December 30, 2010

LGBTQ Female Role Models: Susan Stryker


I recently just finished reading a great book callled, "Transgender History" by Susan Stryker, after it was recommended to me by Jack and Jess McDonald this summer. I was really impressed by Stryker's work and wanted to highlight her accomplishments here on the blog.

Susan Stryker is an openly transgender woman who has worked diligently to advance the transgender equality movement in America as a transgender historian. She recieved her Ph.D. in United States History at the University of California, Berkeley.

Stryker is a community-based historian, and she makes media and works to develop her community's history as a form of activism for the trans movement. Between 1997 and 2003 she worked as the Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, which works to preserve and further ongoing research in LGBTQ studies in one of the largest collections of queer history in the nation. She also is a vocal feminist, noting that as someone who previously presented to society as a white male, she has a "good yardstick" for measuring misogyny and sexism.

When I was reading "Transgender History" by Stryker this past month, I realized that San Francisco actually has a really rich trans history. In addition to the Compton Cafeteria Riots (see below!) and housing one of the best LGBTQ historical collections, San Francisco is also home to the country's first transgender activist group, "Transgender Nation", founded in SanFran. in 1992. The
organization worked successfully to begin integrating transgender concerns into the larger movement for LGBTQ equality. One of the activist demonstrations that TN was best known for was it's 1993 protest of the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, in which the group rallied against the APA's diagnosis of the transgender identity as disordered (GID).

In addition to publishing "Transgender History" and many other works on transgender history, Stryker also co-directed the documentary, "Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria". (You can also find an Amazon trailer to the documentary that is a pretty good summary of it, here.) Here's an excerpt from the documentary below (there are some other great vintage footage portions on Youtube, too!)
"What happened at Compton's Cafteria that night wasn't a 'catfight' between screaming queens-it was a riot, and it kicked off a new human rights movement."

The documentary "Screaming Queens" covers the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riots, which until this book (Transgender History) and this documentary, I knew very little about. It turns out that Stryker hadn't heard of the riots either, until she uncovered a vintage publication about them in the San Francisco GLBT historical society warehouses. The story goes that Gene Compton's cafeteria (at the corner of Turk and Taylor street) was a safe-haven in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco for transgender individuals (as well as other LGBQ individuals), and it was open 24/7.
"It was beautiful. Everybody would just die for window seats [at Compton's], just to show off. Jehovah's Witnesses used to drag crosses in the street in front of Compton's, and tell us we were going to burn in hell, but we ignored them. Compton's was fabulous. It was like Oz. Something like The Wizard of Oz."
The Tenderloin district of San Francisco had a police department that was allegedly paid off in order to keep the area open to prostitution and drug hustling, . The transgender and drag communities were eventually forced to the Tenderloin simply because restaurants, beauty shops, bars, and the hotels, etc. in other areas of the city wouldn't serve transgender people. The Tenderloin (and specifically, Turk Street), became known as "the gay ghetto", home to drag Balls and a larger transgender community. Not withstanding, the police could take transgender individuals as any time to jail for "female impersonation", and oftentimes they would:
"The first night I was in San Francisco I was arrested for 'sidewalk obstruction' by the 'tax squad', which was a police squad that generally made life unpleasant for people who didn't fit in. Later, I was arressted for 'female impersonation'. I never felt that I was impersonating female, I thought, I am a female!"
And while the Tenderloin was safer than other areas of San Francisco for transgender and queer individuals, it wasn't completely free of violence; there was once a serial kiler in the district who specifically targeted transgender individuals. The "Camelot" haven of the Gene Compton cafeteria didn't last forever either. When a new political activist group (composed of
many transgender individuals) named "Vanguard" started meeting at the restaurant, Compton's eventually started kicking them out. Nevertheless, Vanguard members picketed Compton's due to the discrimination they felt, which upset the Compton cafeteria management even further.

One night (the date is uncertain, but it is believed to be August 9th, 1966) the San.Fran. police department raided the cafeteria (presumably after conversations with the Compton management). Fighting started when a policeman grabbed one of the drag queens, and she threw coffee in his face. All hell broke loose after that, "triggering years of resentment", and "all the sugar shakers went through the windows and the glass doors." Police called for more backup as the fighting continued, and eventually a police car and a local newsstand were set on fire. (Business at Compton's never recovered, and a porn shop took it's place a few years later.) After the riot, police officer (and director of Community Relations), Elliot Blackstone pioneered services and helped to overturn many anti-transgender laws, thus improving conditions for the transgender community in San Francisco. Many transgender individuals at the riots also noted the marked change in the community:
"Out of Compton's [riots] came some very beautiful, beautiful women. We felt good about ourselves. And that's the most interesting part of it, because once you feel good about yourself, nobody can hurt you. Nobody can come in and turn anything around that you don't want."
Through her research, Stryker found that while the Stonewall Riots of June 28th, 1969 are typically cited as the birthplace of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, the Compton Cafeteria Riots were actually one of the first radical acts against police and institutional trans/homophobia in America. Stryker's work was instrumental in sheding light to this important and watershed event in our LGBTQ history (and if you notice on the Wiki page, Stryker is the primary reference of the entire account). She interviewed people in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco who she believed might have been present at the event, and collected first-hand knowledge of the riots through interviews and personal accounts.


Thus, we have Stryker to thank for uncovering an incredible part of our community's history; "the story was bigger than I could have ever imagined", she says of the night. Stryker also said that researching the riots made her feel the presence of a larger transgender and drag community; I think it's awesome that we can look to this group of empowered individuals in our community as a source of courage and strength.

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