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Screaming Queens
The Making of a Documentary

By Jill Walker Robinson

Associate Professor of History Victor Silverman was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, when his good friend, a male classmate, also a historian, announced he was becoming a woman. Silverman’s response: “Well, that’s a gutsy career move.”

“It meant she wasn’t going to be able to get a job,” said Silverman. It was the 1990s; AIDs was taking the lives of gay men. Fear was in the air. Transgenders were relatively unknown.

Still today, there are no reliable figures as to how many people in the U.S. identify with the opposite gender. Estimates show that roughly one per 30,000 males and one per 100,000 females seek sex-reassignment surgery, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Silverman’s colleague Susan Stryker indeed made her own way, becoming a renowned scholar of transsexual history who served as executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual (GLBT) Historical Society in San Francisco after earning a Ph.D. in U.S. history from UC Berkeley.

When Stryker stumbled onto a little known—never officially reported—event involving transgender activism in 1966, Silverman jumped onboard to tell the story and shed light on these marginalized male to female transsexuals who were disowned by their families, unable to make decent livings, harassed by society and arrested for dressing as women.

Stryker and Silverman teamed together to make a documentary—Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria—about the riot between transgender street prostitutes and police at the all-night Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in 1966, marking it as the first known act of militant transsexual resistance to social oppression.

“I was completely taken by the story,” said Silverman, whose love of history is rooted in studying not only the actions of the powerful but also those out of the mainstream. “What we did in the film was take a group of people—who were the butt of jokes—and showed them as real human beings—with history, with strength, with dignity.”

“For Susan (Stryker), it’s a connection to her own history,” said Silverman.

Stryker came across the story 10 years ago in a 1972 program from the first San Francisco Gay Pride Parade that referred to Compton’s and not New York’s Stonewall uprising of 1969, the historic moment most often cited as the initial militant phase of the gay and lesbian revolution.

“What film does and what so many historians have lost sight of is the story part of history,” said Silverman. “You have to tell a story to engage people in history.”

This watershed moment went virtually untold, until the film, which made the discovery all the more meaningful.

Screaming Queens

The documentary opens Dragnet-style with a detective-sounding voice setting the scene in “Gay San Francisco” and narrating Stryker’s search to uncover the truth—what really happened that night and how the tension mounted.

In a flat, authoritative voice: They work to conceal their sexual orientation by day, only at night do they show their true colors.

But the story unfolds from their eyes: “We had to fight for our rights,” said Amanda St. Jaymes, a blonde, heavyset woman who looked to be in her 60s and showed signs of struggle in her face, “not as gay people, but as human beings.”

In the film, the transgender males-to-females describe the impoverished Tenderloin of 1966 as a “gay ghetto,” a “vice-ridden district.” At the time—before there was access to genital surgery for transgenders—the Tenderloin was their only home. Ostracized by society, shunned by their families, scorned by authorities and unable to hold legally-paying jobs, they turned to prostitution where they risked violence. Those who had the “look” worked as female impersonators.

“We sold ourselves because we needed to make a living,” said Felicia Elizondo, whose awkward smile surfaced from her tan-colored skin—“only the pretty girls were entertainers.”

Late at night, after the bars closed, the prostitutes, drag queens, female impersonators and hustlers gathered at the all-night neighborhood hangout, Compton’s. Police officers would often come by and haul them away.

“We could be taken to jail at any time,” said St. Jaymes. “It wasn’t that I had done anything wrong. It was for female impersonation.”

On a hot August night in 1966, mayhem erupted when a police officer tried to arrest one of the queens, apparently grabbing her.

She threw coffee in his face. Within moments, sugar was flying, purses became weapons. People started throwing everything they could get their hands on.

The melee poured into the street. About 60 customers in all, fighting the police who had called backup. They were still fighting as the paddy wagons pulled up.

A police car was destroyed. A newsstand went up in flames.

“We got tired of being harassed—tired of being forced to go to the men’s room when we’re dressed like women,” said St. Jaymes. “We wanted our rights.”

After all, it was the 1960s. The sexual liberation movement was in full swing.

The civil rights movement fueled the queens’ newfound militancy.

“I had never heard of transgenders before,” said former San Francisco Police Sergeant Eliott Blackstone, who “emerged as an unlikely ally” in his job handling police community relations. “If people want to be left alone, they had the right to be left alone.”

Blackstone, who initiated transgender sensitivity training as part of the San Francisco Police Academy curriculum, recalls: “My job was not to make arrests. My job was to show people how to live their lifestyle along with the rest of the city.”

The Transsexual Phenomenon was published that year. Author Harry Benjamin, a doctor who provided transsexual medical care, brought their story to the masses. Though their identities could not be legally changed at the time, their bodily sex could be.

Surgery gave them hope; it unleashed in them a new attitude.

“I was interested in getting my hormones, getting an education, getting off the street,” said St. Jaymes. “The Transsexual Phenomenon was like a guidebook for us.”

Social workers and city officials applied for federal funding under President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, creating job-training programs in the Tenderloin. The city opened the Center for Special Problems, providing I.D. cards to reflect their new gender—a necessary document for employment, as state I.D. cards could not be amended. The cards identified the carrier with the “special problem of transsexualism.”

This allowed them to move on with their lives.

“Life began after surgery, more than I ever dreamed of,” said Aleshia Brevard, a red-head who had “the face, great legs” and could sing and dance, allowing her to work as a female impersonator. “I was able to go back to school as a woman. … I was able to blossom, to be myself.”

St. Jaymes, who was trained as a clerk typist in a government-funded program and later worked as a secretary, said: “Once you feel good about yourself, no one can hurt you.”

Compton’s closed at midnight after the uprising. In 1972, it shut its doors for good. A porn shop took its place.

Documenting History

There was a standing ovation when the documentary aired at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

“They really needed to hear this story,” said Silverman, who embraces film as a way to capture the attention of a broader audience.

The film is about the early struggles of transgenders in San Francisco, but it’s also about how “decent-minded people can come to understand other people who are so different than them,” said Silverman.

After the riot, officials began to help the transgenders make their lives work for them, so they wouldn’t be doomed to a life on the streets.

“These people fought to transform their lives and succeeded,” said Silverman, who believes society should allow people to be themselves and even help them. “It documents a moment in our history where government was trying to be more humane.”

To find out when the film airs on KQED Television in San Francisco, visit the KQED Web site at www.kqed.org/truly/film-103.jsp. For more information, visit the film’s Web site at www.screamingqueensmovie.com.

©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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