ABC7 archival film sheds light on earliest known 'gay liberation' uprising in US

ABC7 archive gives first video evidence of the LGBTQ community's fight for equality before, after the Compton Cafeteria Uprising

Wednesday, October 18, 2023
ABC7 film shows pre-Stonewall LGBTQ+ protests in San Francisco
Rare ABC7 film shows the nation's earliest known "gay liberation" organization protesting for LGBTQ+ rights in San Francisco in 1966.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- ABC7 celebrates LGBTQ+ History Month with an amazing find from our film archive -- rare film showing the nation's earliest known "gay liberation" organization protesting in San Francisco.

A striking find in itself, historians now say the video may document the period of time before and after a riot in San Francisco that predated the Stonewall Uprising in New York.

At Turk and Taylor Streets in San Francisco is a monument to a little-known piece of LGBTQ+ history. On a summer night in 1966, a group of LGBTQ+ people rioted at Compton's Cafeteria.

Even the exact date of the riot remains a mystery. Witnesses put the riots in August, three years before bar patrons rose up against police raids at the Stonewall Inn, New York, igniting the modern gay rights movement.

"That's one of the things that I find most fascinating about it - it was obviously a large-scale event - but it was almost forgotten. Like, why do you remember Stonewall, but you don't remember Compton's?" said historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker.

Stryker's documentary "Screaming Queens" tells the story of what likely happened that night, when a group of transgender and gay men clashed with police in a riot that spilled out into the streets.

"I have no doubt that the riot happened, much as was described and the earliest records of it based on the whole preponderance of evidence that we've been able to put together to tell that story," said Stryker.

VIDEO: Rare video of LGBT group, Stonewall participant interview | Watch Our America: Pride In History III

"Our America: Pride in History III" celebrates the amazing stories of perseverance as the LGBTQ+ community rose up on a path of greater acceptance.

Tensions were rising in this pocket of the Tenderloin at the time and this film discovered in the ABC7 News archives provides the first video evidence of the community's fight for equality before and after the uprising at Compton Cafeteria, in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. The video shows people protesting outside of the restaurant in July.

"It seems like the riot took place in the weeks after that picket," said Stryker.

The picketers were from a group called Vanguard formed in 1966, to protest the treatment of what we now call LGBT+ people in the Tenderloin.

Historians Joseph Plaster has written extensively about Vanguard. It is widely considered to be the first "gay liberation" organization in the United States.

"It was made up of a lot of people who were shunned by mainstream middle-class society, and that included queer kids who were thrown out of their homes. It included hair fairies and under other gender non-normative people, but it also included straight identified queer youth who were surviving on the streets and engaging in sex work," said Plaster.

MORE: SF's D'Arcy Drollinger included in Out's most impactful, influential LGBTQ+ people of 2023

He added, "Because they were militant, they had an agenda of economic justice and sexual liberation and they were forcefully speaking out for what we call gay rights."

The film shows Jean-Paul Marat, one of the leaders of Vanguard, in the days before the riot is believed to have happened.

"Because we go to bed with men or take dope or something like that, does not mean we are inhuman and have no feelings," said Marat.

"The entire economy in this district revolved around sex work. A lot of the businesses, including Compton's Cafeteria, benefited financially from the trade in sex and the Tenderloin," said Plaster.

Hoping to cut down on the rampant vice in the Tenderloin, city leaders ordered a crackdown on the illicit activities in the area.

One month before the riots are believed to have happened, the coffee shop began cracking down on the young people who would hang-out late night at its tables.

"I believe they just want us out because they do not think that we in their society. Their part of society. They do not realize that if it was not for the youth in the tenderloin, their business would probably collapse. REPORTER: Why do you say that? The Tenderloin is made up mainly of youth between the ages of 12 and 24 and these people are the people who give them most of their money," said Marat.

The White Horse Bar celebrates its 90-year LGBTQIA+ legacy

The White Horse Bar celebrates its LGBTQ+ legacy.

The public protests divided some in the gay and lesbian community. The older, more organized groups weren't happy with the new young activist's public protests.

An ABC7 News reporter asked at the time, "Is there a split in the gay world about what these people are doing picketing Compton's?"

An older activist said, "I believe so yes."

The reporter asked, "In what way?"

"Well, there's there some somebody with one way. I mean, they like to dress clean and leave, act in the way with makeup and such as this. And there's the average person or is it around the gay life doesn't feel this way.

The reporter asked, "So they're giving you a bad name?"

"In other words, I believe that they give everybody a bad name," said the older activist.

Sometime in the weeks after those protests outside Compton's Cafeteria, a riot erupted inside the restaurant.

"There is no TV footage. There was no newspaper coverage of it. And yet we have eyewitnesses to the event who whose testimony all agrees with each other. We have written records, written several years after the fact that we're saying like, hey, you know, remember when that thing happened at the corner of Turk and Taylor?" said Stryker.

Even the police records from the night have vanished.

But Vanguard did not.

ABC7 News reporter Dick Carlson caught up with the group a couple weeks after the protest. "On Market Street, where he's had its variety of pushes. But last night, a different type took to the streets. A group called Vanguard is trying to clean up the trash," said Carlson.

In September, Vanguard pushed forward publicly calling for a cleaning of the streets to make the Tenderloin safe for the people who call it home.

Carlson asked the groups spokesperson Mark Forrester about the action on the street, "How do you hope to accomplish this change, Mark?"

Forrester said, "Well, the first thing is to symbolic demonstrations that will convince the people in San Francisco that there's a terrible problem here that will have to be dealt with and dealt with immediately. Then secondly, we are trying to recruit interest in the community for the development of a coffeehouse in the Tenderloin to get these kids off the street and in a situation where other professional persons can relate to them and provide them some help and assistance for their problems."

"Are these demonstrations going to continue?" asked Carlson.

"They will continue until such time. The city of San Francisco recognizes its responsibilities to all its citizens, just not just the middle-class people in the sunset, shall we say," said Forrester.

Tension was clearly still in the air. When reporter Dick Carlson tried to get a comment from the protestors sweeping the street he was interrupted and pushed out the way. Vanguard disbanded after about two years, but the legacy of their actions - caught on film decades ago - are now helping to fill in the timeline of LGBTQ+ history.

"So it seems like when you look at the film footage of the of the picket and you look at the film footage of people on Market Street, it seems like there like two points on a story where the riot would fit right in the middle of it. We just don't have the the smoking gun, you know, documentation of the riot itself," said Stryker.

"I mean, the videos are incredible. This is the only footage, video footage I'm aware of of the pickets in front of Compton's cafeteria. The only video footage that I'm aware of of these street sweep action. So in that way, they contribute to the historical record and in a really dynamic way.," said Plaster.

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live