the historic riots that occurred at the long-gone diner. Former District 6 supervisor Jane Kim had authored the honorary street renaming proposal, meaning it did not change the postal addresses of the businesses and residences located on that block of Taylor.

Most recently, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission on August 17 approved the designation of the Tenderloin intersection of Turk and Taylor streets, and 101 Taylor Street, as an official city landmark, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

The October 21 action by the state panel, however, recognizes the site as one of national significance, "associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history," according to the website for the California State Parks Office of Historic Preservation.

That's pretty notable, according to Jay Correia, a state historian with the California Office of Historic Preservation.

"The vast majority of National Register nominations designate property at the local level of significance," Correia wrote to the B.A.R. in an email. "My informed guess is that 95%-98% of our nominations are for designation at the local level of significance.

"If the Keeper of the National Register approves the nomination at National Level of Significance, the building will attain a rare, and highly significant, level of recognition," he added.

The significance of that space might have been lost, however, were it not for the work of Susan Stryker, Ph.D., a transgender scholar whose academic and historical research focuses on sexuality and gender. Stryker also used to be executive director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. She's now a Marta Sutton Weeks External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford University Humanities Center, according to her Twitter profile.

Notably, the marker commemorating the riot doesn't include a date more specific than August 1966. The event had largely been forgotten until Stryker, poring over materials at the GLBT Historical Society archives in 1991, ran across an item detailing an August 1966 event: "Drag queens protest police harassment at Compton's Cafeteria."

That launched Stryker on a yearslong venture to uncover the events at the former Gene Compton's Cafeteria, which took place three years before the better known Stonewall riots in New York City. After years of research, Stryker released her 2005 documentary, "Screaming Queens," with interviews with some of the women who were present at the riot that night, along with other trans people. The exact date of the riot has been lost to history, Stryker has previously said.

Stryker was delighted with the commission's vote.

"I'm thrilled that research I've conducted over the past 30 years is being used to elevate the profile of trans history," Stryker told the B.A.R. "Given the current political climate, it seems vital to demonstrate that trans people are not a recent fad. We've been making history for a long time."

Also following the commission's decision was Madison Levesque, a historian fellow at the cultural resources office in the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service, who uses she/they pronouns. The Compton's Cafeteria National Register nomination was the center of Levesque's master's thesis focusing on the steps and challenges of nominating queer sites for such considerations.

"It has been a pleasure to build off Stryker's crucial research to ensure the legacy of Compton's Cafeteria," said Levesque. "Placing properties associated with the transgender rights movement on the national significance level demonstrates the values and communities the United States wishes to reflect into the future."

The corner continues to hold significance for queer and transgender communities, Jupiter Peraza, a trans woman and director of social justice initiatives at the Transgender District, told the B.A.R. back in June. The October 21 decision, she said, memorializes an event that transformed San Franciscans' perceptions of trans people.

Peraza told the commissioners during public comment following the vote that the trans community needs a nationally recognized trans monument that portrays how hard transgender people have fought for liberation.

Commissioner Alan Hess, an architect in Irvine, told his fellow commissioners he was "particularly impressed" with the nomination of the Compton's site. While he'd been aware of events such as the Stonewall riots and the demonstration at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles in 1967, the Compton's Cafeteria riots were new to him. The Southern California uprising by patrons of the bar was one of the first demonstrations in the United States protesting police brutality against LGBTQ people.

"This history was always there," Hess observed. "We're only really now becoming aware of it."

Back in San Francisco, Andrew Shaffer, a gay man who's director of development and communications at the GLBT Historical Society and formerly its interim co-director, told the B.A.R. that the commission's recognition of the significance of the Compton's site would help ensure what happened there was not forgotten.

"The National Register of Historic Places is one of the ways we define our national culture — recognizing the places where our collective story has unfolded," he said. "For far too long, queer people have been left out of these stories, even though we have been integral parts of the American story every step of the way. Including the intersection of Turk and Taylor on the National Register would help to correct this erasure, and highlight just one of the innumerable ways trans folks have shaped our national story."

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