Compton’s Cafeteria Riot: An instance of trans defiance

“Not only did the angry villagers hound their monsters to the edge of town, they reproached her for being vulnerable to the torches.”  ― Susan Stryker

November 15 marks the beginning of Transgender Awareness Week, a week-long series of events celebrating the lives and experiences of transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people around the world. This week, also devoted to raising the visibility of transgender people and addressing issues members of the community face, culminates in the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, a day of memorializing all those transgender people who were killed the previous year because of their gender identity/expression, reminding us of the fact that transphobia literally kills, and transphobic hate crimes are on the rise. Ecce Homo, as a queer genderfluid and body-positive underwear brand that addresses the needs of all people wherever they fall into the beautiful and colorful spectrum we call gender, has been fighting against transphobia and for trans rights since day one. After all, our Corporate Social Responsibility program is a constitutive part of our corporate DNA, and our longstanding and substantial support to the Greek Transgender Support Association, our community partner, testifies to this fact. Along with this financial support, the last week a series of blog articles have been written, and many tweets have been tweeted by our CSR team. And this is just a small part of our tireless efforts to raise awareness of the challenges our trans and intersex siblings face in their everyday lives and to educate ourselves and our friends and customers about the social justice claims they put forward. 

However, browsing the internet these days, one can notice that the vast majority of articles written on the occasion of Transgender Awareness Week are focusing almost exclusively on the ‘dark’ side of transgender lives giving unavoidably yet unintentionally the impression that trans lives are an endless series of violence, abuse, and harassment, insuperable obstacles that inevitably lead to the ultimate erasure of trans existence, that is death. This imagery of trans folks as cursed and marginalized beings, unable to defend themselves and breaking under the weight of the systemic exclusion, is furthermore intensified due to the exact opposite spirit of the Pride celebrations. 'Trans get a remembrance day, when gays and lesbians get a parade and parties', as one friend of mine put it a few days ago. Reproducing this image, however, turns out to be against the authentic representation and visibility of trans people, let alone the celebration of their lives. The problem is not that trans people -in our nonetheless benign efforts to stand and do right by them- are presented as victims, but that their whole existence is reduced in a totalizing manner to this very image of a poor and broken, defeated and miserable person. 

Furthermore, this image gains purchase on our activist reflexes because most of the trans representations that circulate are of a trans woman, further erasing the existence of trans men within the trans community itself. Despite the ongoing transphobic debate on whether trans women are ‘real’ (whatever the hell that means) women, the prevailing image of a trans person as a woman or a femininity still evokes our deep-seated sexist assumptions about a woman’s emotional disposition as a weak and defenseless creature in need of saving by our cis male asses. Next to this everyday and insidious sexism that lurks in the glittery ‘manly’ bushes of the LGBTIQA+ community itself, cissexism seems to add insult to injury. According to activist and scholar Julia Serano, the term cissexism refers to ‘the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions, and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people.’ It feels to me that it captures quite eloquently this ‘but’ that pops up out of the blue in the discussions on the ‘trans issue’ we have these days and marks a nebulous limit of our ‘acceptance’ that we never come to question.

Back to the dominant discourse of victimization of trans people as the only legitimate mode of existence we can afford especially when we show solidarity with them. I have a movie recommendation to make to counterbalance this image! The 2005 EMMY Award-winning documentary film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria is about transgender women and drag queens who fought police harassment at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco's Tenderloin in 1966.

Susan Stryker

Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria

With this amazing doc, trans activist, historian, and scholar Susan Stryker attempts to rewrite the dominant his-tory of the Gay Liberation Movement by unearthing a long-lost historical instance of defiance and rebellion of trans women. This way, she tries to restore both the role trans people played in the enfolding of the LGBTIQA+ movement in the USA and the agency of trans women beyond their image as victims buried beneath layers of silence, censoring, and policing. Not only marked the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots the beginning of transgender activism in the USA, but also this incident constitutes one of the first LGBT-related riots in United States history, preceding the more famous 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. 

You can watch it here for free. Enjoy!