The film was shot by Lessa Millet and includes interviews with Janettea Louise Johnson, Executive Director of Transgender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, and Stephany Ashley, a housing, homelessness, and sex worker advocate who is currently working at Brilliant Corners. The subjects of the film were asked to speak on The Compton’s Cafeteria Uprising — a historic event that took place in San Francisco and was a precursor to the fight against police violence against sex workers and LGBT communities. The series includes poetic narration by Vanessa Warri, a Nigerian-American community-based poet, researcher, strategist, and advocate.
The Compton’s Cafeteria
LGBT and sex worker activism has a long history which predates New York’s Stonewall Uprising of 1969 and San Francisco’s Tenderloin District is part of that storied history. Although activists are still in full swing celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, many sex worker and trans activists are highlighting The Compton’s Cafe Uprising – which occurred three years prior to Stonewall – as a precursor to the fight against police violence against sex workers and LGBT communities.
Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, located at 101 Taylor Street, was a well-known meeting place for sex workers, trans and queer people, and a local organizing group called the Vanguard. Police often raided the establishment and harassed LGBT and sex worker patrons, claiming to enforce local ordinances prohibiting “cross-dressing,” as well as to curb the radical meetings of the Vanguard.
Although the exact date is unknown, the uprising occurred in August 1966, when Vanguard members staged a protest against the persistent police violence waged against the LGBT and sex worker patrons of The Compton’s Cafe. Refusing to succumb to another night of police harassment, an unknown trans woman threw a cup of coffee at the officers and sparked the riot. The uprising and the Vanguard’s activism drew attention to the multitude of issues trans and queer youth faced, including homelessness, poverty, homophobia, and survival sex work and as a result, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit was established in 1968 to provide medical, social, and emotional services to the trans community. The Vanguard’s organizing is part of a much larger history of activism for trans folks and sex workers and that legacy must be cemented into the narrative of trans and sex worker advocacy.
The Compton’s Cafe Uprising demonstrates that organizing and resistance for LGBT communities particularly the trans community were in full swing prior to Stonewall. Honoring the uprising’s legacy also forces us to reckon with the reality that not much progress has been made in the way of race relations, state violence, poverty, and the criminalization of sex workers and the trans community.
Batey, Eve. “How a Riot at a Tenderloin Cafeteria Kicked Off the LGBTQ Rights Movement,” in Eater: San Francisco (August 27, 2020). Link to the source.
An article commemorating the Uprising and its relevance to the current struggle for civil rights in the wake of the murders of Breyonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Broverman, Neal. “Don’t Let History Forget About Compton’s Cafeteria Riot,” in The Advocate (August 2, 2018). Link to the source.
Broverman’s article highlights the history of the Compton Cafe Uprising and why historians and activists must include it in the civil rights narrative.
Ellison, Joy Michael. Teachable Trans History: Vanguard and the Compton Cafe Riot. Link to the source.
Dr. Joy Michael Ellison provides a brief history of The Compton’s Cafe Uprising and why it is a significant event in LGBT history and activism.
Levin, Sam. “Compton’s Cafeteria Riot: A Historic Act of Trans Resistance, Three Years Before Stonewall,” in The Guardian (June 21, 2019). Link to the source.
A history of The Compton’s Cafe Uprising with quotes from local trans activist Donna Personna. Also provides commentary on the work of Susan Stryker’s film Screaming Queens.
Millard, Megan. “Remembering San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria Riot,” SF LGBT Center. Link to the source.
Blog post commemorating the Uprising, complete with links to the Screaming Queens documentary
Pasulka, Nicola. “Ladies in the Streets: Before Stonewall, Transgender Uprising Changed Lives,” in Code Switch: Race. In Your Face. National Public Radio (May 5, 2015). Link to the source.
NPR blog post highlighting The Compton’s Cafe Uprising and its subsequent impact prior to Stonewall.
“Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” NSWP: Global Networks of Sex Work Projects. Link to the Source.
Encyclopedic entry for The Compton’s Cafe Uprising
“Vanguard Collection,” Digital Transgender Archive. Link to the source.
The Digital Transgender Archive includes scanned images of original Vanguard newsletters.
Digital Media, Film, & Stage
Stryker, Susan, et. al. Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005). Link to the source.
Documentary about the uprising.
Compton’s Cafeteria Riot – Link the source.
Official website of The Compton’ Cafeteria Riot stage production hosted by the Tenderloin Museum.
The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot and the Legacy of Police Violence, (August 5, 2020), GLBT Historical Society, Museum and Archives. Link to the source.
A 2-hour panel discussion featuring Donna Personna, Susan Stryker, Collette LeGrande, Shane Zaldivar, and Victor Silverman, speaking about the uprising and its role in LGBT history.
Janetta Louise Johnson
San Francisco Art Contest
The San Francisco #OldProProject City Coordinators also selected pieces from those submitted to the SF Art Contest, celebrating specific moments of sex worker resistance in San Francisco. After releasing a call for art submissions, the San Francisco team selected four winners who created art pieces based on The Compton’s Cafeteria Uprising in 1966 or the first sex worker-led protest in 1917. Both events occurred in San Francisco. The winners are Sierra Cirque, Brodin Petrichor, Zoe Colmenares, and Sarah. Their work will be exhibited as part of the #OldProProject and licensed to sex worker advocates.
“We created this short film to showcase the voices of the past. The written letters of sex workers in the early 1900s are timeless and deserve to be experienced. We wanted to continue raising #awareness and highlight the consistent mission that sex workers shared for over 100 years.”
I have done various forms of full service sex work since I was 18 in 2017. When I started, I had already accepted that violence was a part of sex work and that the work would always be underground and criminalized.
I eventually learned from sex worker organizers that violence is not inevitable and that better conditions are not only possible but urgently necessary.
I entered this contest because I wanted to honor the long history of sex workers who have pushed for those better conditions.
They have had a profound impact on my life, as they have taught me not to accept poverty and violence as inherent conditions for people working in the sex trade.
Submitting to the OldPro Project art contest allowed me to integrate my identities as an artist and a sex worker, which I hadnt done before. As someone who has experience in the industry, I have first hand knowledge on the stigmas that surround it.
I feel almost vulnerable publicly announcing my occupation but it’s necessary to my fight towards sex workers rights. This piece shows the extremes that other marginalized sex workers had to go through in order to do their jobs and live their lives.
Sex work is real work and deserves to be respected without the violence and lack of rights it invokes.