My favorite part of the new Netflix season of Tales of the City (2019, based on the novels of Armistead Maupin) is episode 8. Unlike the rest of the show, episode 8 is not an ensemble piece but rather a stand-alone episode that focuses on the history of Anna Madrigal, the free-spirited transwoman who is the landlady at 28 Barbary Lane. It looks at Anna’s arrival in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and the climax of the episode is the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, an important but not well-known moment in the history of San Francisco’s LGBT community.
Spoiler Alert: This post discusses episode 8, which reveals a critical plot point for the season, so if you haven’t watched it yet, you might want to put off reading this post.
San Francisco in the 1960s
San Francisco began to develop into the gay mecca we think of today at the end of WWII. The US Navy used San Francisco as one of its most important West Coast bases. At the end of the war, it began a crackdown on homosexuals in the Navy, many of whom wound up dishonorably discharged at San Francisco. Because being homosexual was socially unacceptable in the post-War period (when American culture was entering an aggressively heterosexual phase that permitted only one normative version of male identity), many of these men chose to remain in San Francisco rather than return home and have to face their families.
However while the LGBT community began to grow, it met with little acceptance. Police raids on the few bars that catered to gays and lesbians were a regular feature of the 1950s and 60s. Things were particularly tough for the city’s community of transwomen, who in the parlance of the time were referred to as cross-dressers, transvestites, or ‘drags’. ‘Queen’ included both modern drag queens and modern transwomen, since the concept of a distinct transwoman identity barely existed at the time.
There was some room for female impersonators, who performed cabaret acts professionally, but for the transwomen among these performers, the stage was a brief and limited opportunity to express their gender identity, since performers were expected arrive and leave in men’s clothing, and the only ones who could practically pursue this occupation were those capable of ‘passing’, meaning they were sufficiently feminine that they could appear to be women by post-War standards. Female impersonation also required some degree of talent as a singer and dancer.
It was illegal for those considered men to appear in public in women’s clothing apart from professional female impersonation; the basic legal rule at the time was that a man had to be wearing at least three items of male apparel in order to be legal. Suspected transvestites could be detained by any police offer and forced to undergo humiliating inspections. Even wearing a shirt that buttoned up on the wrong side was enough to justify being stopped by a cop. “Female impersonation” was a crime, so cross-dressing was an offense that could easily land a queen in jail, in some cases for a couple of months, where they were likely to be subjected to humiliating treatment such as forced head-shaving.
Transwomen who wished to live as women had other problems as well. Their identity documents all used their male identity, so they struggled to find living space in respectable neighborhoods, since they were viewed as deviants. As a result, many had to live in cheap hotels in the seedier parts of the city. Most also struggled to find employment, for the same reasons. Those who tried to live as men struggled to find and keep jobs because they were often perceived as being too effeminate. Because of that, large numbers of transwomen were forced to resort to prostitution to support themselves. (This is still true today; about 19% of transwomen report having done some form of sex work because of a lack of social acceptance; for black transwomen the figure is 47%.)
Although some gay bars in 1960s New York were willing to admit at least a few transwomen and drags, the same does not seem to have been true in San Francisco. Gay bars in the city seem to have been unwilling to admit them because their presence made police raids more likely. One of the few places of relative acceptance of transwomen and drags in the city was the Tenderloin, a downtown district that had a lot of cheap, single-occupant housing (mostly cheap hotels), gay bars, strip clubs and porn theaters, cheap liquor stores, and other disreputable businesses. It was frequented by gay men, lesbians, transwomen, prostitutes, and drug addicts, and in this district there were more establishments willing to allow such people in.
Prostitute queens tended to ply their trade in the Tenderloin because the police were willing to partially tolerate it there. This unofficial policy meant that the prostitutes were less likely to work in other parts of the city but it also made skimming money off the sex trade easy to organize. Policemen often used their power to detain and inspect suspected transvestites and prostitutes to shake down the queens for money. Those who refused to pay up were likely to taken to jail, or simply roughed up or forced to provide a quick blow job.
Violence was a common feature in the lives of the Tenderloin queens. In addition to the problems of living in a neighborhood frequented by drugs addicts and other criminals, clients of trans prostitutes sometimes became angry and violent if they felt they had been fooled by “men disguised as women”. In the 1960s, there was also a apparently unrecognized serial killer who targeted transwomen, slitting their throats and mutilating their genitals before dumping their bodies. Smart transwomen learned to fight, often carrying bricks or bottles in their handbags to use as a weapon. And the police sometimes used violence to keep them intimidated and compliant.
In the absence of a welcoming business community, many queens frequented Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, a chain restaurant with a location in the Tenderloin. Unlike other businesses, Compton’s was open 24 hours, which meant that transwomen prostitutes could congregate there late at night after turning tricks. “Compton’s Cafeteria was the center of the universe for us. It was a place where we could make sure that we had lived through the night…Compton’s was a place where you could go and you could see whether some girls had stayed, some girls had left, some people had been killed, raped, put in jail,” says Felicia Elizondo, who was part of San Francisco’s trans community in the 1960s. The food was cheap, which was another plus for the struggling queens.
The management at Compton’s did not appreciate being the gathering spot for transwomen. They worried that the presence of transwomen might drive away more desirable customers. So they frequently harassed the women, called the police, and imposed a service charge on queens.
In 1965, a nearby church, Glide Memorial Methodist Church, began trying to close the gap between the LGBT community in the Tenderloin and the Christian community. It was led by Rev. Cecil Williams, a black minister who had come to the Tenderloin from the Civil Rights struggle in the South, and he brought with him the idea of organizing the transwomen for their rights. He helped organize a group of LGBT youth, many of them homeless, into an organization known as Vanguard. Vanguard met regularly at Compton’s, much to the management’s frustration. As a result of harassment from the staff at Compton’s, Vanguard organized an unsuccessful picket of the Cafeteria on July 18th, 1966, to express their anger and frustration. The picket failed, but it was one of the first examples of the LGBT community actively conducting a protest.
On a weekend in August of 1966, just a few weeks after the failed picket, the management of Compton’s called the police because the queens were making a scene. One of the policemen attempted to arrest one of the queens (whether a drag queen or a transwoman is unclear—she’s never been identified), but she threw a cup of coffee in his face. That touched off a riot. The transwomen and drags began fighting back, throwing cutlery and sugar shakers at the officers, flipping over tables, and smashing the glass doors and windows of the Cafeteria. The queens used their handbags as weapons as well.
The police retreated to the sidewalk and called for back-up. But about 60 patrons of the Cafeteria poured outside and continued the fight, brawling with the officers who showed up and tried to detain the women in a paddy wagon. A police squad car had all its windows smashed, and a nearby newsstand was lit on fire. A large number of the women wound up being taken to jail.
The next night, there was another picket mounted against the Cafeteria, which had replaced its doors and windows and re-opened. The management refused to admit the queens. As the protest escalated, the windows of the Cafeteria were smashed again, but the second night of the riot appears to have been smaller in scale than the first night. It’s unclear to what extent the riot was orchestrated by Vanguard and to what extent it was simply a spontaneous uprising of frustrated transwomen, drags, and street youth.
While Vanguard had orchestrated one protest prior to the riot, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in many ways marks the start of genuine organizing for the Bay Area trans community, which began to form some degree of genuine institutional awareness after the riot. It has been called the first act of LGBT resistance to police violence in American history although the 1959 Cooper Do-Nuts Riot in Los Angeles probably deserves that honor. (The 1961 Black Nite Brawl in Milwaukee also occurred prior to Compton’s, although that was a fight between patrons of a gay bar and civilians, not police.)
Although Vanguard broke up in 1967, a network of organizations and concerned individuals had begun to address the needs of the trans community and in 1968 the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first-ever peer-run support group for trans people was established. The SF police department began to look at trans people as citizens rather than criminals and gradually reduced their harassment of the queens. They appointed Officer Elliot Blackstone as a liaison with the gay and trans community. As a result, transwomen were able to begin living more openly and move about the city with less fear of harassment.
So if the Compton’s Riot happened in 1966, why is it that Pride commemorates the more famous Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 instead? The Compton’s Riot was largely forgotten until the mid-1990s, when Susan Stryker, a trans historian, ran across an article about it in a 1970s-era gay newspaper. As she conducted research, she discovered that the local newspapers had not reported on the riot because it was comparatively small, perhaps about 50-60 rioters. The police records from the 1960s no longer survive, making oral history the only route for learning about it. Because transwomen were so vulnerable to violence and because San Francisco was an epicenter of the AIDS Crisis, many of the participants in the riot were already dead by the time Stryker began researching it. (One of the most-commonly cited sources about the riot in online articles is Felicia Elizondo, who wasn’t actually in San Francisco when the riot occurred, only returning to the city the year after the riot happened.)
In contrast, the New York LGBT community made a point of actively commemorating the Stonewall Riots the next year; Craig Rodwell, an early activist realized that there was political value in conducting a parade in 1970 to memorialize the riots. Additionally, there are numerous surviving documents about the riot, including newspaper accounts and police records. Rodwell, who knew a number of journalists, actively encouraged them to cover the later nights of the riot, thereby raising its profile significantly. In other words, activists like Rodwell recognized the value of Stonewall as a moment to build a movement around, whereas no one in San Francisco saw the Compton’s Cafeteria incident that way. That’s why Pride events take place primarily in June instead of August.
The Riot in Tales of the City
Episode 8 is a flashback in which Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) recounts her early experiences in San Francisco. She arrives in 1965 as a middle-aged transwoman (played wonderfully by Jen Richards) and quickly finds a job in the City Lights bookstore. She is first confronted by and then becomes friends with Ysela (Daniela Vega), a young Latina transwoman who teaches Anna the rules of life in a transphobic city and helps Anna begin to recognize her passing privilege. As Ysela explains, she wants to know Anna’s secrets because she realizes that passing effectively is a survival skill; San Francisco queens die young. But Anna passes easily; straight people perceive her as a woman and not as a transvestite. So she doesn’t realize that an act as simple as shopping for a new scarf can be challenging because businesses routinely throw out queens who can’t pass. Ysela shows Anna how most transwomen have to resort to prostitution and explains how the police harass the queens and extort money from them. She emphasizes that interacting with straight men is dangerous because they are liable to turn violent.
But the romantic and naïve Anna meets Tommy (Luke Kirby) and strikes up a romance with him. Then she’s stunned to discover that Tommy is a police officer. Fearful of what that could mean, she breaks things off with him, but he persists in courting her despite realizing that she’s a transwoman and promises to rescue her and give her the life of heterosexual romance and respectability that she dreams of. Tommy successfully presents Anna to his co-workers as his girlfriend and moves her into his apartment. But the price of this is Anna severing contact with the queens she’s come to see as her friends.
Then one night in August, the police harass Ysela and other queens at Compton’s, and Ysela throws her coffee in a policeman’s face. As the riot escalates, an off-duty Tommy is called in, and he warns Anna not to leave the apartment. But Anna wants to help and protect her friends, so she hurries down to Compton’s, where she is promptly arrested with the other queens. Tommy bails her out, but he is threatened with firing because being in a relationship with a transwoman means that he’s no longer seen as straight. He tearfully breaks up with Anna but gives her a parting gift, a stash of money that he’s been saving up to pay for her genital conversion surgery. Anna protests that she can’t accept the money because it was extorted from her friends, but Tommy insists that this is her only chance to escape the harsh life ahead of her. Anna chooses to use the money to purchase 28 Barbary Lane and then go to Denmark for her surgery.
The whole episode beautifully explores the struggles transwomen experienced in the 1960s, and for me it’s the best part of the whole season. It captures the moment of pre-Stonewall America in both its potential and its harshness and it shines a spotlight on a segment of the LGBT community that is only just now beginning to be understood by wider society. It introduces the viewer to the Compton’s story in a way that makes it clear why the riot happened, although it leaves out Vanguard and the preceding picket, preferring to concentrate on the human story instead of the political one. This is Anna’s story, so the episode doesn’t position the riot as the seminal moment in trans history that it is.
And yet as wonderful as episode 8 is, it doesn’t quite work for me. It doesn’t really fit in with Anna Madrigal’s character as we know it from earlier seasons of the show. In the first three seasons, Anna is very much a care-free Bohemian hedonist, although she worries about revealing her “secret” to the characters in the first two seasons. But episode 8 frames Anna’s story as involving a growing awareness of her passing privilege and the violent consequences for those who don’t have it. At the end of the episode she makes the choice to take the tainted money and have her operation. If Anna has learned to recognize her passing privilege, why is still fearful about outing herself to her Bohemian tenants and worldly lover in season 1? Why has she apparently severed all her ties to her former trans friends if she’s had her awakening? Why isn’t she renting the rooms at 28 Barbary Lane to them so they don’t have to live in the Tenderloin? And if Anna is so venal that she would accept what the show explicitly frames as blood money, how has she become the care-free woman of season 1 while still harboring the guilt for the choice she’s made? And if she’s cut herself off from the trans community, how did she build Barbary Lane in the “legendary” queer space it’s become in the Netflix season without addressing her past actions?
It also feels rather pat that Tommy has the money to pay for Anna’s surgery. It’s a LOT of money, stacks and stacks of bills. Tommy seems to be fairly young, in his late 20s. In order for him to have extorted that much money from the queens during his short career, he has to have been bleeding them dry every chance he gets, which just seems implausible, especially since he and Anna can’t have been dating for more than a year at most.
It feels very much as if the writers of the Netflix season took a look at Maupin’s oeuvre and noticed that Anna is the only trans character and decided to correct Maupin’s omission by revealing that Anna is actually estranged from the whole trans community because of a corrupt decision she made in the 1960s. In other words, instead of organically integrating the new season with the facts and tone of the previous seasons, the writers chose to critique the previous seasons by suggesting that the tone of the earlier series was rooted in privilege instead of seeing it as a response to the oppression of the gay community in the 1970s. The original Anna enabled her tenants to discover and live their authentic lives, so making Anna a victimizer of her own community who must atone for her sins is a fundamental betrayal of her essential character. Instead of simply continuing the story told in Tales of the City, Lauren Morelli and her writing room have re-interpreted the story for a new generation at the expense of the original. It seems that Anna isn’t the only one who victimized her community.
Want to Know More?
The current season of Tales of the Cityis available on Netflix. The first season(the 1993) is available through Amazon. The second and third seasons can be found on Youtube. The novels are delightful and justly loved by many readers. You can get the first three collected as 28 Barbary Lane.
There isn’t much written on the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot beyond internet articles. The best thing is Screaming Queens, a 2005 documentary made by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman. You can find it here, at the bottom of the page. It’s definitely worth watching.