How Accurate is Netflix’s Tales of the City portrayal of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot?

Netflix’s short series Tales of the City is a love-fest: a warm, funny, familiar celebration of queer and trans community. It is also a love letter to queer and trans history – and an extension of that history itself.

Tales of the City is based on Armistead Maupin’s novels of the same name, originally published as a newspaper serial in the 1970s and later adapted for television. Maupin’s stories broke boundaries of LGBT representation by presenting an entire queer and trans community in all its diversity and complexity and on its own terms. This latest installment of Tales extends that legacy with some of the best transgender representation of the entire series.*

Netflix’s Tales centers on Anna Madrigal, the trans matriarch of the chosen family at the story’s center. It also provides a new backstory for Anna centering on her participation in the 1966 riot at the Gene Compton’s Cafeteria.

So how accurate is Tales’ depiction of transgender life in 1966? I’ll do my best to answer that question with as few spoilers as possible.

Anna, portrayed by Jen Richards, gets off a Greyhound bus in 1966

Tales’ 8th episode starts when Anna, portrayed masterfully by trans actress Jen Richards, arrives in San Francisco, in hopes of starting a new life and obtaining gender affirmation surgery. Anna’s story of arriving in the Tenderloin resembles many of the stories of transgender woman recorded in this excerpt of Susan Stryker’s documentary Screaming Queens, available on Amazon.

Tales mentions Dr. Kenne, a doctor who prescribed hormones to transgender women. Dr. Kenne, as far as I can tell, is fictional. The new availability of medical treatment in San Francisco would have been attractive to Anna, but most likely she would have heard of Dr. Harry Benjamin, the leading provider of medical treatment for trans people in the United States. Benjamin spent part of the year in San Francisco and the new availability of medical treatment helped to create the conditions for resistance as Compton’s Cafeteria, according to Susan Stryker.

Tales does an excellent job of showing how few employment options were available to transgender women in 1966. While Anna, a white woman, is able to obtain a job at City Lights Books (a charming historical reference), she quickly learns that most transgender women cannot. When she makes friends with a Latinx trans woman named Ysela, portrayed by the incomparable Daniela Vega, she learns that many transgender women survive through sex work and other underground economies, which placed them at risk of arrest. That certainly was a reality – and one even more brutal than what is shown in Tales.

Tales centers around the mistreatment of trans women at the hands of the police. When Anna becomes romantically involved with a police officer, she finds herself at odds with her trans community. When she learns that her fiancé has been stealing money from the transgender women he has arrested, she is faced with a choice.

The police violence against trans women portrayed in Tales was very real. Furthermore, the Tenderloin district was known for being run by corrupt cops on the take. Theft of money from trans women could have easily happened, but it isn’t mentioned by Stryker in her book Trans History. Anna’s fiancé stole a LOT of money, so I’m not entirely sure if this part of the narrative is realistic.

Trans women lock arms at Compton’s, in Neflix’s Tales of the City

The climax of this episode is the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. After the management asks transgender women to leave the all-night diner, Ysela begins the riot by throwing a cup of coffee in a police officer’s face. The filmmakers paid special attention to the details for this part of the story – patrons at Compton’s really did resist just like that.

The part of Tales of the City that I appreciate the most is its narrative about white privilege and accountability. Anna’s whiteness and middle-class status allows her to survive when other trans women couldn’t. When Anna realizes that she has made a mistake (I promised no spoilers), she faces it and makes restitution to her community. The process isn’t easy or clean – and that’s part of what makes this narrative so compelling.

I am excited to see more LGBT stories that include trans people at their center. I am especially thrilled to see white LGBT characters begin to wrestle with their privilege and try to be accountable for their complicity with violence. Netflix’s Tales of the City is a lovely addition to this year’s Pride month.

*I offer this observation with the cavate that I have not read or watched the entirety of the Tales of the City series and that I do not find what I have seen and read to be completely perfect representation of trans people.

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