“Compton’s Cafeteria Riot” highlights transgender activism, harassment in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — This was the scene at the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot– hailed as the beginning of transgender activism in San Francisco.


Today, it’s also the subject of an interactive theater piece commemorating the lives of the trans women who stood up against police harassment.


“These characters, most of them were born, they lived, they died, and they never got the message that they were good, that they were okay. We want to bring that to them,” said writer Donna Personna. “By doing this, their lives were dark and sad perhaps, have a meaning and a purpose.”

This is where it all began — the site of what used to be Compton’s Cafeteria here in the Tenderloin District, where more than 50 years ago, a riot took place that would not only later serve as inspiration for a sold-out play, but the start of transgender activism in San Francisco and beyond.


While Compton’s Cafeteria riot took place 3 years before the historic Stonewall riots in New York City, the event has only gained significant attention in recent years, in part due to the Tenderloin Museum, which is bringing the story back to life via a new play.


Trans Pinay actress Jaylyn Abergas plays an Asian American character in the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, and draws on her Filipino background as a source of inspiration.


“When I spoke to the director, I wanted to bring a more Filipino culture to it because I know that there’s many Filipinos in San Francisco, and there’s such a strong community in the Tenderloin and in the SOMA district, so I wanted to bring some more essence to the character.”


While the actual riot took place decades ago, Abergas says the issues the Compton’s Cafeteria riot champions are still relevant to this day.

“People are stil mistreated, trans community is still being mistreteated, being harassed by cops, and killed on the street. We’re killed all the time. So, it’s really important to bring awareness to that, and bringing this story up that happened 50 years ago helped to do that.”

The play has drawn rave reviews, consistently selling out its shows to audience members eager to see a part of LGBT history come to life.


“Everybody loves it, and so many different communities of people like it, and particularly to hear feedback from the trans community has meant a lot to us,” said museum director Katie Conry.


“It’s a reminder of who we are, who weve been, and who were going to be and what were capable of when we decide to get together and fight for what we believe in,” said an audience member.


Due to popular demand, Compton’s Cafeteria Riot has added additional dates through April and May at the New Village Cafe.


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  • donna personna
    22 March 2018 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    Thank you much for covering this play and story.we want to tell stories of marginalize communities.