Friday Philosophy: Standing on the Shoulders of Others

Most of you know that June is designated as LGBT Pride month because of the Stonewall Riots, which began on June 28, 1969.

At Wikipedia, one can find the following statement:

They are frequently cited as the first instance in American history when people in the homosexual community fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities, and they have become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.

The only problem with the words above is that they are not quite true.  Almost three years before, there had been a blow struck for freedom on the other side of the country.

Gene Compton owned a string of Compton’s Cafeterias from the 40s into the 70s.  The site of the action in question was his cafeteria at the corner of Taylor and Turk in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.  This 24 hour restaurant was one of the few places in San Francisco where the Hair Fairies, as they were known at the time, could congregate.  The concepts of transsexual and transgender were almost(?) non-existent.

Transwomen were not welcome in San Francisco gay bars, since crossdressing was illegal and the presence of one transperson in a bar could get it raided and perhaps closed down.

Compton’s was also a hangout for street hustlers and members of a gay youth known as Vanguard (the first known LGBT youth organization, organized at Glide Memorial Church, along with a lesbian group called the Street Orphans.

On a hot August night, the Compton’s management called the police on its customers, claiming they had become to boisterous.  One of the policemen rousted one of the transwomen and she threw her coffee in his face.  That ignited the riot.  Dishes and furniture exited through the plate glass windows.  Police called reinforcements and the fight moved out into the street.  A news stand was set ablaze.

The next day Compton’s adopted a policy prohibiting transfolk from entering the establishment.  This caused more transfolk to gather at the scene, along with the hustlers and other denizens of the Tenderloin…and even some gay and lesbian folks…to picket the cafeteria.  That demonstration ended with the newly installed windows also being broken.

One of the outcomes of the riot was that a network of services (social, psychological, and medical) for transpeople was established…which led to “the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first such peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world.  The NTCU was run by Sergeant Elliot R. Blackstone of the SFPD, who had been designated liaison with the San Francisco homophile community, as it was called at the time.

Along with the political expression of the riot that we were human beings and deserved to be treated as such, July of 1966 brought the publishing of Harry Benjamin’s earth-shattering book, The Transsexual Phenomenon (pdf), which affirmed our existence socially and medically.  This book established a procedure through which we could attain our life-long dreams.

The events of that hot August night were commemorated in 2006, with the installation of a plaque at the corner (the youtube of the first part of the commemoration doesn’t work properly…the second half will be displayed below).  

It should also not be lost on anyone that the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was a drag bar.

It catered to an assortment of patrons, but it was known to be popular with the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: drag queens, representatives of a newly self-aware transgender  community, effeminate young men, hustlers, and homeless youth.


In the words of my former hair stylist…and one of the queens who claims to have been there on the night of June 28, many of the queens were “serious about it”…meaning that they viewed themselves as women.

I share this story tonight so that people will know that we were there at the beginning and hence deserve to be there when equality is achieved.

Fair is fair, don’t you think?


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    • Robyn on June 19, 2010 at 00:02

  1. I always appreciate your work, Robyn, and this essay has been one of the very, very best.  Thank you for your strength and persistence.

    • Robyn on June 19, 2010 at 01:03

    …available in Orange.

  2. Events like this one which chronicle the hpeople who move society forward are often buried or just never really are known. Fair is fair and it’s fun to learn the stories of the real people and places that bring us to now. Helps us hold the line also.    

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