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Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria cover image

Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria 2005

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Frameline, 145 Ninth St., Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94103; 415-703-8650
Produced by Victor Silverman & Susan Stryker
Directed by Victor Silverman & Susan Stryker
DVD, color, 57 min.

College - Adult
Gender Studies, Parenting, Gay & Lesbian Studies, Urban Studies, Women's Studies

Date Entered: 05/18/2007

Reviewed by LaRoi Lawton, Library & Learning Resources Department, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York

Members of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community have often criticized drag queens and their participation in pride parades and other public events, believing that this projects a limited and harmful image of gay people and impedes a broader social acceptance. Others see this point of view as misplaced misogyny or an intolerance of the diversity and history of the gay community and the role drag queens played in kick-starting the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Still others simply regard drag as traditional fun that need not be politically analyzed.

Some feminists believe that drag promotes harmful stereotypes of women, though others see drag as a critique or "subversion" of gender roles. Some drag performers may regard their acts as a satire of femininity, or as a form of social criticism. Others may view it as entertainment, an art form, or simply fun. Drag queens are sometimes rejected by parts of the transgender community—especially, but not exclusively, by many transsexual women—because of fears that they may be stereotyped as drag queens.

Promotional materials for the film summarize the content best:

The year is 1966 and the transgender population of San Francisco is out in full force on a hot August night at the well-known Compton’s Cafeteria. The locale is in the seedy Tenderloin district. With its usual assortment of transgender people, young street hustlers, and down-and-out regulars, the owners of the restaurant become annoyed with a noisy crowd at one table, and call 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. A riot breaks out complete with windows breaking, furniture flying through the air. Police reinforcements arrive, and the fighting spills into the street. For the first time, the drag queens unite to fight back, and in one of those rare moments get the better of the police. 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. The viewer meets Felicia Elizondo who tells of prostituting herself in order to survive; and Aleshia Brevard, a drag entertainer, describes how her talent spared her from street prostitution. Perhaps the most intriguing commentary is Sgt. Elliot Blackstone, who helps explain the conflict between the San Francisco Police Department and the city's transgender community and how the San Francisco Police Department's policies changed to reflect greater acceptance in the years following the 1966 riot. This documentary also explores the connection between transgender activism and the larger social upheavals affecting the United States in the 1960s, such as the civil rights and sexual liberation movements, the youth counterculture, urban renewal, and Great Society antipoverty programs. Two transsexual activists, and former prostitutes, Amanda St. Jaymes and Tamara Ching, recount the upheaval 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. Further, Screaming Queens explores the reverberations, both large and small, of the rise of transgender activism, a story in which the riot at Compton's Cafeteria plays a pivotal role.

The film ends on a high note. It shows how in just two short years transgender activism helped transform San Francisco culture in subtle and profound ways and presents reflective comments from the Compton's Cafeteria subjects who bravely ushered in a controversial revolution that continues today.