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