Take a moment and remember the riots, Compton’s Cafe, and the trans women, drag queens, butch lesbians and leatherpeople who weren’t afraid to fight back

Hardy Haberman  Flagging Left

As we celebrate this year’s National Gay Pride Month, we will talk a lot about the Stonewall Riot back in 1969 and the birth of the Gay Pride movement.

The Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, had no liquor license and no running water behind the bar. What it did have was a dance floor and a tolerance for trans women — and that made it a popular place.

Police regularly shook down patrons, forcing them to be inspected to see if they were men or women. Those who were men dressed as women were arrested and the bar’s liquor was seized.

This was a regular occurrence at the place — until one night, things went wrong.

Followers of the movement will correctly give some of the credit for the original rebellion to the feisty trans woman who bashed an arresting policeman over the head to the delight of the crowd.

Another provocation came from a very butch lesbian who complained that the handcuffs were too tight. When police clubbed her, the gathering crown outside reacted. The details are sketchy, but it set off several nights of rioting in the neighborhood — and the term “gay power” was born.

What gets forgotten in the history of the LGBT rights movement is a similar event that happened three years earlier in San Francisco.

Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco was open 24 hours, and late nights it became a place where transgender folk gathered.
At that time crossdressing was illegal and was not welcomed in gay bars in the city. One hot night in August, a group of these patrons got a bit rowdy, and management at Gene Compton’s called the police.

When the cops arrived, they assumed the troublemakers would cooperate and be easy to handle. That was not the case. As a policeman began roughing up one trans woman, she threw coffee in his face. That was all it took to push the crowd to the boiling point.

Chairs were thrown through the windows and a riot began in full force.

The following night, the trans women and gay men returned to picket the business. Their signs bore colorful slogans like, “DRAG is out in the OPEN,” and their boisterous and angry protest soon turned violent again. The newly installed plate glass windows were smashed again.

The riots at Compton’s were a watermark in transgender rights in San Francisco, yet they remain mostly a footnote to the riots three years later at Stonewall. I note this because I think transgender folks’ contributions to the LGBT movement are often overlooked. Though they probably called themselves “drag queens” or “hair fairies” rather than transgender, their place in our history should not be marginalized.

The “T” sometimes seems tacked on to the end of the list of who we are, but without the vitality and stubbornness of those pioneering drag queens, we might still be hiding in the shadows.

I suspect they felt that because of who they were and how they presented themselves they had less to lose than the gay men and lesbians who could easily assimilate into the society and become invisible. I suspect we will never know the full story, but it is worth thinking about.

The other forgotten subculture that actively pushed the movement forward at Stonewall in particular were people we now call leathermen and leatherwomen. A good friend of mine, a well-respected leatherwoman, tells her story of how her friends recruited her for the second night of the riots at Stonewall and they showed up on their motorcycles to take a stand.

At this time of year, even though in Dallas we celebrate LGBT Pride in September, it’s a good thing to look back and remember that we didn’t get here by ourselves.

We got here by standing on the shoulders of rowdy groups of outcasts who had reached a tipping point. They were not content to go along with the status quo, and they stood up — in pumps and heels and wigs and boots and motorcycle jackets — and said, “Enough!”

And that is something we can all take pride in.

Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. His blog is at http://dungeondiary.blogspot.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 18, 2010.