Relive The 1966 Riot At Compton’s Cafeteria In A New Interactive Show

Three years before Stonewall, queens, gays and trans women protested discrimination in San Francisco.

It’s easy to buy the narrative that the gay rights movement began sui generes on the last Sunday in June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. But the reality is the fight for equality had been brewing for years, and in some cases exploded into action:

Located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was popular with gay youth, drag queens, trans women and local sex workers. In August 1966, a server called the SFPD some time around 1am after customers became unruly. When a police officer attempted to arrest one trans woman, she threw a cup of hot coffee in his face.

Within minutes, dishes were were flying, windows were being broken, and a nearby newsstand was burned down.
 

The next night, gays, lesbians, hustlers and trans people picketed Compton’s—but unlike Stonewall, the city of San Francisco responded by developing a network of inclusive social, mental-health and medical services, leading to the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit in 1968.

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Now, more than a half-century later, producers have recreated that momentous event in an interactive show a stone’s throw from where it took place. Mark Nassar and Katie Conry immersive The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot: The Play in the Tenderloin’s New Village Cafe includes a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and pancakes with the live performance. A critical and box office success, the show has been extended into May.

“We wanted to give the audience a suggestion of really being there, in hopes it would help create empathy for the characters and help audience members identify with the queer liberation movement.” Conry, director of the Tenderloin museum, told Eater SF.

Director AeJay Mitchell added that they wanted to underscore the importance of trans women in LGBT history. “Trans women have paved the way for queer resilience.”

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery