Reading S.F. the Riot Act

San Francisco culture, the theory goes, has been wild and innovative from the beginning, from Joshua Norton and Lillie Coit to the Beat poets and hippies to the Mitchell Brothers and Hunter S. Thompson. But free love, free thought, and free reign haven't always been welcome. This is the town that prosecuted Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and Lenny Bruce on obscenity charges. In the mid-1960s, the city was under such tight moralistic control that the police would send out roving packs of officers in riot gear to clear the streets of individuals who looked “wrong,” which often meant transgender. It was illegal for men to wear women's clothes, and a person could be arrested, charged – and pretty thoroughly beaten – for wearing the “wrong” shirt or belt. One of the only safe places for transvestites to socialize after hours was Compton's Cafeteria in the Tenderloin. In August 1966 – less than a year before the Summer of Love – police raided the establishment and began to arrest drag queens. But the queens banded together and fought back. Chairs flew through windows. Fires were set. And a human-rights movement began. It's the first known act of violent resistance by a queer population, predating New York's Stonewall riots by nearly three years. Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker explore it in Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria. Through interviews with participants and police as well as still photos and archival footage, Silverman and Stryker show the oppression transgender people faced and also the strength of will that helped overcome it. It's simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting to learn that some of the women involved in the riot are still active in the city's transgender community, and that a member of the police force was also among those who eventually led the effort to repeal the cross-dressing ordinance. Tonight KQED provides a free screening of this film as well as the documentary Stonewall Uprising: American Experience.
Tue., June 28, 9 p.m., 2011

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