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Stonewall wasn’t the only LGBT riot

Lesser-known protests erupted in San Francisco

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LGBT riot, gay news, Washington Blade
Rioters outside San Francisco City Hall on May 21, 1979 responding to the verdict in the Dan White murder case. (Photo by Daniel Nicoletta via Wikimedia Commons)

With the 50th anniversary of the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village taking place this weekend, the compelling story of how LGBT people fought back following the police raid on the Stonewall Inn gay bar will likely capture the attention this week of the LGBT community and its allies.

But those familiar with LGBT history point out that there were three other riots besides Stonewall in which LGBT people fought back against injustices by police, government officials, and society in general. All of them took place in San Francisco.

Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

One of them, known as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, took place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in August 1966, three years before Stonewall. Those familiar with it say it was led by LGBT people known then as drag queens and “cross dressers” but who today would be known to be transgender women.

Many of them hung out at the late night cafeteria, which operated as a restaurant.

According to an account by transgender historian Susan Stryker in her 2008 book “Transgender History,” the cafeteria’s trans customers and their gay male friends were frequently harassed by the cafeteria’s management and by police in the early and mid-1960s.

At the time, so-called “cross-dressing” was illegal in San Francisco, and police and local regulatory agencies often threatened to close bars or eateries like Compton’s for allowing such people to patronize their establishments.

Stryker reports in her book that the Compton’s Cafeteria riot was triggered when a police officer attempted to arrest a trans woman inside the cafeteria and she responded by throwing the coffee she was drinking in the officer’s face.

That act of defiance, coming on the heels of years of harassment by the police, prompted other trans people and their friends to “erupt,” Stryker wrote. People began to throw dishes and furniture and the cafeteria’s plate glass windows were smashed. When police reinforcements rushed to the scene the fighting spilled into the street, where people smashed the windows of a police car and set a sidewalk newsstand on fire.

Stryker, who also co-produced a documentary film on the riot called “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” reports that more than a dozen people were taken away by police in paddy wagons that night.

She reported that on the next night more transgender people, sex workers, Tenderloin neighborhood “street people,” and LGBT people in general returned to the scene to picket Compton’s Cafeteria after learning the management had banned transgender people from going back to the establishment.

In what observers consider an important pre-Stonewall development for LGBT rights, trans and LGBT youth under the guidance of the progressive Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco formed a group that staged protests over the next year or two against police harassment of trans and gay youth in the Tenderloin area.

White Night Riots 

What has become known as the White Night Riots erupted in San Francisco on May 21, 1979 hours after news broke that a jury had rejected prosecutors’ call for a first-degree murder conviction for the man who assassinated gay rights icon and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and the city’s pro-LGBT mayor George Moscone.

To the shock and horror of San Francisco’s large LGBT community and its allies, the jury instead convicted ex-police officer and former supervisor Dan White of voluntary manslaughter for the two killings, prompting a judge to sentence him to seven years and eight months in prison. With good behavior, he would be eligible for release after serving just five years.

Legal observers said the jury appeared to have been persuaded by the defense attorneys’ argument that White suffered from an impaired mental state due to depression and the excessive consumption of fast food, which later became known as the “Twinkie defense.”

Police and prosecutors said White shot Milk and Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978 multiple times in the head and body execution style with a handgun inside their offices at City Hall, which White entered through an unguarded door he knew about as a former supervisor.

According to accounts by the media and by longtime LGBT and AIDS activist Cleve Jones, who worked on Milk’s staff and who was present during the riots, the LGBT community responded to the news about White’s verdict by organizing a peaceful protest in the city’s largely gay Castro neighborhood.

What started with about 500 people quickly grew to 1,500 as the protesters marched through the streets and swelled to more than 5,000 as the crowed reached City Hall in what observers described as an angry mood that took on the air of a mob.

Media accounts say some in the crowd began to smash the windows and glass front doors of the City Hall building as several of Milk’s friends and longtime supporters attempted to hold the crowd back. Although police officials said later that the large number of police officers dispatched to the scene were directed to hold back the crowd, many officers waded into the crowd and attacked the protesters with nightsticks, inflaming what was already a volatile situation.

The police action prompted angry protesters to begin smashing the windows of police cars and setting them and other cars on fire by tossing lit matchbooks into the cars, causing the gas tanks to explode. At least a dozen police cars and eight other cars were destroyed that way before the rioting ended later in the evening.

Media reports said at least 61 police officers and an estimated 100 or more protesters or members of the public were hospitalized as a result of the rioting. Additional people were injured, media reports said, when a group of police officers disobeyed orders from the chief of police not to retaliate and raided a gay bar in the Castro neighborhood later in the evening.

Witnesses said the renegade officers, who placed tape over their nametags and badges, smashed the Elephant Walk bar’s windows and attacked its patrons for about 15 minutes. They then went out on the street and attacked others they believed to be gays who participated in the rioting.

Further LGBT organized protests took place in the following days that did not trigger violence. One of the later protests drew more than 20,000 people who assembled peacefully at Castro and Market Streets. The city’s then mayor, Dianne Feinstein, and gay Supervisor Harry Britt, who replaced Milk on the Board of Supervisors, vowed to take steps to protect the rights of LGBT people and curtail anti-LGBT violence.

AB 101 Veto Riot

The last of the three known other LGBT riots took place in San Francisco on Sept. 30, 1991. Similar to the White Night Riots, it was triggered by breaking news earlier that day.

Then-California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) vetoed a major gay rights bill approved by the state legislature known as Assembly Bill 101, which called for banning employment discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation. Wilson initially suggested he would sign the legislation, but political observers said he changed his mind at the behest of his party’s religious right faction and other conservatives whose support he needed for his re-election bid.

Several thousand outraged LGBT activists and their supporters marched from the Castro district to a downtown state office building to protest Wilson’s veto. The crowd far outnumbered startled police officers, who were not expecting such a large turnout. According to media reports, a small number of protesters smashed the building’s first floor windows and door, entered the building and started a fire that was quickly extinguished by firefighters but which resulted in more than $150,000 in damages.

That same week about 2,000 angry LGBT protesters in Los Angeles marched from West Hollywood to the Los Angeles Museum of Art, where Wilson was attending an opening of an exhibition of Mexican art, according to the L.A. Times. The protesters stopped short of rioting but set a California state flag on fire and burned Wilson in effigy, the Times reported.

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Photos

PHOTOS: Baltimore Pride in the Park

Annual celebration featured vendors, performers

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(Washington Blade photo by Linus Berggren)

Baltimore Pride in the Park was held at Druid Hill Park on Sunday, June 16.

(Washington Blade photos by Linus Berggren)

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Photos

PHOTOS: “Portraits”

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington performs at the Kennedy Center

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A scene from "Portraits," as performed in a technical rehearsal at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, June 15. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington performed “Portraits” at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, June 16.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Theater

Sophie Zmorrod embracing life on the road in ‘Kite Runner’

First national tour comes to Eisenhower Theater on June 25

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Sophie Zmorrod (Photo courtesy of Zmorrod)

‘The Kite Runner’
June 25 – 30
The Kennedy Center
$39-$149
Kennedy-center.org

Newly single, Sophie Zmorrod is enjoying life on the road in the first national tour of “The Kite Runner,” Matthew Spangler’s play with music based on Khaled Hosseini’s gripping novel about damaged relationships and longed for redemption. 

“It’s a wonderful time for me,” says Zmorrod. “I’m past the breakup pain and feeling empowered to explore new cities. A lot of us in the cast are queer, so we figure out the scene wherever the show goes.” 

What’s more, the New York-based actor has fallen in love with the work. “I love how the play’s central character Amir is flawed. He is our antihero. He has faults. As a privileged boy in Kabul, he bears witness to his best friend’s assault and doesn’t intervene. He lives with that guilt for decades and gets that redemption in the end.” 

“He does what he can to right wrongs. For me who’s regretted things, and wished I could go back in time, it resonates. Watching someone forgive themselves and do the right thing is beautiful.” 

Via phone from Chicago (the tour’s stop before moving on to Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on June 25), Zmorrod, whose background is Lebanese, happily chats about sexuality, ethnicity, and acting. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Looking at your resume, I see you’ve been cast in roles traditionally played by men. And have you played queer characters? 

SOPHIE ZMORROD: Oh yes, both. Whether or not they’re written on the page as queer, they sometimes turn out that way. And that holds true for this show too.  

With “The Winter’s Tale” at Trinity Rep, I played Leontes — the king who banishes his wife — as a woman. So, in that production it was about two women and touched on the violence that women sometimes inflict on other women.

And there was Beadle Bamford in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” also at Trinity Rep; I played him as a woman who was masculine and wore a suit. It was a great opportunity to explore myself and gender expression. That was a really good experience. 

BLADE: Are you an actor who’s often be called in for queer roles? 

ZMORRAD: Not really. I’m what you might call straight passing. Sometimes I’ve had to advocate for my queerness. To be a part of something. 

Similarly with my ethnicity. I’m called in to audition for the white and Arab roles. It gets tricky because I’m not the exactly the white girl next door and I’m not exactly Jasmine from Disney’s “Aladdin” either. 

This is one of the reasons, I really want people to come see “The Kite Runner,” Audiences need to experience the reality of the wide diversity of Middle Eastern people on the stage. We’re all very different.

And not incidentally, from this 14-person cast, I’ve met some great people to add to those I know from the Middle Eastern affinity spaces and groups I’m connected to in New York.

BLADE: In “The Kite Runner” what parts do you play?

 ZMORRAD: Three characters. All women, I think. In the first act, I’m an elderly eccentric pomegranate seller in the Afghan market, waddling around, speaking in Dari [the lingua franca of Afghanistan]; and the second act, I’m young hip and sell records in a San Francisco market; and at the end, I’m a buttoned-down American immigration bureaucrat advising Amir about adoption.

BLADE:  Your training is impressive: BA cum laude in music from Columbia University, an MFA in acting from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, and you’re also accomplished in opera and playwrighting, to name a few things. Does “The Kite Runner” allow you to flex your many muscles? 

ZMORROD: Very much. Playing multiple roles is always fun for an actor – we like malleability. Also, there are instruments on stage. I like working with the singing bowl; it’s usually used in yoga as a soothing sound, but here we save it for the dramatic, uncomfortable moments. I also sing from offstage. 

We are creating the world of the play on a very minimal set. Oh, and we do kite flying, and I’m able to use the some of the languages I speak. So yeah, lots of challenges. It’s great. 

BLADE: It sounds like you’re in a good place both professionally and personally.

ZMORROD: It’s taken a long time to feel comfortable. My being gay was never something I led with. But I’m on the journey and excited to be where I am, and who I am. 

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