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Before the iconic Stonewall Inn uprising in 1969, there was another pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ history that unfolded at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. It was a hot summer night in 1966 when a riot broke out at the diner.
It all started when a police officer grabbed a patron, who retaliated by throwing a cup of coffee in his face. The chaos escalated as tables were overturned, and sugar shakers crashed through the diner's windows. A group of courageous trans women and drag queens, who had endured years of police harassment, decided they had had enough and pushed the cops out onto the streets.
While Stonewall is often recognized as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement, the events at Compton's Cafeteria are equally significant, if not widely known. This lack of awareness reflects the unfortunate reality that LGBTQ+ history has been inadequately documented, taught, and preserved in the United States.
Out of the more than 90,000 places listed on the National Register of Historic Places, only 28 are specifically designated for their LGBTQ+ historical significance, according to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. This glaring imbalance underscores the urgent need to give LGBTQ+ heritage the recognition and preservation it deserves.
In response to this, the trans community in San Francisco's Tenderloin District established the Transgender District in 2017. It was the world's first designated area dedicated to trans culture and history. One of the district's primary goals is to safeguard the neighborhood's trans heritage and combat the impact of gentrification. They are striving for a national historic designation for Compton's Cafeteria as part of their efforts.
However, the nomination process faced a setback when the California State Historic Preservation Office returned it for corrections in late December. The National Park Service stated that clarifications were needed regarding integrity, boundaries, and level of significance before further evaluation.
Activists and historians agree that the recognition of Compton's Cafeteria on the National Register is long overdue. It represents just one piece of a rich history that has been marginalized for far too long.
Jay Shockley, a retired senior historian, and co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, points out that the LGBTQ+ community is woefully underrepresented in terms of official recognition at all levels. While Stonewall's inclusion in the register in 1999 was a significant milestone, Shockley emphasizes that there is a vast and often unknown LGBTQ+ history that extends far beyond that singular event. Many LGBTQ+ individuals have never been exposed to this history, highlighting the importance of raising awareness.
"We cannot consider ourselves full American citizens until our community's contributions are commemorated, designated, and honored," stresses Shockley. It is crucial for LGBTQ+ youth, regardless of their location, to be aware of their heritage and take pride in it.
Some organizations, like NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, supported by the NPS Underrepresented Communities Grant, are working diligently to rectify this disparity. They have successfully nominated over one-third of the LGBTQ+ sites currently listed on the National Register. Similar projects and historical surveys have emerged in cities and states across the country, underscoring the urgency to preserve LGBTQ+ history.
While bureaucratic obstacles persist, the greatest threat to LGBTQ+ historic spaces is the relentless march of gentrification and redevelopment. Shayne Watson, an architectural historian and preservation consultant, highlights the importance of protecting these spaces from being erased.
Documenting LGBTQ+ history is not merely an exercise in preserving the past; it is a crucial step towards shaping a more inclusive future for trans and queer individuals. Aria Sa'id, president and chief strategist of the Transgender District, draws parallels between the Compton's Cafeteria riot and the ongoing challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community today.
Julius' Bar: A Historic Haven for LGBTQ+ Culture
In the heart of Greenwich Village lies a historic gem that holds a special place in LGBTQ+ culture. Welcome to Julius' Bar, where you can still savor a classic gin and tonic while immersing yourself in the rich tapestry of queer history. As the oldest gay bar in New York City, Julius' Bar has witnessed pivotal moments that shaped the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Cast your mind back to 1966, a time when New York State Liquor Authority regulations forbade bars from serving LGBTQ+ individuals. This unjust restriction cast a shadow over the vibrant queer community, who sought solace and camaraderie in the few safe havens available to them. In an act of defiance and solidarity, members of the Mattachine Society, a pioneering activist group, organized a protest known as the "sip-in" right here at Julius' Bar.
With determination and courage, these activists challenged the discriminatory laws by deliberately identifying themselves as LGBTQ+ and requesting service. This bold action was part of a larger campaign waged by the Mattachine Society to combat harassment and create a more inclusive social landscape for the LGBTQ+ community. Their efforts were not in vain, as their resilience and advocacy ultimately led to vital reforms and a more open, dignified LGBTQ+ social scene.
Julius' Bar, proudly listed on the National Register in 2016, stands as a testament to the struggles and triumphs of LGBTQ+ individuals throughout history. Stepping into this iconic establishment, you become part of a living legacy that celebrates resilience, love, and the pursuit of equality. So come, raise a glass, and toast to the indomitable spirit of those who led the way for progress and continue to inspire us today.
Henry Gerber House
Step inside the Henry Gerber House, a cherished National Historic Landmark since 2015, and you'll find yourself immersed in the legacy of Henry Gerber. As the founder of the groundbreaking Society for Human Rights, the very first gay rights organization in the United States, Gerber's contributions to LGBTQ+ history are immeasurable. In 1924, right here in Chicago, he laid the foundation for a movement that would challenge societal norms and fight for equality.
Tragically, Gerber's home was raided by the police in 1925, an event that marked a pivotal moment in American LGBTQ+ history. The typewriter seized during the raid, held the powerful words of the organization's mission statement—a tangible reminder of the courage and determination of those who came before us.
The Women’s Building - San Francisco
Since its founding in 1971, this iconic community center has been a catalyst for change, making an indelible impact on civil rights movements both locally and nationwide. It proudly stands as the first women-led and women-owned organization of its kind, offering essential social services and serving as a dynamic gathering place for feminists. Notably recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2018, the Women's Building boasts a breathtaking mural that captures the spirit of empowerment and unity.