Incident in the Tenderloin, 1966

To Susan Stryker

(This essay has a constraint. Five word sentences or fewer.)

It was a hot night. A hot night in August. The specific date is unknown. It belongs to history now. Gene Compton’s cafe was full. Meaning fifty to sixty people. The food was cheap. It was open all night. It was in the Tenderloin. Every big city has one. Where queens, hustlers, pimps gathered. Actually they were contained. The police kept the arrangement. For a cut of business. (“The fleshly needs of men.”) The queens needed cheap housing. The hotels lined Turk street. Many were disowned homeless girls. They were Chicanas. They were Chinese. They were black. All were dirt poor. Some looked for johns. Others were maids. Their purses were heavy. (Empty bottles of Southern Comfort. Should the need arise.) They went to Compton’s nightly. They could sober up there. (Coffee, eggs and toast, $2.) They checked on each other. That they were still breathing. The police were vigilant. No queen left the tenderloin. But there was mutual understanding. Until the war that is. Lots of boys came through the bay. The queens liked the business. But America needed clean boys. So the pigs got meaner. “Female impersonation” was a crime. The cops came in nightly. They’d point and say, “You.” Queens thrown in paddy wagons. Nickel rides through San Francisco. A long drive to jail. Taken to men’s prisons, naturally. They were stripped naked, paraded. The cops shaved their heads. Any resisters were given solitary. (“At least it’s not Chicago.” A common sentiment.) Such was the climate tonight. Compton’s called them this time. Some screaming queens making trouble. Talking too much, buying little. Two officers came in. The nightsticks came out. (“Clubs are trump.” A popular police slogan.) One jabbed a queen’s shoulder. “Let’s go.” She blew him off. The cop grabbed her forearm. Tonight she wasn’t having it. She had some coffee left. The cup flew across. Liquid flung on his face. He staggered into his partner. A sissy boy threw his. Volleys of plates struck them. They ducked and crouched. They retreated backward. Cream and syrup-spotted uniforms. A sugar bowl went flying. It smashed the plate-glass windows. The cops were dumbfounded. This was certainly not SOP. The trannies never fought back. They called for backup. The patrons flooded out. Girls took off their stilettos. Heels sank into backsides. Heavy purses found their targets. Bottles cracked over skulls. The corner newsstand caught fire. Another cop car arrived. It was smashed up. Many queens went to jail. But the community tasted freedom. Compton’s started closing at midnight. They replaced their plate-glass windows. They got smashed again. Rioting can get the goods. Police harassment subsided. Queens could walk in daylight. One notable pig took initiative. He served as a liaison. (He lost his job. Narcotics were planted on him.) It benefited all queer people. Or “homophiles,” as they said.

Well, folks, that’s the story. A trans riot before Stonewall. There were many of them.

New York, February 2016.

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