Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria. Directed by Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker. San Francisco, CA: Frameline, 2005. 57 minutes.

Stonewall Uprising. Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner. Boston, MA: PBS American Experience, 2010. 80 minutes.

Reviewed by Christina Belcher

The mainstream American gay and lesbian movement seems fully invested in the power of courts and cops to liberate LGBT people from multiple forms of oppression—marriage bans, non-inclusive hate crimes legislation, employment discrimination—even as many of these problems stem from the law itself. Meanwhile, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's Stonewall Uprising and Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker’s Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria serve as a reminder to students of the radical origins of LGBT rights movements in the United States. As the two films show, these radical origins brought different activist factions together in order to struggle against the state, rather than appeal to it for LGBT justice. These two documentaries tell different stories of the moment when the US LGBT movement was born. Certainly, the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York’s Greenwich Village is the dominant narrative of the movement's origin because the Stonewall riots exist in infamy as a turning point in the modern gay rights movement. In 1969, gay sex was illegal in all states except Illinois, and raids on gay bars to enforce these laws and other citywide regulations on gender presentation and sexual conduct were not unusual. On June 28th of that year, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar, and the patrons inside fought back, igniting a series of violent protests that lasted for days. However, viewing these two films together, Stryker and Silverman's film emerges as a counternarrative, a revisionary history of queer activist origins that reconsiders the place of Stonewall. That said, both films present students with the opportunity to think through issues that are as relevant to queer politics today as they were in those bicoastal, originary moments of the 1960s: the relationship between the law and queer communities, the differences between mainstream LGBT and radical queer contingencies, and the role of violence in social change. Additionally, both films provide the opportunity to experience scholarly work as a form of intimacy; they do so by approaching the past as Stryker does—finding community in the archive or, in a way, communing with the archive.

Stonewall Uprising, a straightforward retelling and reenactment of the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village, is a film that lends itself to comparative analyses that could be useful to undergraduates trying to distinguish between the radical impulses of queer theory and the mainstream American gay and lesbian movement. For instance, students might be asked to discuss its strong appeals to the similarities between the Civil Rights movement and gay liberation, and how those appeals remain in the LGBT movement’s rhetoric today. The film also contextualizes the riots amongst the late 60s gay establishment, dominated by the conservative Mattachine Society, which demanded that gays be included in mainstream American culture, as well as the gay and lesbian presence in the Civil Rights movement, the presence of the Black Panther Party and anti-war activists in the Village, the Mafia influence in the city’s gay establishments, and the incredible odds faced by a community that was subject to sterilizations, lobotomies, castrations, and aversion therapies by the overwhelmingly anti-gay medical and psychiatric institutions of the mid-twentieth century. In the midst of all this, Davis and Heilbroner show the formation of a community to be reckoned with. One Stonewall patron explains that after the uprising, “All of a sudden I had brothers and sisters, which I didn’t have before.” It is this community formation that allows students to make connections, at the film’s end, between the photographs of gay pride parades today and the struggles and sacrifices of the community’s forerunners, even while today's movement is not interested in radical action, but rather in becoming “the new normal.”

These comparative analyses extend to Screaming Queens, and Silverman and Stryker do an exceptional job of portraying a strong activist community formed not on the mainstream stage of political action within the confines of state institutions, but rather in the “slummy gay ghetto,” in the El Rosa Hotel located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where transgender women lived and conducted lives as sex workers, unable to find work in other professions throughout the city. It was there, not in city hall, where “[they] became a family,” protecting each other from cops and bad clients, taking trips to Woolworth's “to get more eyelashes.” This community of transgender sex workers would end their nights of soldiers and sailors by convening in Compton‘s Cafeteria, “one of the only places to get away from the violence” of the vice-ridden and corrupt Tenderloin streets. The film focuses on the development of this queer community around Compton’s, the new militancy that it found amidst the Civil Rights movement, the formation of Vanguard (a gay organization run by young hustlers and drag queens), and the mainstreaming of transsexual surgeries and hormone treatments. Screaming Queens also engages those same questions of police legitimacy and the role of violence in queer activism that Stonewall Uprising explores. As Compton’s started kicking out queer patrons, upset by their sense of emboldened community, the years of pent up resentment toward the police and the entire straight establishment “boiled out into the night” and a riot began when transgender sex workers, gay hustlers, and other queers began beating the police, fighting them out of Compton’s and into the Tenderloin streets. Stryker explains the gravity of this action: “It was the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history.” For this reason and others, Stryker and Silverman's beautifully rendered Screaming Queens is a must-watch for all students interested in LGBT and queer activisms, radical movements, the police state, and political alliance.

The following types of courses could benefit from the screening of these films: introductions to LGBT studies, introductions to gender studies, upper-level queer theory courses that interrogate the role of violence in queer organizing, courses on American political movements and the history of civil rights movements.

Christina Belcher ( is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation project, “Backward: Queer Critiques of the American Pastoral,” focuses on the role that race and sexuality have played in the “queering” of rural America across the twentieth century.