This event will be a discussion of the film ‘Screaming Queens: The Riots at Compton Cafeteria’ with the filmmaker Professor Susan Stryker.
About this Event
Fifteen years has passed since Susan Stryker’s renowned film “Screaming Queens: The Riots at Compton’s Cafeteria”. It documented the experiences of transgender people living within San Francisco’s Tenderloin district during the 1960s, and a powerful moment of transgender resistance to police harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria. However, much has changed since then, and this site is now part of a private for-profit incarceration facility operated by GEO Group.
To discuss the implications of this and how the struggle for transgender rights has evolved since 2005 will be Susan Stryker. Joining her in conversation will be Hannah Ayres, PhD student and convener of queer/disrupt, and E-J Scott, Founder of the Museum of Transology.From the blurb for the event on Eventbrite
The documentary “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria” was made available for free viewing prior to the talk – see here.
Susan Stryker is a male academic and visiting Professor at Yale University in the field of gender studies. His main interest is in ‘discovering’ transgender history.
E. J. Scott
Goldsmiths. Perhaps that’s all I need to say. Okay, I will say a bit more. E-J Scott founded the Museum of Transology – you can look around the collection virtually if you click a link. The About page at the time of writing carried a photo of a My Little Pony toy (a mass produced toy aimed at very young girls) and the written message: ‘Immersing myself in My Little Pony is how I manage my dysphoria’.
Made by Stryker in 2005, it looks back at a supposed moment when ‘transgender’ people (which they were not known as then) fought back at mainstream society during a riot at cafe in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco. At best it is an okay oral history account of what it was like living and working the streets as a cross dressing gay male prostitute.
Stryker only managed to cobble together a handful of men who lived and worked in the Tenderloin around the time: a professional female impersonator and a few of the ‘girls’ who cross-dressed, and who proceeded to have operations later on, who also sold sex. There is also a reverend and a policeman (Elliot Blackstone – a significant heterosexual activist and ally to the men) who both worked the area. Of these only Blackstone and a trans-identified male called Amanda appear to remember the incident personally.
The first thing I noted was that Stryker had not ascertained an exact date of the supposedly momentous incident that happened in August 1966 – ‘It was a weekend night I believe’ says Amanda, making clear he hadn’t a clue either. Stryker wants us to believe that it was a fight for human rights but as the story unfolds it clearly isn’t.
The film opens with Stryker hard at work in an archive (archive is a buzz word among gender identity activists). Stryker tells us in voice over, whilst poring over the archives, that he had just completed a PhD in history when he came out as transsexual. Discovering the story about the Compton riot changed his life and he felt that it ‘might represent the transgender debut on the stage of American political history’.
The definition of the current political meaning of the word ‘transgender’ is established via a contribution from the Reverend who tells us he didn’t know what the word meant in the 60s – when the term didn’t exist. In fact ‘transgender’ was not coined until perhaps the mid 90s* and Stryker makes no attempt to correct this obvious mistake or to clarify the commonly understood definitions at the time.
* Leslie Feinberg’s 1997 book ‘Transgender Warriors‘ likely popularised the term. The closing comment in the documentary also suggests this too, as it says the first San Franciscan anti-discrimination law for transgender people was passed in 1995.
Stryker makes the outrageous claim that the police tightly controlled the movements of transgender people in the Tenderloin and did not allow them to leave the area. He says it, and then presents nothing at all to back it up, nor mentions it again.
Many of the men risked violence selling sex in the streets around the Tenderloin, with one reflecting that was why so many took drugs. High heels were used as weapons. Those who had had silicone injections in their faces were particularly inclined to rebuke any assailant. The risk of violence was so high, one said, because the ‘girls’ would conceal the fact that they still had male genitalia.
It is understandable then, that the managers of the chain cafe, were not keen on having such patrons regularly visit their establishment. The ‘girls’ repeatedly attest to being asked by the police to vacate premises and we learn up front that typically groups of queens would buy a single coffee and sit in the Compton all day and buy nothing else. Next to the cafe was a Turkish bath and the road outside was used to pick up business. The ‘girls’ talk about police charging them for female impersonation for the tiniest feminine effects, but Blackstone said he has no personal recollection of obnoxious police behaviour.
Stylistically it is clunky with lots of busy archive footage and sections of shaky camera dramatic reconstruction. When Stryker discusses the impact of new housebuilding projects in the city, we are treated to the image of a builder digging followed by a man in stirrups apparently having a vaginoplasty.
We then learn that in July 1966, just a month before the riot, Dr Harry Benjamin’s book ‘The Transsexual Phenomenon’ was published. ‘He gave hormones to everyone’, notes one wistfully and it was generally felt that the possibility of surgery gave them the hope for the future.
Stryker specifically claims that Vanguard, a gay rights group, formed in July 1966, a claim contradicted by another account I have seen and also the Wikipedia entry. According to Stryker, Vanguard used the Compton for its meetings.
We are told that on the night of the riot, the management at the cafe complained that men were congregating on the premises but not purchasing food and asked the police to remove the loiterers. A few weeks earlier Vanguard had picketed the cafe.
Stryker claims a document he found said the fighting started when a policeman grabbed a queen and ‘she threw a coffee in his face’ and several proceeded to beat the policeman over their heads with their handbags. Amanda testifies that at the end of the evening from outside he saw that all of the windows of the premises had been smashed in.
It was the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history.Stryker commentary in documentary whilst camera pans over floor of cafe with broken plates on it
Being asked to leave a cafe because you are loitering and physically assaulting police when you are asked to leave is hardly the human rights issue of our time but Stryker think it is. In fact, he then cuts to the the Reverend who says:
These young adults just I think took great delight in the fact that they could combine their efforts together to address some of their concerns and maybe do some things together that they couldn’t do otherwise.The Reverend at approximately 45 minutes
I mean seriously The Reverend cannot be endorsing to the actual event of the riot, I suspect he must be referring to Vanguard or something else, yet this is how it is suggested via the cut.
The fact that Stryker could not find even one person to give a lucid account of what happened says it all. Although difficult, the employees of the cafe and certainly the policeman involved in the arrests should have been traceable. Was it lack of a visit to an archive which meant that Stryker was not able to establish the date of the incident? Or was it because it was so insignificant that there was not a single newspaper report in the archives to be found? Were the participants even told that they were there to discuss this specific incident?
Stryker tells us after the riot Blackstone began working with the gay men in the Tenderloin community to improve relations and to help the men out of prostitution, into education and real work. Men were prodded in the direction of surgery and hormones via the initiative as well.
Significantly Blackstone never says he was motivated by the incident at the cafe, and this may well be because his work in the community had already begun in 1965.
The talking heads appear to claim that after the riot, police attitude to them substantially changed, but again this could well be directorial sleight of hand. Either way it seems more likely that it was Blackstone’s community efforts coming into fruition and a general attitude shift arising out of the Vietnam war and other social changes, which made the real difference.
The final scene we are back in the archives with Stryker as he leaves for the evening. Imaginative stuff.
The event was hosted by James Whitfield of Queer Disrupt, who told us he was a he/him. He basically read out the blurb about himself available on the website, i.e. that he is an MA student, whose work is being funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council – i.e. the same lot who are funding Thickie Cooper). His MA is on media representation of prisoners’ deaths with a ‘strong focus on the cases of transgender and BAME inmates’. Whitfield is a prison abolitionist as were the other panel members invited to discuss a film about a nebulous incident in America fifty years earlier.
These were Nim Ralph who works as a freelance trainer, and Morgan M. Page who currently has a podcast called ‘One from the Vaults’ (available on iTunes), and works (or worked) at Stonewall. Oh and he is also responsible for running a workshop to groom lesbians into becoming interested in trans-identified men – the Cotton Ceiling – written about about by GNC-centric here.
Together Ralph and Page are currently running a reading group on the topic of prison abolition via the Abolitionist Futures website.
A little bit of history
E.J. Scott, aged 33 3/4, was invited to give her response to the documentary first. Sporting a self-conscious tache and a T-shirt ‘You’re never more than 10 foot away from a Tory’, Scott was every inch of a would-be rebel and sometimes talked in an affected tone, which made her sound like Tony Curtis doing ‘Shell Oil Junior’ in Some Like It Hot. Scott learned us good on the role that the trans have played in the whole of history.
Stonewall had been ‘whitewashed’. Queer spaces, but especially trans queer spaces, were being robbed. This was due to ‘neoliberalist gentrification’ (many of the loony toon events I have been to are in Shoreditch, so a case of the kettle and the pot I’m afraid).
Scott turns to history for the answers. Queer oppression has been going on for 300 years. In the 1700s there were more queer pubs in London than there are now! (According to Mr Google the population of London then was about 650,000, today’s is close to 9 million, but who knows, could be true, right?) Why in one pub, one act used to pretend to birth a wooden spoon! Early evidence of queers criticising cis-het-normatives indeed!
Prior to the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in London, a ‘hue and cry’ system operated. There was also the Society of the Reformation of Manners, which Scott claims was used to target queers having sex (it was actually prostitution and brothels). Then the Bow Street Runners came along, to be finally superseded by the Metropolitan Police.
In 1746, Henry Fielding wrote a play called ‘She-Husband’, E.J Scott aged 33 3/4 said. Henry Fielding was the man behind the Bow Street Runners. Da-da-dah! And thus, this is why society is enthralled by the policing of trans bodies. It’s right back there at its inception. Basically she was saying that the police were institutionally transphobic.
But let’s take a look at the claim that Fielding wrote a play called the ‘She-Husband’. According to Wikipedia (sorry peeps, I don’t have time to go to the archives myself) Fielding wrote a book called The Modern Husband in 1732. Searches for his name with ‘She Husband’ bought up this link to an essay called Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband: Fact and Fiction – which describes it as ‘an anonymous pamphlet so obscure and so nearly pornographic’. The point of the essay is to link its authorship to Fielding. Um, okeee.
Scott whistled us back through time, back to 1966, seamlessly tying the dark mean streets of queer London with that of the incident in Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966. It was a recurrence of violence.
Stryker responds to E.J.’s response
Susan Stryker thanked E.J. saying he didn’t know the history behind Fielding and agreed that the police had always been obsessed. He repeated the claim that trans people weren’t allowed to live in other parts of San Francisco or have different types of jobs (more likely they weren’t welcome, if anything).
He explained that Compton’s was an all night cafe which allowed in custom which would have otherwise been turned away at other venues, since it had no age restriction. It was often raided by police. With no embarrassment whatsoever, Stryker said that ‘one night in August’ there was the usual sweep of police, describing it as a relatively minor event. He said about 200 people were involved (the cafe seated about 65) and it lasted about an hour.
By happy coincidence the site of the cafe had recently been an office space for the private prison provider GEO Group and very close by there was a halfway house for prisoners returning to civvy street, managed by the same. Stryker wanted to stop GEO Group from operating (I don’t know anything about GEO Group, perhaps they are bad, but I don’t see how such an action could possibly benefit the people in need of such accommodation). Stryker is an abolitionist.
Stryker had recently received a grant to explore the legacy of trans militancy in the area and stated that trans people ‘still don’t matter’ and of course especially ‘black transwomen’.
Back to Compton’s. Stryker said that night represented a day which changed things (this is the one he can’t establish a date for).
Morgan Page speaks …
… and told us that he was obsessed with the Gay Liberation Front which organised in London – which he claimed started off as an ‘abolitionist struggle’. Within a year of their existence they had set up a working group of transvestites and transsexuals which included Rachel Pollack and Roz Kaveney. Their aims were apparently that they wanted an end to police harassment of queers and sex workers (why not the Queer Liberation Front in that case?).
Page mentioned that current UK prison policy after been updated after a ‘political fallout’ – although Page didn’t name him, he was referring to ‘Karen White’ (aka David Thompson) – the convicted rapist put in a female prison who went on to assault several women – see Fairplay’s article. ‘Anti-trans’ campaigners were responsible for the policy shift, Page said.
Nim then spoke …
… but it was such a lot of waffle (even she admitted she couldn’t keep her train of thought) that I can’t really summarise. The easiest way to describe it was as a call to arms. She used the words straight from the Stalinist Playbook, things like ‘rolling back prison policy’.
She was interested to know from Stryker why one of the men in the film (Tamara Ching) had not felt safe in collaborating with Vanguard, a white organisation (he says in the film that he didn’t trust a white organisation, so that’s the answer).
Stryker responded that …
… he was very committed to having Tamara’s statement in the film, as it had had public funding the content was scrutinised by its sponsors (the opening lists a dozen separate funders). Stryker had been asked: How do we know it [the riot] happened? Why aren’t you asking other people? (This were my first responses too when watching the film – the local police station should have been the first port of call.) Stryker says that the funders wanted Tamara’s comment removed but he refused because he wanted a racially informed perspective.
Question to E.J. Scott – What is the importance of visible trans history?
Scott was absolutely desperate to let us know that she had visited Littlehey Prison (which houses men convicted of sexual offences only). I believe she said it was the maximum security wing, but Littlehey appears to be a Category C prison (A being the highest). She alleged that when she visited she was told by the guard that she was the first person in 30 years who had visited other than staff.
She went to meeting with the prison’s ‘LGBT Society’ and trans prisoners. She said that there were 30 men in the room to greet her. Fifteen of whom identified either as ‘transwomen’ or as ‘non-binary’. She said that they were desperate to know about terminology (I bet they were) and she took items from them which she is going to include in the Museum of Transology. I believe she may have suggested that we write to them to show them our love. She described them as ‘ordinary’ people’.
It might be common sense to think that Scott’s mind was far away from their sadistic and tortuous crimes as possible, but given her relative excitement telling the story probably not.
Question and Answer Session
Stryker paid tribute to feminist Angela Davis who he said had always included trans issues in her thinking. I hadn’t heard of Davis before, but she has fully endorsing gender identity ideology – see the NYT article. She is also a prison abolitionist.
Page said that the the current system of oppression of trans people started around the same time of the historical invention of the prison (I suspect he was referring to the first national prison estates established in the early 1800s of modern design, prison themselves predate modern civilisation) . Previous to that trans people had of course been respected as priests and generally as #braveandstunning
Stryker said that oppression of trans people was about ‘regulating bodies’ and also uttered the word ‘slavery’ and were linked to global capital (true dat). Liberation meant allyship with anyone who is anti-capitalist.
Since Stryker had drawn so much attention to it himself, there was a fawning question which prodded slightly the absence of historical veracity in his documentary. Ooh, said Stryker, it’s all to do with the aesthetic and never liking to say never/nor or this and that. Or something. It was just a trans way of being in the world. The contradictory part of transness. Transness puts you in a non-linear time/space dimension. He was constantly reaching back for his – wait for it – transcestors. Anyone who transitions materialises their fantasy.
So. That’s cleared that up then.
Scott pipped up that the way we collect history is very ‘Eurocentric’ – without explaining what this might mean. Museums were largely sites of violence. Scott was interested in oral histories (i.e. unverified stories). Scott rejected the rhetoric of being ‘inevitably trans’ because that ‘robs us of our vibrancy’. ‘My body, my future,’ said Scott, this was far more exciting to her than thinking about herself through the lens of pathology. She wanted people to chant ‘trans women are trans’ (TWAT for short – let’s get this going).
There was a bit more discussion about prisons after that until we were returned to another member of the Queer Disrupt team who closed the session and literally screamed in our faces like a demented banshee. Further events are planned, including a workshop called ‘Fuck the gender binary’. Great stuff. As people left the virtual room, posting messages in the chat, I noted that a senior Stonewall employee had attended.
The link to the recorded webinar is here.
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