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'Screaming Queens'

Mon 31 May 2004 In: True Stories

Susan Stryker The GLBT Historical Society of Northern California is a formidable resource, the second-largest collection of GLBT-related material in the world. There are around 450 different manuscript collections, 3000 periodicals, tens of thousands of photographs and hundreds of thousands of other ephemeral items; flyers, posters and the like. Painstakingly cross-referenced and indexed, it's a researcher's dream come true. Susan Stryker began as a volunteer at the Society when she left graduate school, and was on the board of directors within a year. “The organisation was facing some really difficult financial challenges, it was all volunteer-run, without any kind of staff really. We were sometimes able to keep an archivist on staff but there was no director or administrator,” she says. “I was just finishing up a post-doc in sexuality studies at Stanford University about that time. I thought that could be an interesting thing to do, and I had a long history with the organisation. So I stepped in and did that job (executive director) for five years.” During that time, Stryker worked on several books, including "Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area". Delving into the archives looking for material on the history of Gay Pride parades, she made a fascinating discovery. In the centre of a programme from the first San Francisco Gay Pride parade in 1972 was a story that traced the beginnings of gay activism in the United States not to the Stonewall Inn riot of 1969, but three years earlier at a place called Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, 1966. Compton's was a popular late-night hangout located in an area of the city known as the Tenderloin – an area infamous for drugs, gambling, and a ghetto for gay and transgendered people. A high percentage of transgenders lived in the Tenderloin, forced there because of discrimination in employment and housing, which drove many to prostitution. According to the story in the Pride programme, the police raided Compton's on the night in question – a regular occurrence – but on this occasion the queens in attendance fought back. By the time it was over, patrons had smashed out the windows of the restaurant, police had called in reinforcements and fighting had spilled out into the street. Stryker was skeptical about the existence of this event, which she described when introducing an excerpt from her forthcoming documentary on the riot, “Screaming Queens”, at Auckland University last week. “I thought, well wouldn't that be great if it were true, but how come I've never heard anything about this riot? How could Stonewall have become Stonewall, and yet something very similar happened three years earlier and there's no historical memory of it at all?” she asked. “The tranny radical in me wants to believe it's true, but the skeptical historian is saying, prove it. So I started trying to verify this story that I found.” History wasn't the first stop on Stryker's career path. She started out initially in zoology and pre-med, being fascinated with life sciences and the way bodies functioned. She says these are questions that still interest her, she has simply changed her field of inquiry. “History seemed to me like - maybe foolishly at the time - the master discipline. History is the study of all human culture in the context of time, it's some kind of ultimate horizon for us,” she says. “Understanding history let me think about more things than just being a literary scholar, or a philosopher…my subject matter wasn't predetermined by anything.” Stryker believes historians are a conservative lot, and she sees her work as being more interdisciplinary, bringing in her knowledge of philosophy and critical theory. She also has a passion for visual arts and film, and the usage of personal stories to give context to a wider historical framework. “I think history is more approachable when it's told through a particular personal viewpoint, I think to tell a story in film it's very difficult to get into a story that doesn't have a face on it…you want a personal take on things, and it's through that personal experience that you get in touch with the broader issue.” She is matter-of-fact about her own transsexuality – she never felt comfortable identifying as “he”, so she changed. She came from a US military family, which meant a lot of moving around the States as well as Europe and the Pacific. Her background didn't make coming out any more or less difficult. “I don't think it's ever easy deciding you're going to change your life that drastically,” she says, “but my family has been really supportive of me, so no real complaints there.” Stryker likes to challenge people's thinking, but she doesn't go about this aggressively. She presents people with the facts, in some cases extraordinary, and lets them draw their own conclusions. “There's something wild and wonderful about my transsexuality that does disrupt the way a lot of people think the world is put together,” she once said in a radio interview. It's a statement that could easily be applied to transsexual people in general – for both gay and straight people, it's a much misunderstood area of human sexuality, and studying transsexual history for any length of time it's impossible to not question your own world view. “Both homosexuality and heterosexuality depend on stabilising gender identity and gender roles. It doesn't question what is a man and what is a woman,” Stryker says. Once we do start to question what makes a man or a woman, the results are often confusing and frightening – particularly for straight men who find women attractive that they subsequently discover are biologically male. “I think that's a homophobic as well as transphobic response. These guys feel like they're attracted to someone who meets their definition of what attractive womanhood is, and then they discover that they have a different anatomy, that it's ‘really a man', and sometimes that results in violence against transgendered people. It's very important to educate the population that gender can be more diverse than they might expect.” When the traditional gender barriers come down, so too does the idea of rigid sexual orientation. While the orientation of some transgendered people remains the same after making a transition – creating a situation where, for example, a male-to-female transsexual is still attracted to women and therefore “becomes” lesbian – there are also situations of transgendered people whose orientation has changed along with their sex. “I know people who have been homosexual, changed sex, and remained homosexual. I know a lot of people who have, for example, been leather dykes, transitioned, and become tranny leather dykes. There's a whole scene.” It's a topic you could easily talk about for hours. Stryker's answer to the question of why this might happen goes right to the heart of our sexual orientation “mechanics”. “I think some people eroticise being with a certain kind of body, for example ‘I like somebody with a vagina and breasts', or ‘I like somebody with a penis and testicles', and that's just what you like, and it doesn't matter who you are. But, who you are determines whether it's homosexual or heterosexual.” For those who eroticise difference, ie. their partner being different from them, they are likely to remain heterosexual after a gender change and will therefore experience a change in their objects of desire, Stryker says. Likewise for those who eroticise sameness – a homosexual orientation is retained. One of Stryker's early discoveries after beginning work at the Historical Society was the papers of a pioneering female-to-male transsexual named Lou Sullivan. “He did a lot of work with medical and psychotherapeutic professionals working with transgendered people to say that sometimes when people change genders, their sexual orientation is homosexual. Previously, there was a lot of pressure on transgendered people to be heterosexual in their achieved gender… doctors didn't want to be part of the ‘creation' of homosexuality.” It was information from the archives at the Historical Society that also got the ball rolling for Stryker's research into the Compton's riot, allowing her to formulate several reasons as to why August 1966 was such a flashpoint. Urban redevelopment saw many working class neighbourhoods being torn down in the interests of “cleaning up” the city, causing overcrowding and making the living conditions for those in the Tenderloin, whom Stryker describes as already on the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder, worse. Police were cracking down extremely hard on prostitution, the bread-and-butter for many transgendered Tenderloin residents. The Vietnam war was on, and with San Francisco being a port city, soldiers passing through on their way to southeast Asia were madly shagging their way through the population and then, when they were no longer tied to the pier, spreading STDs amongst each other. “This is something that's been documented - men in the army and navy have sex with each other. That's why there's such a hysteria about gays in the military. In situations where it's mostly men being with each other, men will sometimes have sex with men; in prisons, on ships, working in mines together, in the military together. It's not every man all the time, but people find outlets…it's what sociologists call situational homosexuality.” Surely this means there is a recognition, at institutional level, that all this man-on-man sex is going on? Stryker says yes, and it's hardly a late 20th century phenomenon. There is a connection between military mobilization and policing of public sexual activity. “The first book I found that talks about homosexuality in the military was written in 1918. It was called ‘Homosexuality: A Military Menace' and it was published in San Francisco. In the Spanish/American war, men who had been called up for military duty were coming to the Presidio military base in San Francisco, camping out in tents there ready to be sent overseas. They didn't have any way of supporting themselves financially, and they were surviving through hustling – it's really well documented that this occurred. “In that setting sexual activity can be a factor for the transmission of STDs, and if in war time conditions in an all-male environment men are having sex with each other, they don't want that, because they don't want their troops getting sick. If you're losing 10% of your fighting force because of an outbreak of gonorrhea then that's not effective…it's all about being practical.” People won't fight back against oppression if they feel there is no alternative, says Stryker, but in the summer of 1966, gay and transgendered people had a lot to get worked up about. The civil rights and identity movements were gaining traction. A popular book, “The Transexual Phenomenon” by Harry Benjamin, popularized the term “transsexual” and argued there should be a change in the medical profession's attitude toward sex changes. Slowly, Stryker's research saw the mythical riot transforming into a piece of recorded history. People who were present began to came forward, and are interview subjects in her film. Their stories, at turns moving and amusing, are interspersed with rare period footage of the Tenderloin and Compton's. A major source of this footage is a film entitled “Gay San Francisco”, produced in the late sixties for the underground cinema circuit. Stryker uses a piece from this film to open “Screaming Queens”. A cheesy voiceover narration names San Francisco as the “gay capital at the world”, citing “liberal law enforcement” that makes the city a “magnet” for people (freaks, it is implied) from all over the world. Stryker was delighted on first viewing this film, as after this initial introduction it cuts to footage of three drag queens entering Compton's, and makes a Chinese Whispers-style reference to the riot which would have occurred a year prior to the footage shown in the film. “The fights between the screaming queens were so intense that police were forced to ask a popular all night cafeteria to close by midnight,” crows the tabloidesque narrator. The opening clip of Stryker's “Screaming Queens” provides an ironic counterpoint to the historical truth which follows it. “We start our film with this archival footage that talks about screaming queens scratching each other's eyes out, which is a stereotype, and then we unpack that stereotype. We gradually reveal the historical dimension of what happened there, and show why there was a riot at that place, at that time. It was actually the beginning of a social movement and not just a catfight between screaming queens on a street corner.” It's a social movement that has come a long way since the sixties, but in many ways the legacy of the Tenderloin as a dodgy area has lived on. “Some of the people who are struggling most economically wind up there, and it tends to be people of colour. There are still transgendered people living there, but there are several different social agencies that deal with transgender social issues.” It's one of the parts of the city that still has problems with drugs and violence. There's still prostitution, and still problems with the police. Yet, although the primary gay neighbourhood is now in the Castro, away from the waterfront, there is still a noticeably gay presence in the Tenderloin, now known as Little Saigon due to the large number of southeast Asian immigrants living there. “There is a drag bar in the Tenderloin right across the street from where Compton's used to be…it's still there. There's a drag show every Friday/Saturday night and there's people who perform there who've been performing in drag in the Tenderloin since the mid 1960s, and some of the people that I interview in the film actually work there sometimes.” Stryker is currently waiting on completion funding to finish her documentary, but she hopes to have it ready by early 2005. We may very well see her presenting it at Out Takes next year. “I would love to, as I've been saying, if I'm available and the film is ready to go into distribution…I've really enjoyed the time that I've spent in New Zealand and Australia and would love to come back to this part of the world again.”     Chris Banks - 31st May 2004

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Monday, 31st May 2004 - 12:00pm

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