Column: The Role Of The Trans Community In Our Fight For Civil Rights

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Photo Via The Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition

Arguably the start of the LGBT rights movement began with the Stonewall Riots in June 1969. However, there was a lot happening prior to Stonewall that paved the way for the events there to occur.

One of the lesser-known riots was the Compton Cafeteria Riots 3 years before Stonewall in August 1966 in San Francisco. Transgender women, drag queens, and to some extent the larger LGB community, were targeted, harassed, and abused by police in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco for years.

This particular cafeteria was one of the few places trans women and drag queens could safely congregate after long nights trying to survive as they weren’t welcome at gay bars because of transphobia. Management and staff were tired of the trans women and drag queens hanging out in their restaurant because they felt they were loitering and causing them to lose more desirable customers.

In order to deter them from coming back management frequently called police on them who could arrest the queens and trans women for “female impersonation” since cross-dressing was illegal in San Francisco until 1974.

One night in August 1966 (the exact date is unknown because the riot wasn’t covered by newspapers and the police records no longer exist), the staff at Compton’s Cafeteria called the police when some trans customers became raucous. While an officer was attempting to arrest a trans woman, she threw her coffee in his face.

The cafeteria erupted - windows were smashed, chairs overturned, the windows of the police car outside were broken - and dozens of people were arrested. The next night more members of the LGBT community joined in a picket of the cafeteria which wouldn’t allow trans people back in.

Then 3 years later came the Stonewall Riots which set off the larger LGBT rights movement. Sylvia Rivera, a 17 year old drag queen at the time, is cited as one of the first bystanders to throw a bottle on the night of the riots. While it was “street kids,” trans women, particularly trans women of color, and drag queens who started the LGBT rights movement, the movement was largely co-opted by cisgender gay white men, while people of color and women were pushed to the margins.

Trans women and drag queens weren’t welcome in the feminist movement because, as feminist activist Jean O’Leary claimed at a 1973 Stonewall rally, drag queens made fun of women for entertainment value and profit. And they weren’t welcome in the LGBT rights movement either.

After Stonewall, Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists’ Alliance were formed. The GLF allowed trans people to participate but was not inclusive of them and the GAA specifically excluded trans people. In response, transgender communities formed their own organizations like STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), Queen’s Liberation Front, and the Transsexual Activist Organization. STAR was founded in 1970 by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha “Pay it No Mind” Johnson, two trans women of color.

When the LGBT rights movement was young, many people didn’t want trans women and drag queens to be part of the movement because they were trying to be seen as respectable members of society and drag queens and trans women didn’t fit that look. Outcasted from their own community, they did what they could to help each other.

Well now it’s finally our turn - trans people are being attacked again, this time from the Trump administration who is trying to erase our existence. It’s time the larger LGB community comes together for their trans brothers and sisters.

We helped get your movement off the ground and now it’s your turn to help us. We can’t win this fight alone.


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