Teachable Trans History: Vanguard and The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

LGBT history didn’t start at the Stonewall Riots. Teaching about Vanguard and the riots at the Compton’s Cafeteria is a great way to place Stonewall in a larger context.  As a part of my “Teachable Trans History” series, I’m sharing resources that community organizers and classroom teachers alike can use to start a conversation about this important topic.

Overview of Vanguard and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots

[A quick word on my language choices: I use the term “trans femmes” because I am referring to a group of people that include both trans women and people who used terms like “drag queen” and “transvestite.”  Some of those people did not consider themselves to be women, but a great many did.  “Trans femmes” best incorporates the entirety of the community to which I refer – but it is not perfect.  There are always limits to the ability of language to represent groups of people, especially when describing history.  I am happy to talk more about my language choices and accept suggestions and corrections.]

During the 1960s, trans femmes, especially trans women of color, across the United States formed political organizations and fought back against the police.  Faced with local laws that made it illegal to “cross-dress” and systematic discrimination in employment and housing, many trans femmes created tight-knit communities in which they could support and defend each other.  In major cities, trans femmes were sometimes able to carve out spaces where they could spend time together.  Often, those spaces were sites of intense policing.  In San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was one of these spots.

Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was a late-night diner where trans femmes, queer youth, and sex workers could be found hanging out, sipping coffee, and socializing with each other.  It was also the meeting place of a radical queer and trans youth organization called Vanguard.  Police, sometimes called by management and sometimes acting of their own initiative, often raided Compton’s.  By August of 1966, members of Vanguard and other trans femmes were tired of being mistreated.  Vanguard members organized a picket to protest the raids on Compton’s.  Then, on an unknown August night (police kept no records and the newspapers didn’t cover it), patrons at Compton’s fought back.  A trans woman threw her coffee into a police officer’s face when he tried to arrest her.  Patrons smashed dishes, threw furniture, and broke windows.  The riot spilled out onto the street, leading the police to call for reinforcements. A police car was smashed and a newspaper stand was lit on fire.

Why does the Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria matter?

The riot at Compton’s Cafeteria challenges many assumptions about LGBT history.  First, it proves that trans people were resisting before the Stonewall riots.  Second, it underscores trans frustration with police.  The riot at Compton’s Cafeteria helps us to understand how long trans communities of color have been resisting policing that targeted them on the basis of their gender, sexuality, race, and often poverty.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riots also matter because Vanguard was, to use a very technical term, freakin’ incredible.  Vanguard members organized radical actions to support each other and claim their right to public space.  My favorite of their actions was a “street cleaning” demonstration.  Police often launched what they called “street cleaning” operations that were aimed at clearing queer and trans people out of the Tenderloin.  In protest, Vanguard members brought out brooms and publicly cleaned the streets themselves.  Their action built community among themselves, dramatized the effects of police actions, and presented Vanguard as an integral part of the Tenderloin community.  Historians still have very few examples of transgender organizing before Stonewall, so Vanguard tells us a lot about how trans people lived and resisted in the 1960s.

Teachable Secondary Sources about Vanguard and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

“Street Power” and the Claiming of Public Space: San Francisco’s “Vanguard” and Pre-Stonewall Queer Radicalism by Jennifer Worley, published in Captive Genders – This article gives an excellent overview of Vanguard’s activism and the significance of the riot.  It would make for an excellent book group selection or the basis for a great class discussion.

Screaming Queens – Trans historian Susan Stryker’s documentary about the Compton’s Cafeteria provides a compelling look at the riots, but it isn’t especially accessible for audiences that are unfamiliar with transgender culture and vocabulary.  Stryker presents participant’s accounts in their own words, some of which are different than the vocabulary we use today.  If you are able to contextualize this film, I think it can be useful.

Teachable Primary Sources

Vanguard’s own newsletters – Thanks to the Transgender Digital Archives, you can read Vanguard’s newsletters online.  This is a rich repository of information – and a chance to do history for yourself!

Contemporary Connections

Vanguard, Revisited – This zine complies Vanguard materials and puts in them in dialogue with articles about the Tenderloin today.

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