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4th December 2022

Screaming Queens: representations of trans history

Susan Stryker’s Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria represents the radical potential for trans history narratives in cinema
Screaming Queens: representations of trans history
Photo: Christopher Meadowcroft

Club Q Colorado Spring, November 19; a busy Saturday night. It is Transgender Week of Visibility, a week-long celebration of the trans community. It is moments into Trans Day of Remembrance when someone fires a gun in Club Q. Five people are killed, many more injured, in what is known as a safe space for LGBT people in Colorado. News spreads across the internet, Twitter is full of those who knew the victims; from trans facebook groups to those who frequent Club Q. A story spreads of a “drag queen” stomping on the gunman’s head with their high heel, it is later revealed that this is a trans woman who has been misgendered by the media. 

Violence in the trans community is something that feels inescapable. Last week, a woman told me how when she used the toilet in a city-centre bar in Manchester, other women banged on the cubicle door and demanded she leaves. Friends are unable to find work, or kicked out by their parents, or receive death threats in secondary school and never quite recover. So often we bear the brunt of violence, and we are never afforded the opportunity to tell our own stories. We lose our lives to transphobic violence, through a gunman or a quiet type of violence that strips trans people of their voices.

Who Tells Trans Stories?

The Danish Girl (2015) features Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe; one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Cisgender directors and actors tell the story of a woman’s transition. Similarly, we see events vital to the gay liberation movement, such as Stonewall, rewritten through cinema. Stonewall (2015) shows the Stonewall Inn riots, through the lens of a cis white gay man, ignoring both the influence of self-identified ‘transsexuals’ and ‘transvestites’, and that of Black and ethnic minority queer people.  

Reclaiming Our Voices

Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005) is a documentary film focusing on the riots against police brutality at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin, San Francisco 1966. The film is co-directed by and follows Susan Stryker. She begins the film by addressing the audience, telling us her interest in the area of study. Stryker, is herself, transgender, and came out during her P.h.D in United States History. We follow Stryker uncovering the archives to bring to life the riot at Compton’s, a seemingly lost historical event.

Compton’s Cafeteria was a place in which queer, particularly trans, women would come together, to support each other, to see who had made it through the night. However, this was not a safe space, the police were often called and harassed and arrested members of the community. Participants speak of the conditions at the time,  Felicia “Flames” Elizondo, “a lot of people thought we were sick, mental trash. Nobody cared whether we lived or died. Our own families abandoned us and we had nowhere to go.”

One night in 1966, a woman threw a hot cup of coffee onto a police officer inside Compton’s Cafeteria. After this, the cafeteria ‘erupted’ into violence. Protestors damaged a police car and burned down a sidewalk newsstand, symbolising one of the first displays of queer militancy and counter-violence.

Stryker’s documentary is a mix of the few archival footage of the event, and interviews with those who were at Compton’s Cafeteria Riots, or from the surrounding community. Everyone interviewed, bar one, is a trans woman. Stryker relies on those who rioted, rather than turning to organisations or institutions for the facts. Stryker amplifies the voices of those that are so often silenced.

 

Why do trans histories matter?

In Screaming Queens, Stryker acknowledges her own personal involvement with the project, she is looking for a transgender history, something to tether her identity to. History is important for our communities. Not to hold on to the past, but to root ourselves as we look toward the future. There are often claims that ‘transness’ is “new”, and a “fad”. By looking into the past we can see how attempts to silence us have always failed. We have always been here, fighting for ourselves, those we have lost, and those to come. We are not new phenomena, we cannot be scared out of being or back into the closet.

Transgender histories are as important now as ever, in a time it seems trans identities are increasingly under attack, our histories can remind us that we can fight back. Stryker tells the story of our ancestral Screaming Queens and encourages us to keep on their tradition.

 

Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria is available on Netflix.


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