Raids, Riots, and Gay Liberation in San Francisco
Exploring the development of San Francisco's LGBT community, 1933-1966, through sites of protest, resistance, celebration, and solidarity.
This is the former location of the famed North Beach bar and nightclub, Finocchio's. Named for or its owner Joseph Finocchio (which incidentally is a common name in Italian that translates to “fennel,” but is also often used as a homophobic slur). The club was in operation from the early 1930s until the 1990s, beginning first as a speakeasy. The establishment eventually grew into one of the most popular nightclubs, and a tourist destination, largely due to its famed drag performances. The club operated until 1999, making Finocchio's one of the earliest and longest-lasting establishments in San Francisco.
Still in operation today, Li Po was a “discreet” Chinatown gay bar that survived the raids of the World War II era, and often served as a refuge from raids at nearby bars. Beginning around the turn of the century, Chinatown became a key part of the growing tourism industry in San Francisco. As with venues like Finochhio’s, many Chinatown establishments combined a growing America fascination with the "exotic," popularization of female impersonation in bars and nightclubs, and racialized entertainment that flourished in venues like Finocchio’s. The Li Po and other establishments in Chinatown, the Tenderloin, and North Beach became the center of wartime “vice crackdowns” in which many gay bars in the area were raided and temporarily or permanently closed.
With a long history as a site of several different bars, speakeasies, and bohemian hangouts, this building housed the two connected bars Tommy’s Place/12 Adler Place from 1952-1954 (the current establishment in this building has been open since 1968, Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Café, itself an historic San Francisco institution). Eleanor “Tommy” F. Vasu opened the bar originally in 1948 at 299 Broadway (Tommy’s 299), before opening at this location in 1952. It was one of several bars in the North Beach neighborhood to open during the late 40s and early 50s that served a largely lesbian (often gay male as well) clientele. In contrast to the tenuous acceptance openly queer establishments held in the San Francisco of the 1930s-40s, a crackdown began as a result of the growing moral panic of the early Cold War/McCarthy era (sometimes referred to as the “Lavender Scare”). In a 1954 police raid, the two bars became a flashpoint in this growing conflict. A well-publicized scandal followed, and later, a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigation on juvenile delinquency in San Francisco.
Not to be confused with The Black Cat of Los Angeles (site of a landmark gay rights protest in 1967), the Black Cat bar was a bar and club located here from 1906-1964. The bar garnered an increasingly gay and tourist clientele beginning in the war years, leading to a raid in 1949. A 1951 State Supreme Court case over its liquor license was one of the earliest cases establishing legal protections for LGBT Americans. In the years following, spurred in particular by the performances of José Sarria, who later went on to be the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. The Black Cat is a key example of how the gay public spaces became an integral part of the queer community in San Francisco.
In August 1966, The Compton's Cafeteria Riot marked an important date in the civil rights movement in the United States. The conflict erupted into violence during an aggressive police effort to close the establishment of Compton’s Cafeteria, a popular, 24-hour spot frequented by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) patrons. Though largely forgotten, and not holding the same place in queer history as events like the Stonewall Riots in New York a few years later, it was nevertheless an important moment in San Francisco gay history because of the patrons’ violent response. It can be seen as a flashpoint, an eruption after years of conflict, resentment, and community. Compton’s Cafeteria no longer exists. The building remains on-site and at one time housed the Oshun Center - a women’s clinic that offered free care.
In late 1964, several homophile organizations collaborated to organize a fundraising ball for the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH), an organization of LGBT activists, lawyers, and, progressive church leaders, which took place in the California Hall Building on New Year’s Day 1965. Despite a seeming agreement that the ball would go on undisturbed, a large police task force showed up to raid the event and harass the attendees. The event is noteworthy for the unprecedented cooperation among LGBT rights groups, and the public attention it brought to police mistreatment of LGBT people in San Francisco. It was a turning point in San Francisco's gay history, leading to several concrete changes in policing, a coming together of various organizations, and greater public awareness of police treatment of the LGBT community in the city.