Compton cafeteria speech by LGBT activist in San Francisco, CA.

50 Years After the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

Before Stonewall and Harvey Milk, there was Compton’s Cafeteria.

Most people know a thing or two about the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in June 1969, often considered to be the beginning of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. (Many Pride events are held in the last weekend in June to commemorate the anniversary of Stonewall.)

However, less known is a similar uprising that took place three years earlier, in August of 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco.

paintbluetopurpleIn the mid 1960s, transgender Bay Area residents often congregated at Compton’s because they felt unwelcome in the growing gay bars of San Francisco. One night, tensions between Compton’s staff and patrons led to the police being called. Police were known for their mistreatment of the larger LGBTQ+ community at the time, and their presence quickly led to more patrons fighting back.

While the official date of the riots is no longer known, its anniversary is recognized in San Francisco every August. This year marks the 50th anniversary. An important takeaway from Compton’s is that transgender people have had to advocate for their own health and safety for decades. One of the remaining living participants, Felicia Flames, says:

“You have to remember it was in the 1960’s, and to a lot of people thought we were sick, mental, trash and nobody cared whether we lived or died. Our own families abandoned us, and we had nowhere to go. And we were tired of the police harassing us because of who we were meant to be.”

San Francisco, CA, USA - June 24, 2016: Compton cafeteria speech by LGBT activist - San Francisco
Trans activist and riot participant Felicia Flames speaks at the San Francisco Trans March in June 2016.

Furthermore, this event led to the establishment of peer-run support services for the trans community, including the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, which is believed to be the world’s first trans organization. The riots are further illuminated in the 2005 documentary “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.”

Fifty years after this uprising, we live in a much different world. While social acceptance of the trans community has increased dramatically in recent years, a quick internet search will yield an ongoing pandemic of violence against trans people, both by individuals and by representatives of the state (such as police and politicians).

As healthcare providers, we must recognize that this history lives in our trans patients and peers. We continue to see vast disparities in the ability to access competent and compassionate care among the entire LGBTQ+ community, and especially among trans patients. By recognizing the larger context of LGBTQ+ history, we can better serve our LGBTQ+ patients.

To learn more about the Compton’s Cafeteria uprising, you are invited to a screening of “Screaming Queens” on Wednesday, October 19 at UC Davis School of Medicine, hosted by the Gender & Sexual Diversity Medical Student Interest Group. Please contact Erica Thomas at emthomas@ucdavis.edu for more information.

Shea Hazarian (pronouns: she/her/hers) is a Junior Specialist at the UC Davis School of Medicine and the Improving OUTcomes coordinator. She earned a BA in Sociology from the University of San Francisco and currently works to develop cultural competency initiatives at the UC Davis Health System.