Screaming Queens: Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria

It was a hot August night in San Francisco in 1966. Compton’s Cafeteria, in the seedy Tenderloin district, was hopping with its usual assortment of transgender people, young street hustlers, and down-and-out regulars. The management, annoyed by the noisy crowd at one table, called the police. When a surly cop, accustomed to manhandling Compton’s clientele, attempted to arrest one of the drag queens, she threw her coffee in his face. Mayhem erupted, and police reinforcements arrived as the fighting spilled into the street. For the first time, the drag queens banded together to fight back, getting the better of the cops, whom they kicked and stomped with their high-heeled shoes and beat with their purses. For everyone at Compton’s that night, one thing was certain ? things would never be the same again.

Screaming Queens introduces viewers to a diverse cast of former prostitutes, drag entertainers, police officers, ministers, and neighborhood activists, all of whom played a part in the events leading up to the Compton’s Cafeteria riot. The programa depicts a marginalized community few people know, one that exists in the midst of a city famous for its cosmopolitan glamour. With candor and from differing points of view, the subjects recount the difficulties they encountered in the Tenderloin, as well as the sense of community they created there in the mid 1960s.

The documentary goes on to show the connection between transgender activism and the larger social upheavals affecting the United States in the 1960s: the civil rights and sexual liberation movements, the youth counterculture, urban renewal, and Great Society antipoverty programs. Further, Screaming Queens explores the reverberations, both large and small, of the rise of transgender activism, a story in which the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria plays a pivotal role.

WGBH 2/44 – Sun, June 18, 10pm, WGBH 44