On Jan 25, 1917 300 sex workers in San Francisco marched to protest the imminent closure of their brothels. The Old Pro Project is an annual event that builds towards this anniversary. We are part of a multigenerational movement that has been advocating for our rights for over a hundred years.


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January 25, 1917 | San Francisco

San Francisco has a storied history of old pros. The city’s population, and its reputation for vice, boomed due to the 1849 California Gold Rush. Men and women flocked to the city’s Tenderloin District – then known as the Barbary Coast – to establish brothels, saloons, clubs, and gambling houses attracted sailors, shipyard workers, and old pros to cash in on the economic opportunities available in the district. The neighborhood encompassed nine blocks and as its popularity increased, so did the moral reformers’ desire to shut it down.

 

San Francisco has a storied history of old pros. The city’s population, and its reputation for vice, boomed due to the 1849 California Gold Rush. Men and women flocked to the city’s Tenderloin District – then known as the Barbary Coast – to establish brothels, saloons, clubs, and gambling houses attracted sailors, shipyard workers, and old pros to cash in on the economic opportunities available in the district. The neighborhood encompassed nine blocks and as its popularity increased, so did the moral reformers’ desire to shut it down.

Moral reformers worked tirelessly during the Progressive Era to combat prostitution and in 1913 the state of California passed the red light abatement act designed to eliminate prostitution by forcing brothels to close in San Francisco city officials ordered mass evictions slated for February 1917 but two of the tenderloin district’s madams: Maude Spencer and Reggie Gamble lead an army of more than 200 sex workers into the Central Methodist Church to explain why so many of them turned to prostitution: living wages, to provide for their children, and economic independence.

The church’s pastor, Reverend Paul Smith, was an anti-vice crusader who launched a vile campaign against old pros hoping to drive them out of the community. Reggie Gamble marched straight into the church pulpit and demanded economic justice for sex workers, specifically noting the gender based wage gap and presented sex work as an avenue for women’s economic freedom. This moment became the first sex worker rights march in history. Sadly, 103 years later, women around the world are still fighting for equal wages, sexual freedom, and sex workers are still fighting for their labor to be acknowledged as labor.

Anderson, Ivy and Devon Angus, eds. Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute. Supplemental website.

In 1913, an old pro who went by the name Alice Smith published a serialized memoir in the San Francisco Bulletin. These memoirs, along with correspondence from other pros, and working-class women, are presented in this book.

Chateauvert, Melinda. Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk. New York: Beacon Press, 2014.

Chateauvert places sex workers at the forefront of the social justice movement, despite being largely ignored by scholars. This book illuminates the voices of SWs who are pushing a global movement for sexual freedom from the 1970s to the present day.

MacLaren, Don. “Prostitute March 1917,” in Found SF: Shaping San Francisco’s Digital Archive. Accessed November 11, 2020. Link to the source.

MacLaren recounts the narrative of the 1917 March and includes additional information about Rev. Smith and his responses to the women after the event.

Shaw, Randy. The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. San Francisco: Urban Reality Press, 2015.

Authored by the director of the Tenderloin Museum, this book provides the cultural history of the Tenderloin district, with emphasis on the January 25, 1917 event and the influence of old pros on economic diversity in the 21st century. For another brief synopsis by Randy Shaw, visit this source.

Sisto, Carrie. “Today in History: The Tenderloin’s (and America’s) First Ever Sex Workers’ Rights March,” Hoodline (January 24, 2019). Link to the source.

A brief synopsis of the march and also the source for the San Francisco Bulletin images provided in the “Images” tab.

Soderlund, Gretchen. Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Soderlund uses high-profile news stories of sex trafficking to examine the ways sex work newspapers and reform movements sensationalized sex work at the turn of the 20th century.

Local Public History & Cultural Organizations:

The Tenderloin Museum

Alice Smith, “A Voice From the Underworld,” San Francisco Bulletin (June 22, 1913).

 

“200 Underworld Women Plead with the Rev. Smith at Church,” San Francisco Bulletin (January 25, 1917).

 

“Expose Owners, Vice War Threat,” San Francisco Examiner (January 1, 1917), courtesy of Don MacLaren. Link to the source.

The Compton’s Cafe Uprising | San Francisco

LGBT and sex worker activism has a long history which predates New York’s Stonewall Uprising of 1969 and San Francisco’s Tenderloin District is part of that storied history. Although activists are still in full swing celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, many sex worker and trans activists are highlighting The Compton’s Cafe Uprising – which occurred three years prior to Stonewall – as a precursor to the fight against police violence against sex workers and LGBT communities.

Continue reading in the “Backstory” tab…

 

LGBT and sex worker activism has a long history which predates New York’s Stonewall Uprising of 1969 and San Francisco’s Tenderloin District is part of that storied history. Although activists are still in full swing celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, many sex worker and trans activists are highlighting The Compton’s Cafe Uprising – which occurred three years prior to Stonewall – as a precursor to the fight against police violence against sex workers and LGBT communities.

Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, located at 101 Taylor Street, was a well-known meeting place for sex workers, trans and queer people, and a local organizing group called the Vanguard. Police often raided the establishment and harassed LGBT and sex worker patrons, claiming to enforce local ordinances prohibiting “cross-dressing,” as well as to curb the radical meetings of the Vanguard.

Although the exact date is unknown, the uprising occurred in August 1966, when Vanguard members staged a protest against the persistent police violence waged against the LGBT and sex worker patrons of The Compton’s Cafe. Refusing to succumb to another night of police harassment, an unknown trans woman threw a cup of coffee at the officers and sparked the riot. The uprising and the Vanguard’s activism drew attention to the multitude of issues trans and queer youth faced, including homelessness, poverty, homophobia, and survival sex work and as a result, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit was established in 1968 to provide medical, social, and emotional services to the trans community. The Vanguard’s organizing is part of a much larger history of activism for trans folks and sex workers and that legacy must be cemented into the narrative of trans and sex worker advocacy.

The Compton’s Cafe Uprising demonstrates that organizing and resistance for LGBT communities particularly the trans community were in full swing prior to Stonewall. Honoring the uprising’s legacy also forces us to reckon with the reality that not much progress has been made in the way of race relations, state violence, poverty, and the criminalization of sex workers and the trans community.

Batey, Eve. “How a Riot at a Tenderloin Cafeteria Kicked Off the LGBTQ Rights Movement,” in Eater: San Francisco (August 27, 2020). Link to the source.

An article commemorating the Uprising and its relevance to the current struggle for civil rights in the wake of the murders of Breyonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Broverman, Neal. “Don’t Let History Forget About Compton’s Cafeteria Riot,” in The Advocate (August 2, 2018). Link to the source.

Broverman’s article highlights the history of the Compton Cafe Uprising and why historians and activists must include it in the civil rights narrative.

Ellison, Joy Michael. Teachable Trans History: Vanguard and the Compton Cafe Riot. Link to the source.

Dr. Joy Michael Ellison provides a brief history of The Compton’s Cafe Uprising and why it is a significant event in LGBT history and activism.

Levin, Sam. “Compton’s Cafeteria Riot: A Historic Act of Trans Resistance, Three Years Before Stonewall,” in The Guardian (June 21, 2019). Link to the source.

A history of The Compton’s Cafe Uprising with quotes from local trans activist Donna Personna. Also provides commentary on the work of Susan Stryker’s film Screaming Queens.

Millard, Megan. “Remembering San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria Riot,” SF LGBT Center. Link to the source.

Blog post commemorating the Uprising, complete with links to the Screaming Queens documentary

Pasulka, Nicola. “Ladies in the Streets: Before Stonewall, Transgender Uprising Changed Lives,” in Code Switch: Race. In Your Face. National Public Radio (May 5, 2015). Link to the source.

NPR blog post highlighting The Compton’s Cafe Uprising and its subsequent impact prior to Stonewall.

“Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” NSWP: Global Networks of Sex Work Projects. Link to the Source.

Encyclopedic entry for The Compton’s Cafe Uprising

“Vanguard Collection,” Digital Transgender Archive. Link to the source.

The Digital Transgender Archive includes scanned images of original Vanguard newsletters.

Digital Media, Film, & Stage

Stryker, Susan, et. al. Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005). Link to the source.

Documentary about the uprising.

Compton’s Cafeteria Riot – Link the source.

Official website of The Compton’ Cafeteria Riot stage production hosted by the Tenderloin Museum.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot and the Legacy of Police Violence, (August 5, 2020), GLBT Historical Society, Museum and Archives. Link to the source.

A 2-hour panel discussion featuring Donna Personna, Susan Stryker, Collette LeGrande, Shane Zaldivar, and Victor Silverman, speaking about the uprising and its role in LGBT history.

THE OLD PRO PROJECT ART CONTEST – SAN FRANCISCO

The Oldest Profession podcast seeks to advance sex workers rights by elevating the stories of amazing sex workers from history. The Oldest Profession Podcast will be hosting an art competition to tell the stories of two significant events in sex work history; The Compton Cafe uprising in 1969, and the first sex worker led protest in the US in 1917. Both of these events occurred in San Francisco.

The Oldest Profession Podcast would like to use selected art pieces to advance sex workers rights around the country. Artwork can be submitted from anywhere in the US. Pieces can be of all mediums, so long as they can be documented and shared on social media.

The Oldest Profession Podcast is asking for pieces to be submitted no later than December 15, 2020.

A total of four winners will be selected to win prize money:

  • Two winners will be awarded $750
  • Two winners will be awarded $250

Selected art will be featured in The Oldest Profession Podcast’s annual event, The Old Pro Project, and will be reproduced to raise awareness and money for the advancement of sex workers rights.

 

TO SUBMIT YOUR ART

Email contact@theoldestprofessionpodcast.com with the subject line “SF Art Contest” by midnight on December 15, 2020 with the following information:

  • Preferred name
  • Preferred contact (email, phone, text)
  • Your artwork — image files, video links, pdfs, word docs, sound files, etc.

Finalists will be contacted no later than December 22, 2020, at which point they will be asked to submit the following materials:

  • A bio
  • Social media handles
  • A statement about the art and it’s importance to sex workers rights
  • At this time finalists will also be informed about the licensing process that the Oldest profession Podcast, a fiscally sponsored project, utilities to commission artwork. The purpose of the license is to enable free use of the artwork for the purpose of advancing sex workers rights.

The winners will be announced on January 20, 2021.

The Old Pro Project Happenings in San Francisco

Art Contest – San Francisco

Art Contest – San Francisco

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »The Old Pro Project Art Contest – San Francisco The Oldest Profession podcast seeks to advance sex workers rights by elevating the stories of amazing sex workers from history. The Oldest Profession Podcast will be hosting an...

Samantha Jo-Dato – City Coordinator in San Francisco

Samantha Jo-Dato – City Coordinator in San Francisco

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Samantha Jo-Dato | City Coordinator in San Francisco Samantha Jo-Dato’s a humanitarian, author, philanthropist, freedom fighter, and bridge-builder who is originally from Atlantic City, NJ. Sami Jo has found it important to...

Joaquin Remora – San Francisco

Joaquin Remora – San Francisco

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Joaquin Remora | San Francisco  Joaquin Remora is a friend of sex workers and the trans community, in the fight for black and indigenous liberations. The Old Pro Project Happenings in San Francisco

Janetta Louise Johnson – San Francisco

Janetta Louise Johnson – San Francisco

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Janetta Louise Johnson Janetta Louise Johnson is the Executive Director at at Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project. She is a formerly incarcerated Black transgender woman and has been an activist and...

Stephany Ashley – San Francisco

Stephany Ashley – San Francisco

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Stephany Ashley Stephany Ashley (she/her) is a housing, homelessness, and sex worker advocate who is currently working at Brilliant Corners to expand access to affordable housing and emergency beds for folks experiencing...

Ms. Billie Cooper – San Francisco

Ms. Billie Cooper – San Francisco

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Ms. Billie Cooper Ms. Billie Cooper is a Community Grand Marshal for 2019 SF Pride. She is a 60-year-old transsexual woman, has lived and thrived with HIV for thirty-three years, and has been invested in her transgender...

Andrea Horne – San Francisco

Andrea Horne – San Francisco

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Andrea Horne Andrea Horne is a former actress, model, and jazz singer. Most recently she was a social worker working with transgender women in the Tenderloin. She is a Black transgender woman who has lived in San Francisco for...

Tamara Ching – San Francisco

Tamara Ching – San Francisco

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Tamara Ching Tamara Ching is an American trans woman and San Francisco Bay Area transgender activist. Also known as the “God Mother of Polk [Street]”, she is an advocate for trans, HIV, and sex work-related causes. The Old Pro...

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot – Film Proposal

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot – Film Proposal

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »The Compton's Cafeteria Riot –San Francisco Film Proposal A creative team in the Bay Area will be making a short film with the goal of bringing attention to The Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966 — a lesser known historical event...

Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher – Lead Historian

Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher – Lead Historian

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher | The Old Pro Project Lead Historian   Historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century...

Savannah Sly – National Coordinator

Savannah Sly – National Coordinator

Savannah Sly | National Coordinator   Savannah Sly is a career sex worker based in Seattle who embraces the arts as a medium for change. As a long time political advocate for sex workers rights, Sly has collaborated with others to produce panels, performances,...

Irene Merrow – Community Manager & Publicist

Irene Merrow – Community Manager & Publicist

get involved in the Old Pro Project now »Irene Fagan Merrow | Community Manager & Publicist Irene Merrow is a comedian, sex worker, content creator, and writer; a woman who wears many hats and sometimes nothing at all. Merrow moved to New York City in 2014 to...