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It’s time to revive militant legacy of LGBT movement

Published Jul 3, 2006 3:27 PM

This year’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Pride celebration was in many ways dedicated to the Compton’s Cafe teria Rebel lion of 1966, a little-known battle against police brutality and LGBT oppression that took place here three years before New York City’s Stonewall Rebellion. However, trans and queer activists had to work hard to ensure that the real heroes and struggles of the day were commemorated.

Workers World banner at San Francisco LBGT Pride 2006.
WW Photo: Booh Edouardo

The Compton’s Cafeteria Rebellion was set off in August 1966 after a police sweep of the Tenderloin and harassment of Latina, Asian, Black and white trans people, at that time self-identified as drag queens, in Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, a popular eating place.

When a cop harassed and tried to arrest one of the drag queens, outraged transgender women, butch lesbians, gay men and others in the cafeteria fought back. According to the 1972 Official Voice of the Christopher Street West Parade Committee, “A police car had every window broken, a newspaper shack outside the cafeteria was burned to the ground, and general havoc was raised that night in the Tenderloin.”

It was a night of struggle that transformed the early LGBT community in this city and gave rise to the early gay liberation movement. And it is a history that has been buried for too long.

On June 22, members of the transgender community, including veterans of the rebellion, gathered at the site of the old Compton’s Cafeteria to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the rebellion. A plaque placed in the pavement in front of the cafeteria site was unveiled. It reads in part, “Here marks the site of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria where a riot took place . . . when transgender women and gay men stood up for their rights and fought against police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination.”

One of the people honored at this plaque dedication, as well as throughout the weekend, was retired San Francisco Police Sergeant Elliot Blackstone, who served as police liaison to the LGBT community during the 1960s and 1970s. Blackstone was perhaps too effective in his friendship and support of LGBT liberation, because in 1972 he was framed on phony charges and eventually forced to retire from the police force. Unfor tunately, in honoring Blackstone—an anomaly in an otherwise bigoted and anti-gay police force—the SFPD felt welcome to send its top brass to the commemoration. Their presence and statements, including a statement by Police Chief Heather Fong, blurred and marred the true meaning of the day.

The next speaker after the police was Leslie Feinberg, a well-known transgender author and activist and a managing editor of Workers World newspaper. Surrounded by police brass, Feinberg raised her clenched fist and said: “The struggle against racism, police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination continues today. I express my deep solidarity with the family and community of Asa Sullivan, gunned down by cops here on June 6, and other victims of racist police violence.” She also demanded an end to the gentrification and destruction of the BayView-Hunters Point African American community by redevelopers and the city government.

Feinberg also called for a mobilization to pressure New York City Michael Bloomberg’s administration and the New York Police Department to stop denying trans and gender-non-conforming people of color the right to march down Eighth Avenue on June 23.

The second annual Transgender rights march here on June 23 brought out several thousand transgender, transsexual, intersex and gender-variant people. While Feinberg was again a featured speaker at the rally, District Attorney Kamala Harris and County Supervisor Bevan Dufty also spoke. TIP, a transgender prisoners’ rights group, marched into the crowd with picket signs protesting police brutality against the transgender community and the continued use of “three strikes” sentences in San Francisco.

A Workers World contingent carrying a banner reading, “Stonewall Means Fight Back Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Oppression,” was well received during the march that began at Dolores Park and ended at the Civic Center.

The Dyke March on June 23 was the only event that did not host any police or city officials. Rally speakers included activists from the queer Arab and South Asian communities, as well as anti-Zionist Jewish lesbians. Dyke March organizers received threats and complaints from a local Jewish shopkeeper, but refused to allow any pro-Israel speakers. Laura White horn, an anti-imperialist former prisoner, challenged everyone there to fight for the freedom of all political prisoners and to join the anti-war struggle. Tens of thousands of lesbians, led by Dykes on Bikes, marched through San Francisco that night.

On June 25, while hundreds of thousands of LGBT people from all over California and the country marched through San Francisco, members of several organizations—including the radical activist group LAGAI, QUIT (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism), and the San Francisco Branch of Workers World Party—carried out an action at the Civic Center to draw attention to the struggle of the Palestinian people for liberation and the call for a boycott of World Pride 2006 in Jerusalem.

QUIT members presented a parody of the company Estee Lauder, one of this year’s LGBT Pride financial backers and a major supporter of illegal Zionist settlements in Palestine. Coining the name “Estee Slaughter,” the group handed out mock “Realityfold TM”sleep masks exposing Estee Lauder’s role in supporting Israel, and called for the boycott of World LGBT Pride, which will be held in Jerusalem in August. Their action was so effective that the SFPD sent its cops to stop the distribution.

QUIT members and their supporters continued handing out the anti-occupation masks until they were all distributed. The Workers World Party banner—“No Pride In Occupation, Free Palestine, U.S. Out of Iraq”—served as a backdrop for the protest and received many supportive comments throughout the afternoon. Attempts by the police and parade monitors to isolate this protest in a so-called “free speech zone” of the rally area were ignored. “Do you think anyone at Stonewall paid for a permit?” one QUIT activist asked the event staff.

Despite attempts by City Hall and some Pride organizers to water down this year’s activities, words of militancy and liberation were still heard from the podium. Leslie Feinberg reminded the crowd about the need for solidarity. Laura Whitehorn directly followed with a strong message of struggle. She said the prisons are filled with revolutionary political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier and Marilyn Buck. “It’s time to free all of the political prisoners,” she said. Actor Danny Glover spoke on workers’ rights.

In a statement written for this year’s Pride Guide, Joey Cain, president of San Francisco LGBT Pride, said: “Work to liberate our people and extend the fields of freedom in all the regions of the human heart, mind and body. Justice, equality, a place to live, health care and individual dignity are human rights, not ‘market driven’ privileges.”

The police and City Hall and their supporters tried once again to blur the lines of struggle—but the spirit and militancy of the Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria rebellions were clearly present throughout the weekend’s LGBT Pride activities.