The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City are often cited as the beginning of the LGBT rights movement. Indeed, the site of the Stonewall Inn is a National Historic Landmark. But there were events even earlier that fed into the urge for gay and gender-nonconforming people to stand up to the abuse and harassment that was so common. In San Francisco, the Tenderloin District was the area that was most welcoming to gays, drag queens, and transgender people, although “welcoming” was a relative term. Trans activist Felicia “Flames” Elizondo tells about about those days.
In the thick of the Tenderloin at 101 Turk Street, Compton’s Cafeteria became a popular hangout spot for the neighborhood’s queer residents, particularly in the late hours of the night when sex work was most active. “It was open 24 hours a day, and you could see everybody you knew and parade your fashion or your boyfriend around,” Elizondo says. “It was our social gathering place at that time.”
Around the same time, a nearby section of Polk Street was transforming into a queer commercial corridor, though mostly aimed at middle-class gay men. In 1962, a group of bar owners in the area formed the Tavern Guild—the country’s first gay business association—to work against harassment and protect their businesses from unwarranted police closures. Yet many of these same bars closed their doors to transgender or gender-nonconforming customers. “None of the gay bars allowed us in,” says Elizondo. “The mixed bars did, like the Body Shot, the Rendezvous, the Frolic Room, the 181, and Gene Compton’s Cafeteria. But the rest of the bars, they wouldn’t allow queens in if we looked like sissies.”
One of Elizondo’s earliest friends in the neighborhood, Ciro, was a self-proclaimed hair fairy, meaning he wore his hair long, rather than relying on wigs. “Ciro told us he was a ‘hair fairy’ because it was against the law to dress like a girl,” she says, though he showed Elizondo how to do makeup, rat her hair, and pick out the latest angora sweaters and skin-tight pants. “There were men who performed as female impersonators and dressed like women, but they had to go into the club looking like a boy and come out as a boy, or they’d be arrested.”
The riot at Compton’s in 1966, fifty years ago this month, was just one of several incidents in San Francisco that focused attention on the Tenderloin, but it was still decades before gays, transgender individuals, and other factions joined together to add weight and numbers to the movement. Collectors Weekly looks at transgender history and the various gender-nonconforming folks who lived through those days in San Francisco before and after the 1966 riot.