28 December 2009

Screaming Queens

An article on Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman's film Screaming Queens, originally published in Vertigo magazine in 2008.

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Revolutionary movements prize history above all else. Their narratives are constructed carefully: the most powerful interests determine key battles and individuals, intending to maintain their prominence by emphasising their radical commitment from the outset into – implicitly – the future.

Such movements rely upon a strong collective identity, defined both through struggle against the prevailing order and through dialogue between internal factions. Often, those factions, unified through shared oppression, come together for an epochal moment: once the dominant power is undermined, their expedient unity falters and the struggles become internal – including the struggle over history.

For the (often awkward) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender alliance, the definitive battle has always been Stonewall. Gay male activists – often the alliance’s strongest voice – have always prized New York’s Stonewall Inn riots in 1969, when gays, lesbians and transgender people rose against police brutality, as the moment when organised LGBT liberation politics began.

The relationship between transgender activists and lesbian and gay groups has often been fractious, both because transsexuality has threatened certain lesbian feminists resenting transsexual intruders upon ‘women-only’ spaces, but also because trans activists have very different interests. Bracketed by the dominant order as a sexual minority, due in part to the complex role of drag within gay club culture, transgender theorists have stressed that gender identity is unconnected to any specific sexual orientation. This emphasis has not always pleased campaigners for non-heterosexual relationship rights, who have often stated that same-sex desire is unrelated to gender incongruity.

Whilst the alliance has empowered the community, it has been crucial for transgender activists to construct their own history – one that overlaps with, and informs, a wider LGBT discourse but focused on ‘transgender’ people. This project flowered in the 1990s after Leslie Feinberg politicised the word, creating a collective ‘transgender’ identity, stretching from cross-dressers to transsexuals. With a definitive umbrella term, historians could write an inclusive narrative encompassing sexological research into transvestism, the possibilities of sex change technology and trans-specific resistance to oppression.

Feinberg credited ‘militant young gay transvestites’ with leading the Stonewall fight. In 1995, historian Susan Stryker asked why the ‘Lesbian and Gay History’ panel at a Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies conference included no transgender speakers. One reply – that transsexuals were psychopaths who mutilated their bodies to conform to reactionary gender stereotypes and discredited the gay/lesbian movement – came from Jim Fouratt, Gay Liberation Front co-founder and Stonewall veteran. Stryker asserted: “I’m transsexual, and I’m not sick. And I’m not going to listen to you say that about me, or people like me, any more.”

Stryker won the exchange, suggesting new interpretations of gender diversity to LGBT activists. Ten years later, Stryker presented her film Screaming Queens, co-directed with Victor Silverman, documenting the little-known transgender riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, three years before Stonewall. Fouratt confronted her, decrying an Orwellian transgender hegemony erasing his experiences through historical revisionism. The audience shouted Fouratt down, and he stormed out.

The Stonewall riots were pansexual, a consequence of the authorities’ ghettoising sexual and gender minorities together – and targeting trans people as the most visible members of the LGBT community. Screaming Queens’ opening emphasises the conservative inability to distinguish – contemporary footage of San Francisco’s impoverished Tenderloin district with ominous commentary about the city’s 90,000-strong ‘gay’ community, warning that ‘only at night do they show their true colours’ as several trans women walk the streets.

Narrating the film, Stryker posits the Compton’s Cafeteria riot not just as a precursor to Stonewall, but also as the transgender community’s “debut on the stage of American political history”. It was trans people, particularly ethnic minorities, ghettoised in Tenderloin: when frequent raids threatened Compton’s sanctuary, a queen threw coffee over a policeman’s face, and suddenly there was an uprising.

Hustlers kicked policemen, queens fought with their heels and handbags, a police car was destroyed and, as transsexual activist and former prostitute Amanda St. Jaymes says, people didn’t care about going to jail – it needed to happen and besides, they were constantly arrested anyway.

The riot was a crucial moment within a long history of increased trans visibility and consequent oppression and counter-oppression. Stryker and Silverman document the shifting balance between police brutality and the confidence that Harry Benjamin’s exploration of ‘transsexualism’ gave transgender San Francisco, evoking a sense that revolution was inevitable by interviewing Tenderloin veterans from inside and outside the trans community, finding compassion from some unlikely quarters.

Sergeant Elliott Blackstone
received a standing ovation at Screaming Queens’ premiere. Asked why, as a straight man, he had fought so hard for LGBT rights after 1966, organising a church collection for hormones for transgendered people, he replied: “Because my religion teaches me to love everybody.” Blackstone and the Reverend Ed Hansen, from the progressive Glide Memorial Methodist Church, offer sympathetic counterpoints to the interviews with Sixties Tenderloin’s trans people (all Male-To-Female – the Female-To-Male community has its own history).

Even within Tenderloin’s community, there were divides: glamorous, white queens such as Aleshia Brevard, who worked as a Playboy bunny, found some economic and expressive freedom in entertaining, whilst the less fortunate feared losing their insecure jobs, police harassment and a serial killer that targeted trans street workers.

The queens lacked the freedom to leave Tenderloin – not just because they were frequently arrested for “female impersonation” and interned if they refused to let the police shave their hair. Tenderloin was excluded from San Francisco’s anti-poverty programmes, and its trans community denied a political voice – the hope offered by Benjamin’s willingness to “give hormones to everybody” and transsexual Christine Jorgensen’s high celebrity simply fuelled their resentment.

Stryker and Silverman weave in archive footage of a transsexual on television, demanding to be treated as “a normal, respectable woman”, voicing the community’s determination to win the right to express their inner gender with dignity. As Blackstone put it, the “unnecessary violence” used by the police at Compton’s finally turned the resentment into rioting, which distilled into one of the Vietnam War era’s most neglected civil rights movements.

“I knew very little about sexuality except that I enjoyed sex”, confides Blackstone, who sadly died in October 2006. “I’d never heard about transsexuals before.” Blackstone and Hansen helped start a welfare programme for Tenderloin’s trans people through San Francisco’s Center for Special Problems. Crucially, transsexuals were issued with new ID cards appropriate to their gender – the first step in their battle for the recognition of reassignment that is still far from being won, forty years on.

“I’m so proud of those women who fought at Compton’s”, says Stryker. “Transgender people need to change a world that still denies us many of our basic human rights.” A clearly defined history, with inspirational individuals standing against oppression, will provide a solid foundation for a trans – and LGBT – movement that will continue the global fight against subjugation. It is a history that can never again be written without Compton’s Screaming Queens.