Watch this entire Truly CA episode: Screaming Queens by filmmakers Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker. (Running Time: 56:11)
Writer, spoken word artist, biologist, and gender activist, Julia Serrano interviews Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker about their first film, Screaming Queens. (Running Time: 23:47)
It's a hot August night in San Francisco in 1966. Compton's Cafeteria, in the seedy Tenderloin district, is hopping with its usual assortment of transgender people, young street hustlers, and down-and-out regulars. The management, annoyed by the noisy crowd at one table, calls the police. When a surly cop, accustomed to manhandling Compton's clientele, attempts to arrest one of the queens, she throws her coffee in his face. Mayhem erupts -- windows break, furniture flies through the air. Police reinforcements arrive, and the fighting spills into the street. For the first time, the drag queens band together to fight back, getting the better of the cops, whom they kick and stomp with their high-heeled shoes and beat with their heavy purses. For everyone at Compton's that night, one thing was certain -- things would never be the same again.
Screaming Queens introduces viewers to a diverse cast of former prostitutes, drag entertainers, police officers, ministers and neighborhood activists, all of whom played a part in the events leading up to the Compton's Cafeteria riot. Mixing recent interviews with archival footage, printed documents, impressionistic reenactments and period music, the program depicts a marginalized community few people know, one that exists in the midst of a city famous for its cosmopolitan glamour. With extraordinary candor and from differing points of view, the subjects recount the difficulties they encountered in the Tenderloin, as well as the sense of community they created there in the mid-1960s. Felicia Elizondo tells of prostituting herself in order to survive. Aleshia Brevard, a drag entertainer, describes how her talent spared her from street prostitution. Perhaps most surprising is Sgt. Elliot Blackstone, who helps explain the conflict between the San Francisco Police Department and the city's transgender community and how the SFPD's policies changed to reflect greater acceptance in the years following the 1966 riot.
The documentary goes on to show the connection between transgender activism and the larger social upheavals affecting the United States in the 1960s: the civil rights and sexual liberation movements, the youth counterculture, urban renewal, and Great Society antipoverty programs. "Glide Memorial Methodist Church first reached out to the transgender community in these years," the Rev. Ed Hansen explains, "because of new thinking about the church's role in society." Amanda St. Jaymes and Tamara Ching, both transsexual activists and former prostitutes, recount the ferment in the Tenderloin in the 1960s as well as the growing sense of dignity among transgender people. But in the summer of 1966, many others, including most San Francisco police officers, did not share these new ideas. By bringing these social and political tensions to light, Screaming Queens offers viewers a fuller understanding of the events and conditions that led up to the riot.