Expanded federal recognition sought for SF trans landmark

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 20, 2023
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Several dozen volunteers painted a street mural "Black Trans Lives Matter" in August 2020 in the intersection of Turk and Taylor streets at the corner where Compton's Cafeteria was located in the Transgender District. Photo: Rick Gerharter<br>
Several dozen volunteers painted a street mural "Black Trans Lives Matter" in August 2020 in the intersection of Turk and Taylor streets at the corner where Compton's Cafeteria was located in the Transgender District. Photo: Rick Gerharter

More expansive federal recognition is now being sought for the site where a transgender uprising against police harassment took place in San Francisco sometime during the summer of 1966. It comes at the suggestion of the overseer for the nation's list of historic properties.

Last October, a statewide California panel had nominated the Tenderloin building where the Compton's Cafeteria riot occurred for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the exact date for the incident remains a mystery, city officials in November finalized the designation of 101 Taylor Street, as well as the intersection of Turk and Taylor in front of the building, as the city's 307th landmark.

It is reportedly where an angry drag queen patronizing Gene Compton's Cafeteria threw a cup of hot coffee in the face of a police officer as he tried to arrest her without a warrant. It sparked a riot between trans and queer patrons of the 24-hour diner and cops, as detailed in the 2005 documentary "Screaming Queens" by transgender scholar and historian Susan Stryker, Ph.D.

Building off of Stryker's research into the incident that had been long forgotten about, Madison Levesque had requested the building that once housed the eatery be listed on the national registry as part of their thesis project for the master's in public history they earned last year from California State University, Sacramento. At the time of the submission Levesque had been working as a cultural landscape inventory steward for the National Park Service.

Earlier this year Levesque, who is queer and uses they/them pronouns, took a job as an architectural historian with the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. In March, they learned from the California Office of Historic Preservation that the Compton's federal register listing request had been sent back for revision.

"I was very happy to see it wasn't fully rejected," said Levesque in a recent phone interview with the B.A.R. "I wasn't familiar with returned nominations."

They needed to present more information about how the incident that took place at Compton's tied into the fight for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. in order to designate it as having a national level of significance. Their initial submission had focused too much on its local significance, according to two pages of return comments the state office received from Sherry A. Frear, the chief and deputy keeper of the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program for cultural resources, partnerships, and science.

"Nominations seeking to secure a national level of significance are expected to demonstrate how the particular events or activities impacted national trends or themes in a direct way," stated the memo. "The current narrative does not fully justify a national level of significance. The nomination would be greatly strengthened by the inclusion of a much stronger scholarly discussion and appreciation for the impacts of the events on the national stage."

Because the riot didn't occur solely inside the diner, the immediate outdoor areas of the building should also be considered as part of the federal listing, according to the national office's response. It noted doing so would help counter the lack of historical integrity the building retains.

"Consideration should be given to expanding the boundaries of the nominated area beyond just the current building footprint, given the fact that the events of 1966 (picketing, riot, marches) occurred in and around the building, particularly on the public sidewalks of the area. These areas appear to retain stronger integrity," wrote the federal office in its response, noting that "the integrity of the ground floor and interior commercial spaces — areas directly tied to the significant events — is minimal at best."

In an emailed response to the B.A.R.'s inquiry about the status of listing the Compton's site on the national register, Frear stressed that no final decision about doing so had been made.

"Please note that nomination is 'returned' and not 'rejected'; the property may indeed merit listing but the nomination itself is technically or professionally deficient and requires corrections or other improvements to document the significance and/or integrity of the property," wrote Frear.

Levesque said they agree with the comments from the national office and had sought the advice of Stryker and a current colleague for how best to revise the submission requesting federal listing for the Compton's site. As they needed to work on revising it during their time off from their current job, Levesque said they hoped to resubmit it by October.

"Hopefully, in the next few weeks, I will be able to work on it in my free time to finalize it," said Levesque.

They had noticed that the city included the street intersection as part of its local landmark for the Compton's site and used that as a reference in revising the federal listing request.

"I thought it was clever and a well written boundary justification. I fully agree with it," said Levesque.

State review

The state office will first need to review the revised national register submission before it is sent back to the D.C. office. Levesque told the B.A.R. they hope it can be done quickly and won't trigger another vote by the California State Historical Resources Commission, which only meets quarterly. Its next meeting is scheduled for November 3.

"I am hoping it won't take a whole review period because it is just looking at the revisions," said Levesque. "I am not sure how long it will take."

But since Levesque is expanding the scope of the listing to include the building's ground floor storefront space that had housed Compton's along with the sidewalk and street intersection, they told the B.A.R. the state commissioners may need to revote on it.

"The boundary changes might bring it back to the state committee. But I think it is really up to them," said Levesque.

William Burg, a state historian II with California's historic preservation office, told the B.A.R. it is unclear at this point if a vote by the commission will be needed. In an emailed reply he told the B.A.R. he expects to have the revised nomination, including "the street and sidewalks and not just the building per the feedback given," by the end of September.

In terms of needing to schedule another vote, "I'll have to defer an answer until I review the revised nomination," responded Burg.

Date lost to history

It also remains to be seen what impact the inability of LGBTQ historians to confirm the exact date for when the Compton's riot occurred will have on the decision to list the site on the national register. The federal office's response zeroed in on Levesque's quoting from two reference materials that both highlighted how no one is sure when the events took place. One also noted how police records about it "disappeared," while the other said the riot was "almost entirely forgotten."

Such statements, according to the federal office's response, "work against a case for national level significance or impact. The number of different organizations and actions discussed in the nomination resulting from the events of 1966 largely reflect a local context, albeit in a city considered by many the heart of twentieth century LGBTQ history. The current narrative fails to draw a clear line between Compton's Cafeteria and the larger context."

It suggested that the revised submittal view the local events "as one of several nationally significant markers or pivotal moments that in combination tell the more complete story of American LGBTQ and transgender history and the struggle for civil rights."

Levesque told the B.A.R. the omission of the date shouldn't be an issue as long as they can show why the Compton's riot had national significance. They argued it led to the creation of the first services for transgender people in the country.

"I know being first doesn't necessarily constitute importance but, in this case, it was a major breakthrough in trans services and being able to provide those," said Levesque.

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