With 50th Anniversary Approaching, Trans Activist Seeks Recognition For Compton's Riots

In 1966, about three years before New York's famous Stonewall riots, a lesser-known and equally important riot occurred. At a restaurant in the Tenderloin called Compton's Cafeteria, a group of transgender people fought back against repeated police harassment.

This August will mark the 50th anniversary of the Compton's riots, whose exact date is not known, due to a media blackout and the loss of police records from the era. One of the transwomen who participated, Felicia Elizondo, is hoping to help the movement get its due. 

"I wish I could have gotten SF City Hall to sponsor a big celebration, but we don't have much support at City Hall," Elizondo, now close to 70 and a longtime HIV survivor, told us. She started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for an event, but didn't receive any donations. 

For many years, transgender people were excluded from the civil rights movement for gay men and lesbians, and while the movement is now headed in a more positive direction, Elizondo thinks some things haven't changed. "When gays want something, it gets done," she said. "Because [transgender people] have no money and no true leaders, we have no one to really represent us at City Hall."

Compton's Cafeteria, 1960s. (Source unknown)

As Hoodline recounted last summer, Gene Compton's Cafeteria was a popular "greasy spoon" diner in the Tenderloin that became a social gathering spot for the neighborhood's growing trans community during the mid-1960s. (It was located at 101 Taylor, at Turk, where an apartment building now stands.) 

Back then, times were difficult. Cross-dressing was illegal, and transgender people weren't even welcome at gay bars. Many transwomen of the period were forced into prostitution because they were locked out of the job market. They dealt with constant harassment and violence from their neighbors and from the police—there were countless incidents in which transgender people were falsely arrested for prostitution just for walking down the street, or for stopping at Compton's for a cup of coffee.

Compton's was "the only place that we could get together, and gossip, and talk about whatever was happening with each other," Elizondo said. "It was the only place that we could come in and feel safe. A lot of kids came to start a new life and a new identity, away from the terrible things that were happening to us. We were all together and it was OK."

Despite increasing acceptance of transgender people in society, Elizondo believes many have no awareness of their history. "The youth of today should know why they have it so good, and who were the people that made it happen," she said. "We had the balls to put our lives on the line. We were harassed, beaten up, murdered, raped, and thrown in jail just to be who we were meant to be."

While it hasn't acted on Elizondo's hopes of hosting a celebration this August, the city has attempted to honor the legacy of Compton's in other ways. In 2006, on the 40th anniversary of the riots, it installed a plaque at Turk and Taylor commemorating the event. And on April 26th, District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim introduced a resolution to the Board of Supervisors that would rename the 100 block of Taylor Street as Gene Compton's Cafeteria Way. Supervisors Scott Wiener and David Campos are co-sponsoring the resolution; Kim did not respond to our request for comment.

Elizondo is excited about the possible street renaming. "I wanted to add Gene Compton's Cafeteria Way to Taylor Street," she said. "To honor the countless numbers of gay people that came to the Tenderloin when nobody wanted them."

Felicia Elizondo. (Photo: Courtesy of Felicia Elizondo)

In the years since the Compton's riots, Elizondo has had a full life. She often performed at local gay clubs under the name Felicia Flames, and in recent decades, she's thrown herself into activism, working with organizations such as PAWSShanti and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. She's also served as a Grand Marshal at SF Pride.

While there may not be an official celebration to commemorate the Compton's riot, its participants will be honored at this month's fifth annual Howard Grayson LGBT Elder Life Conference, which will be held at the Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin. 

For her part, Elizondo just wants people to know that no one "chooses" to be transgender any more than someone "chooses" to be gay. "We are who we are supposed to be," she explains. "We are human beings. We have hearts and feelings. We are loving, kind and caring. We are like everyone else out there. Just a little different because we were born in the wrong body, and we all want to correct that."

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