Nine people gathered in the Crozier Center for Women on Oct. 26 for a night of reflecting on queer history. The intimate crowd formed a semicircle in the Crozier living room, eating cookies meditatively as the 2005 documentary “Screaming Queens” flickered from a projector onto the wall in front of them.
This showing of “Screaming Queens” was hosted by the Crozier Center to accompany the Transphobia and Cis Allyship Panel as an extension of LGBTQ+ History Month. “Screaming Queens” is about the 1966 riot at a San Francisco diner called Compton’s Cafeteria. The documentary followed one of the first known instances of collective queer resistance in U.S. history, and contextualized the discussion of trans rights on campus.
The film focused not only on the riot itself, but on the lives of the members of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in the ’60s and ’70s, where much of the city’s trans community gathered due to housing and job discrimination elsewhere. Those interviewed in the film, the surviving members of that community, painted a picture of a place both bleak and joyful, a place where trans women lived in crowded hotels and walked the streets at night, risking bodily harm and even their lives, but also a place where they were able to find a loving and raucous community of those united by the city’s rejections. They were the people who transformed the Tenderloin into a place “like Oz, like the Wizard of Oz,” and who also “sold [them]selves because [they] wanted to make a living –– sold [them]selves because [they] wanted to be loved,” in the words of Amanda St. Jaymes, an interviewee who lived in the Tenderloin during the ’60s.
The riot at Compton’s Cafeteria was a revolt against the city’s culture of intimidation and institutionalized bigotry. When the Cafeteria’s management became uncomfortable with their role as a gathering place for the LGBTQ+ members of the Tenderloin district, they called the police in for a raid of their own diner. Instead of passively accepting their arrests, these women, described in the press as “screaming queens,” threw coffee and salt shakers at the police and flooded the streets. It was an empowering moment that changed the environment of the district for years to come.
After the screening of “Screaming Queens,” the audience members discussed the film’s relevance to the current political climate– one in which the Trump administration has recently threatened to define gender on “a biological basis,” a move that could erase years of trans and genderqueer activism stemming directly from the bravery of the women of Compton’s Cafeteria. The crowd in Crozier seemed surprised by certain details shown in the film: To many, the allies of the members of the Tenderloin district seemed more progressive, sometimes almost comically, compared to the allies of today.
“There was one cop who was like, ‘Well, I didn’t get it, so I just read about it,’” Adriana Celaya ’22 said, to an eruption of laughter.
“I know! I heard that and I thought: what perfect allyship,” Willow Green ’21, co-manager of the Crozier Center, said in response.
There was also discussion on how to make spaces centered around queer education more attractive to non-queer students. “When we have readings and classes specifically for queer stuff, the people most likely to show up are queer people. I mean, yeah, that’s great, but then you’re not reaching the larger community that also needs to hear about this stuff,” said Toby McCabe ‘21.
The discussion was not all somber reminiscence. To the excitement of the group, McCabe shared his recent involvement in an initiative to make Knox County more inclusive.
“I’m working with a group of parents who are trying to make Knox County schools more accessible to people of all backgrounds,” McCabe said. McCabe’s plans include starting a Gay-Straight Alliance within Mount Vernon City Schools, drawing attention to the progress members of today’s LGBTQ+ community are able to make thanks to the activists of the past.