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Remembering trans resistance in the Tenderloin

An archival black-and-white inset photo of Compton’s Cafeteria on the corner of Taylor and Turk streets in the Tenderloin district in 1970 and a color background image of the same corner taken on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 | Courtesy Tenderloin Museum; Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual observance honoring the memory of transgender people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-trans violence. 

The day comes after a brutal attack at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs that left at least five people dead and many others injured. "The attack on Club Q, which fell on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance, is despicable — further shattering the sense of safety of LGBTQ Americans across the country," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Sunday.

A vigil for the victims of Club Q is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Harvey Milk Plaza, according to a tweet posted earlier today by State Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco.

Transgender people face a disproportionate level of violence in the United States: The Human Rights Campaign reported that 2021 was the deadliest year ever for trans and nonbinary people, and trans people are more than four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime. 

Violence is thus inextricable from the long history of transgender identity in America—and it is frequently intertwined with watershed moments in the ongoing gender liberation movement. 

This photograph of Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin is rare: No exterior images of the restaurant were easily accessible to the public until a 1970 photo taken by the late writer and photographer Clay Geerdes was recently rediscovered and uploaded to a Facebook group. Yet, the cafe's historical significance extends well beyond its visual rarity.

In 1966, the cafeteria that stood at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets became the site of one of the most consequential transgender rights protests in American history. 

An archival black-and-white inset photo of Compton’s Cafeteria on the corner of Taylor and Turk streets in the Tenderloin in the 1970 and a color background image of the same corner taken on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 | Courtesy Tenderloin Museum; Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

A Community Hub for Sex Work

Compton’s Cafeteria sat right in the heart of the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s de facto transgender district and the primary neighbor for sex work in the 1960s. During this time, the neighborhood became colloquially known as the “gay ghetto,” as the city policed, displaced and corralled LGBTQ+ and lower-income people of color into a defined area. 

If the Tenderloin was sex work’s domain, then Compton’s served as its community hub. From its 1954 opening through the 1960s, trans folks, drag queens and sex workers would often hang out in the restaurant after a long night of hustling, lingering into the wee hours of the morning. 

By 1966, nationwide civil rights and social movements surrounding race, gender and sexuality had raised heated debates surrounding transgender rights in San Francisco—and Compton’s in the Tenderloin became the grounds on which SF trans rights activists would wage their first major fight. 

Compton’s Cafeteria is pictured on the corner of Taylor and Turk streets in the Tenderloin in 1970. | Courtesy Tenderloin Museum

A Fateful August Evening

In August 1966, a group of trans women was hanging out at Compton’s, when a cafeteria worker called the cops on the women, citing their raucous behavior. When police arrived and apprehended one of the women, she tossed a cup of coffee on the cop’s face—and the cafeteria erupted into a full-blown riot.  

In what would eventually be called the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, forks and salt shakers flew, drag queens chucked heels at police officers and newsstands were set ablaze. Many onlookers reported that the SF police responded in turn with excessive force and violence, attempting to lock up many of the restaurant’s patrons. 

A Legacy Beyond SF 

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot did not become a well-known part of modern LGBTQ+ history until 2005, when trans scholar Susan Stryker unearthed the report and found it predated—and perhaps precipitated—the more famous 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City. 

But what made the riot at Compton’s so historically and culturally monumental was the way that it captured the confluence of issues LGBTQ+ individuals, and particularly trans women of color, have faced throughout American history. 

The storefront of the corner of Turk and Taylor streets, pictured on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, was formerly Compton’s Cafe. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

For centuries, American police and city institutions have targeted trans and gender nonconforming folks for failing to adhere to certain gendered or familial norms. 

In the 17th century, for example, Virginia courts turned an intersex person named Thomas(ine) Hall into a social outcast for their gender nonconforming clothing and disposition; in the early 1900s, San Francisco police cracked down on “cross-dressing” and policed “vice,” often queer-coded and gender nonconforming offenses; in the 2010s, studies found that trans women of color were orders of magnitudes more likely to experience police brutality; and in recent years, conservative congresspeople have pushed anti-trans legislation designed to restrict access to gender-affirming services. 

Today, Compton’s riot is seen as a symbol of those intertwined histories of police brutality, race and transgender rights in the United States.

“Much of much of the social movement that originated within the [transgender] community was a rejection of the use of policing to control one’s expression and one’s way of asserting their gender identity,” said Jupiter Peraza, a trans activist and former leader within the Tenderloin's Transgender District. 

Jupiter Peraza, former director of social justice initiatives at the Transgender District, speaks at a rally against the proposed redistricting maps to a crowd of community groups on April 6, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

In San Francisco, the riot sparked groundbreaking local conversations surrounding transgender rights and inclusion within the city’s LGBTQ+ community, and it tipped the scales for nationwide efforts to establish more transgender health-care programs and community spaces. Crucially, the riot highlighted the leadership of Black trans women in advancing the gender equality movement to the national stage. 

In Remembrance

In the 56 years that have passed since the riot, the area around the intersection of Turk and Taylor where Compton’s Cafeteria stood has become part of the nation’s first Transgender Cultural District, originally named in memory of the conflict.  

Trans activists today see what’s left of the cafeteria as both a symbol of trans Americans' historic abuse and the groundbreaking activism and trans solidarity that arose out of that prejudice. 

“The riot was sort of the first. It was the inspiration, and it has inspired many of the modern-day social movements: a repudiation of violence, of discrimination, which was, of course, at the expense of police forces,” Peraza said.  

San Francisco has recently dedicated numerous city programs to elevating and supporting its trans community. In recognition of Compton's significance, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to designate the restaurant's location as a historical landmark; this month, the city announced a guaranteed income program for trans residents; SF’s annual transgender film festival captures the joy, beauty and resilience of the community; and drag queens will have cultural representation in City Hall once Mayor Breed’s admin chooses the city’s first-ever Drag Laureate.  

A sign designates Compton's Transgender Cultural District. | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, Peraza and other trans activists believe that Compton’s legacy lives on in the community’s diversity and unity that came out of the collective struggle for gendered and racial liberation. 

“When the Compton's Cafeteria Riot happened, [it] was the height of the civil rights movement,” Peraza said. “The individuals that led the riot were Black and Brown, trans women and queer people of color. All of those experiences, all of those identities met in the transgender diaspora. I think that that is something that continues to live on even today.”