“Screaming Queens” documentary

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On Tuesday, Nov. 6, the Civil Rights Heritage Center at IU South Bend had a showing of the film “Screaming Queens” to celebrate 2018 Transgender Awareness Month. It had been part of an ongoing series at the Center, in which films relating to current hot-button civil rights issues were shown, followed by a discussion panel.

“Screaming Queens” itself is a 2005 documentary on the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood; the event is significant as the first known incident of a riot-style response to LGBTQ discrimination. The showing was followed by a discussion panel featuring Meghan Buell, founder of local transgender organization of TREES, and IU South Bend’s own Veteran Counselor Rhiannon Carlson.

While documentaries are not what many people would consider entertaining, “Screaming Queens” managed to keep the audience completely engaged. The majority of the film spends its time constructing the image of life in Tenderloin prior to the event. Tenderloin is depicted as a “slummy, gay ghetto,” in the film’s own words, featuring the extravagant culture that the city of San Francisco is known for, combined with 1920s New York-styled political corruption and civil unrest. The film describes the neighborhood as a vice city ran by highly corrupt police; a place where drag queens and “transsexuals,” because the word “transgender” was not known to exist before 1965, had to become prostitutes due to not being able to be hired for other jobs.

Rhiannon Carlson called it an “environment of survival,” where people did what they had to do in order to stay alive from one day to the next.  The presentation of Tenderloin in “Screaming Queens” gives the city a character and style unlike what one would expect from a historical record, which makes 1960s San Francisco feel “real” in a form that even some current-day cities may lack.

San Francisco is known, among many things, for being the “gay capital of America,” as a 1964 “Life Magazine” article put it, and “Screaming Queens” uses the history of Tenderloin specifically to demonstrate why. Tenderloin’s history was shaped by crime, and since the state of merely being LGBTQ was considered to be criminal activity at the time, it followed that Tenderloin’s high concentration of LGBTQ individuals created a strong LGBTQ community. This community used local restaurant Compton’s Cafeteria as a regular meeting spot. While it was considered a good place for food and drink, Meghan Buell described Compton’s as a place to “celebrate that they were still alive.”

Most significantly to the documentary, it produced the gay liberation organization Vanguard.  Vanguard’s confrontational nature, featuring organized protests and occasionally violent responses to oppression, was still fairly new in the U.S. at the time, and it was certainly the first of its kind for LGBTQ individuals. Vanguard’s activities helped to create the atmosphere in which the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot could begin.

The riot itself was initiated during a standard police raid on the site, allegedly escalating when a drag queen threw coffee in a police officer’s face. Many Vanguard members were present at Compton’s during the event and they helped contribute to the riot.

While the phrase “violence only leads to violence” has very frequently been used in condemnations of violent responses to social injustice, it is not always reflective of reality. The LGBTQ situation in Tenderloin improved drastically after the Compton’s Riot; transgendered people in the area were harassed by police less, law enforcement made active attempts to improve their relationship with the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ started to become recognized as a minority in government programs of the period designed to address the concerns of the Civil Rights Movement.

The discussion panel with Carlson and Buell expanded on the long-term effects of the Compton’s Riot, and of the LGBTQ portion of the Civil Rights movement in general. While Buell and Carlson described very different experiences with transgender discrimination, both added important modern context to the fight for LGBTQ rights. This fight is still too frequently as frustrating, if statistically less likely to be deadly, as it was back then.  It has always been “a negotiation for trans people to be equal,” describes Buell.

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