September 21, 2022

Making Space: Dr. Susan Stryker and Preserving Transgender History in San Francisco

History is for the living; the dead don’t read. All the same, it’s easy for most people to forget that landmarking a building isn’t about building a mausoleum to bury history in—it’s about making the world a home for the living. Dr. Susan Stryker never forgets that.

Stryker is a historian and public intellectual. When she talks about her work, her voice is even, but it’s even in the same way as a waterfall—there’s tremendous force behind it. Many people like this speak in paragraphs, but Stryker speaks in juxtapositions: between thinkers and places, past and future, optimism and doom. I called her recently to ask about what historic preservation means to transgender people like us, and to ask, “How do you preserve the memory of a riot?”

Preserving Compton’s Cafeteria

Black and White image of a street corner in Tenderloin where you can see the sign for Gene Compton’s Cafeteria with a firetruck in front and people walking across the street in 1970.

photo by: © Clay Geerdes, courtesy Tenderloin Museum

Photograph from the 1970s of 101-102 Taylor Street in the Tenderloin.

Although Stryker has been involved in various preservation efforts, her primary one has always been the landmarking of the site of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. From the 1940s-1970s, Compton’s was a chain of cafeterias in San Francisco, and the location in the Tenderloin neighborhood was a gathering place for the transgender women, sex workers, and gender-nonconforming people who lived under constant police surveillance and harassment in this historic red-light district.

One night in August 1966, the police went too far, and patrons at Compton’s fought back against them with handbags and sugar shakers. It became a watershed moment in the transgender movement—a moment when transgender people recognized themselves as a political bloc. In 2005, Stryker and Victor Silverman reconstructed the story in their documentary Screaming Queens.

Today, the building is owned by GEO Group, a private prison contractor, and used to house incarcerated people who will soon leave the prison system. A landmark of activism against the carceral state has become an arm of that state. Eventually, activists like Stryker began to ask whether they could use the power of history to landmark the building as a step towards reclaiming it for the neighborhood.

In Stryker’s words, the goal is to “use the process of reimagining the intersection of Turk and Taylor and its relationship to transgender history as a way of mobilizing history in the present to do social justice work.” The activists’ labor has paid off: On August 17, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission approved the combined intersection and building as an official city landmark.

Elevated view southwest toward Twin Peaks. Landmarks: Glide Memorial, Empire Hotel, Fox Plaza, US Federal Building, City Hall, Olympic Hotel, Hotel Senator, Mentone Hotel.

photo by: OpenSFHistory / wnp25.2929

Aerial view of the Tenderloin in May 1967. Elevated view southwest toward Twin Peaks. Landmarks: Glide Memorial, Empire Hotel, Fox Plaza, US Federal Building, City Hall, Olympic Hotel, Hotel Senator, Mentone Hotel.

Places To Call Our Own

The story of Compton’s is complex and involves a question—what are the spaces we call ours? —that’s not easily answered. You might say that a trans place is one where trans people live, but what if that space is the street or a prison? Trans people have twice the poverty rate, and three times the unemployment rate, of the general U.S. population. Our relative poverty makes us less likely to own property and more likely to work in underground economies such as sex work, which make us vulnerable to harassment and incarceration. Can a space be a transgender space if it’s the site of our oppression?

I asked Stryker this question, and she told me about the film scholar Jonathan Rachel Williams, who defines a transgender film as “a film that transgender people interact with.” In Williams’ view, the film doesn’t need to be made for or by transgender people to be trans. What’s necessary is that transgender people have taken the film up, identified with it, in the same way that generations of gay men have identified with The Wizard of Oz and All About Eve.

Stryker paralleled this with both physical spaces and political discourse, noting that the Declaration of Independence wasn’t written with women or people of color in mind, but generations of activists have still chosen to take it literally when it promises equality and certain unalienable rights. These people have said, “I am going to act as if it was addressed to me, and I am going to make myself the recipient of that address through my political actions.”

A woman taking a selfie at an intersection in San Francisco.

photo by: Dr. Susan Stryker

In August 2020, Dr. Stryker was part of an action to paint a "Black Trans Lives Matter" mural at the intersection of Turk and Taylor.

Stryker went on, “I think about transgender space in the same way. The only places that are built for transgender people are jails and hospitals and psychiatric wards [and], you know, graveyards. That's what's made for us. That's where we're intended to go.”

Through this spiritual landscape of prisons and involuntary holds, Stryker describes transgender people running, weaving, and modifying. She cites the feminist author Sara Ahmed’s concept of “the desire line,” which describes a queer way of moving through the city—following paths of desire, not the provided paths. Trans, she reminded me, means across: across a line, between categories.

Transgender spaces are spaces which transgender bodies have passed through, marked, and made into something new. The Tenderloin, with its distinctive landscape—the single-room occupancy hotels, the physical connections to other places in the city, the alleys and loading docks that let the patrons of 1920s-era speakeasies escape raids—lends itself to this kind of reorganization, and encourages what Stryker calls “the production of space.”

In her argument, transgender people don’t just find space; they produce it by occupying it. The image is exhilarating, although it also requires preservationists to think in new ways. Transgender movement, and transgender movements, “might not necessarily leave a material trace in the physical environment, which can then make it hard to preserve if you’re saying, ‘I am looking for the transgender mark in space so that we can say it is history.’” You have to notice not what’s happened, but what’s changed.

The story of Compton’s is complex and involves a question—what are the spaces we call ours? —that’s not easily answered.

Leaving a Record for the Future

It wasn’t only transgender people who’ve counterprogrammed the Tenderloin, and Stryker is explicit about this too. She points out that the Tenderloin has a history of transgender nightlife and transgender sex work, and that it’s appropriate to acknowledge that, but it’s also a neighborhood with Vietnamese and South Asian communities, as well as a neighborhood with connections to jazz and the movie industry. It’s also on Ohlone land, and the Ohlone did not cede it willingly.

Stryker’s writing about the Tenderloin has encompassed its whole long and complex history, but she’s chosen to foreground transgender people. In speaking to her, though, it was clear that she knew that the Tenderloin has many protagonists, and wrestled with the question of how to use transgender history as a tool for change without covering other history over.

“You have to make a decision, I think, as a preservationist,” Stryker says. “Are you trying to document the site and all the different uses of the site so that you understand the history of the place and how it's changed over time, or are you trying to reinterpret the place as significant for a particular community of people? That's an interpretive choice and a political choice that preservationists have to make.”

Stryker sees a purpose for landmarking Compton’s that goes beyond the practical. She asks, "Does it make sense in the present to spend a lot of cultural, political, economic capital to try to get GEO Group out of 101 Taylor? Or do we—both the coalition of advocates and a more broader sense—say the real project here is the new forms of sociality that we forge as we bring together a coalition of people around attention to the site and its uses?

"Maybe what we're doing is just documenting the uses of the building, and working broadly on abolitionist politics, but not having a particular goal of ‘GEO Group out of 101 Taylor.’ You're leaving a record of that for the future, you know, about what the uses of that building have been. And that's it, that's the project. That's the historic preservation project."

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Isaac Fellman is the author of "Dead Collections," "The Breath of the Sun," and "The Two Doctors Górski". He is an archivist at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

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