Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria
Written and Directed by Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker
Released June 18, 2005
Review by Stephen O. Murray
June 21, 2006.
Screaming Queens is an excellent documentary film about mid-1960s San Francisco transgendered males who survived into the 21st century.
Five of them provide talking-heads, talking about police harassment and wanting to be who they felt they were. Most (all?) seem to have undergone sex reassignment surgery during the 1960s. Two of the five are nonwhite. One, Aleshia Brevard, was a member of the female impersonator elite (performing at Finocchio’s and saying that she considered herself a woman, not a female impersonator). One (Felicia Elizondo) or two others talk about the dangers of prostitution in the Tenderloin. All present themselves as just seeking to be free to be how they are. None exemplifies any identification with transgressivity (a much loved projection of queer theorists) or of transvestitism as a critique—or even a theatricalization—of gender norms. (They subscribed to the norms, just felt they were in the wrong sex.)
There is also extensive interview footage of an SFPD sergeant who was in community relations at the time and provides insight into how the police regarded males dressed in women’s clothes (which was illegal). Sgt. Blackstone became an advocate for not harassing them. If he was asked if he countenanced the prostitution many engaged in, his answer was not included in the documentary. Everyone (including the Rev. Ed Hansen) agree that the Tenderloin was the dumping ground for transgendered males, prostitutes, and junkies (categories with considerable overlap).
The filmmakers note that “urban renewal” destroyed low-rent apartments elsewhere in the city (especially the Western Addition and the Embarcadero) and that owners and managers of residence hotels preferred more respectable tenants who were being pushed into the Tenderloin.
Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, at the northwest corner of Turk and Taylor streets, was open 24 hours and at night was a place where masculine male hustlers (who at that time had been pushed up Market Street from the waterfront to Mason and Taylor, repaired to Compton’s to socialize after or between tricks). Nursing a cup of coffee for hours rather than turning over tables (particularly the prized ones in the windows) was not profitable, and it seems that the riot in the summer of 1966 began when a policeman attempted to roust a rowdy drag queen who threw her cup of coffee in the policeman’s face (it was probably cold).
The hustlers and the drag queens fought back, driving the policemen into the streets, throwing sugar containers through the windows, and continuing the fight in the street.
As a documentary of the riot, the movie is less satisfactory than as a testimony to the pluck of transsexuals who survived. Part of the problem is that precinct-level SFPD records from the 1960s have been destroyed, so it is impossible to find out how many arrests were made or what charges were filed. The researchers do not appear to have attempted to examine court records. They said that there was no television news footage (probably ever).
Moreover, unless I missed it, none of those interviewed were participants or eye-witness observers of the riot. Noting that I realized it was no easy task, I asked if they made any attempt to find any of the male hustlers who were there. The answer was negative. Both directors, transsexual activist and historian Susan Stryker and film-maker Victor Silverman, said that they wanted to tell the story of the most stigmatized. As I said at the outset, they made an excellent documentary about the lives of transgendered males who survived from the mid-1960s in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Another panelist at the screening had the chutzpah to say that ignoring the hustlers made the portrait more “universal,” and Stryker decried the divisions of “identity politics.”
Placing a nearly exclusive focus on “one’s own kind” (Stryker’s) strikes me as a very questionable way to overcome “identity politics,” though it is perfectly consistent with the now fading attempt to make “queer” an overarching category—and to put those who were “queer” in the old, most pejorative sense as the hero[in]es. I don’t think excluding one set of actors (the hustlers, many of whom I presume regarded themselves as straight) from an account of an event being pushed as the start of fighting back against police harassment. (It was before Stonewall, but after police harassment of a New Year’s Eve Ball at California Hall in San Francisco, hosted by the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which included a number of clergymen, led to changes in policing, as there is no evidence that the Compton’s Cafeteria riot did. 1
The documentary does mention the organization Vanguard that had begun challenging police harassment (of hustlers and of drag queens) before the Compton’s Riot (though interviewing no one who was a member of the Tenderloin organization). It also (admirably!) puts the Compton’s riot in the context of civil rights and antiwar activities and the destruction of affordable rental stock in the city that was “redevelopment” and “slum clearance.” I found particularly interesting to learn that War on Poverty programs (CETA, I assume) enabled some of the transsexuals to acquire job skills and that some psychiatrists (Harry Benjamin, author of The Transsexual Phenomenon and staff at the Center for Special Problems) made employment possible.
There is a great deal of interesting material in the documentary, which is being broadcast Thursday evening on our local PBS station (KQED), and may be broadcast on PBS stations elsewhere. Still, it is also a prime example of the working of “queer inclusivity” excluding masculine-appearing men…and keeping the venerable (and in my view ineradicable) sense of “queer” as gender-variant.
published on epinions 21 June 2006
©2006, 2016, Stephen O. Murray
- For details on the California Hall event, see my 1996 book American Gay, which, incidentally, also shows that the Compton’s riot was not unknown until Susan Stryker began researching it. After criticizing the queer misrepresentation that those who fought back against a New York Police raid on the Stonewall Inn on Sheridan Square were drag queens, I wrote, “For the widely fantasized drag queen vanguard of fighting back against the police, the August 1966 fracas at Compton’s in San Francisco was both earlier and more certainly a drag queen action than the reaction to New York City police’s raiding the mostly drag-queenless Stonewall Inn in 1969.” ↩