A history of LGBT activism and pride in San Francisco

San Francisco Pride is celebrating its 49th annual parade this year with a theme called “Generations of Resistance.”

Although this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, momentum for LGBTQ rights was already building on the West Coast years before that incident.

Terry Beswick, Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, said people began quietly organizing in the late 1940s and 1950s. Some began challenging gender expectations in the 1960s. 

The Tenderloin was one of San Francisco’s first queer neighborhoods. Donna Personna, a drag queen and transgender woman, remembers visiting the Tenderloin when she was a young adult.

“There were pimps, there were drug sales,” Personna said. “The Tenderloin was for the dregs of society.”

Personna was 18 when she first went to Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin. It was a gathering place at night for drag queens, transgender women, and sex workers.

“The cops would go in there routinely and they just want to bust heads and scare people,” she said.

On one night in 1966, San Francisco police came to the cafeteria to arrest men for impersonating women. One of the women had enough of the harassment and threw a cup of coffee in the officer’s face. A riot ensued with dishes being broken and items being thrown in the restaurant. It would mark the start of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot. 

Personna was not there the night of the riot, but co-wrote a theatrical play about the riot had a limited run in the Tenderloin.

“I want that story to never be forgotten,” Personna said. “It was buried for about 45 years. It was like it never happened,”

The Compton’s Cafeteria riot is widely considered to be the start of transgender activism in San Francisco and came three years before the more well-known Stonewall Riots in New York City. 

Beswick noted that Stonewall has gained significance across the entire world and is seen the beginning of the gay rights movement around the country, but he said the event has more of a mythological importance.

“It lasted for a few days in New York and the ripple effects did continue around the world,” he said.

But Beswick points back to the years of LGBTQ activism already happening on the West coast. He said on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, San Francisco held its first Pride parade.

“In 1970, there was a small march down Polk Street which was, prior to the Castro, seen as the center of gay culture in San Francisco,” he said. “Now of course it's a few hundred thousand people that come together in one of the largest festivals of LGBTQ rights in the world,” Beswick said.

Soon after, Harvey Milk made San Francisco home. He would later become the state’s first openly gay elected official on the city’s board of supervisors. In 1978, Milk was assassinated at San Francisco City Hall along with Mayor George Moscone by former supervisor Dan White.

White would receive a conviction of manslaughter, not murder. The outrage from the LGBTQ community led to the White Night riots in San Francisco, according to SF LGBT Center Executive Director Rebecca Rolfe.

“The White Night Riots were a real outcry and outpouring of grief, anger, rage,” she said. “When Dan White received what was a very light prison sentence, I think there was a real deep sense of betrayal.”

Heartbreak led to strength over the decades. The gay community recognized the power in public protest and community organizing.

“I think even in a place in San Francisco where we think we have achieved so much, there is still so much work to be done,” Rolfe said. “Right now 50% of the homeless and young people on the streets identify as LGBTQ. That is not OK. So many trans women of color are getting murdered here in our city and across the country. That is not OK.”

The city’s history of activism leads the theme for the 49th annual SF Pride celebrations, called “Generations of Resistance.”

“As young people are growing up in this culture of greater acceptance of LGBT rights sometimes they're not aware of everyone that came before them,” Beswick said.

One of those people is Personna. For her work on behalf of transgender people she is this year’s SF Pride Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal.

“I want to rekindle that fighting spirit from 50 years ago,” she said. “Now more than ever we need it again.”

She points to the Trump Administration and what she believes it an attempt to remove the progress that the LGBTQ community has made.

“We're going to fight back with all these things that are coming at us,” she added.