It's a hot August night in San Francisco in 1966 -- three years before the famed Stonewall. Compton's Cafeteria, in the seedy Tenderloin district, is hopping with its usual assortment of transgender people, young street hustlers, and down-and-out regulars. The management, annoyed by the noisy crowd at one table, calls the police. When a surly cop, accustomed to manhandling Compton's clientele, attempts to arrest one of the queens, she throws her coffee in his face. Mayhem erupts -- windows break, furniture flies through the air. Police reinforcements arrive, and the fighting spills into the street. For the first time, the drag queens band together to fight back, getting the better of the cops, whom they kick and stomp with their high-heeled shoes and beat with their heavy purses. For everyone at Compton's that night, one thing was certain -- things would never be the same again.
photo and text from comptonscafeteriariot.org
More than ten years ago, historian, author, and former director of the GLBT Historical Society Susan Stryker uncovered the history of a riot in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. In 2005, together with fellow historian-turned-filmmaker Victor Silverman and producer Jack Walsh, she released a documentary about that night, its context, and the early gay liberation and transexual human rights movements which the riot helped to inspire. Before Susan's work on this project, the Compton's story was mostly forgotten, but that doesn't mean that night didn't matter. It was a turning point for the queer community: San Franciscans were catalyzed by the event to start organizing, and the boldness of those queens and queers sent a message to the cops that harassing and brutalizing trans people, queer people, and poor people wasn't going to fly anymore. That spontaneous, furious fight was a landmark in the movement against police brutality and for human rights.
Wikipedia has a bit more on the riot, Susan's film delves into the whole story. It's called Screaming Queens. Here's a clip: