This Memorial Day I wanted to re-share three stories of current and former service members and military spouses. This beautiful interview with Felicia Elizondo, originally published in August 2017, is just as relevant and touching today. – Nora Taylor
An increasing number of young people are identifying as activists, but to call this a new trend would not only be naive — it would also be a missed opportunity. Older generations offer an important perspective on what it means to be politically and socially active. In an effort to soak up their knowledge, we’re speaking to activists who have been doing this work for decades. First up was 74-year-old Sally Roesch Wagner; then 66-year-old Jackie Warren-Moore. Today is 71-year-old Felicia Elizondo.
When I called 71-year-old Felicia Elizondo on her San Francisco landline to ask about her life’s work in transgender activism, she told me she’d give me a roller coaster ride I’d never forget. As she shared her experiences over the next hour, weaving through timelines and memories, I knew she was right.
Although she “still feels young every once in a while,” the San Jose native and Vietnam War veteran has lived through forgotten events, dramatic life changes and hard-to-imagine struggles. She’s witnessed the transgender community grow and change throughout the decades and has worked to preserve the efforts of those first activists during her time.
Below, a conversation with Elizondo, transgender rights pioneer, war veteran and self-described “Mexican spitfire” who believes that anyone, regardless of gender or sexual identity, should have the right to fight for their country in uniform.
What was it like growing up in an era when there was little awareness or acceptance of transgender people?
I knew I was different from four or five years old — but I thought I was gay, because I didn’t know about transgender people. I knew I was feminine; I wanted to play with girls and with dolls. They called me sissy and all kinds of names when I was little, but I didn’t know the meaning.
When I was 14 or 15, a guy walking down the street told me [unsolicited] where young kids like me hung around in the park. I started hanging out there and found out there were a lot of people like me. That’s when I learned about drag. Drag wasn’t really common until the ’80s, but on Halloween we could pretend to be girls.
My friends from San Jose and I played hooky from school to go to the Tenderloin [a neighborhood in downtown San Francisco]. It was the gay mecca in the 1960s, but it wasn’t advertised in the media or television or newspapers; it was known by word-of-mouth. It was a place we could go and act the way we wanted to. Gene Compton’s Cafeteria [in the Tenderloin] was the center of the universe for a whole bunch of the queens, the sissies, the hustlers, the kids who were thrown away by their families like trash.
Why did you decide to join the military when you were 18?
They were asking for volunteers to go to Vietnam, and I decided to volunteer in 1966. I was hoping that the military could change me. I wanted to be the man that I was drilled to be since I was little. I enlisted in the Navy and did all the manly things I was supposed to do. I lowered my voice so nobody could tell that I was gay. I totally changed my ways.
Eventually I understood that, no matter how hard I tried, I was always attracted to men. One day I decided: If the military couldn’t make me a man, nothing would. I went to my priest and told him, “You know something? I tried to change. I tried to do what men do, and I just can’t seem to get it.” We went to the commanding officer and told him I was gay. The FBI and CIA interrogated me because it was happening during the time of war. They cleared me and undesirably discharged me at Treasure Island in San Francisco.
Were you initially afraid to talk to your priest about it?
I’ve always been Catholic. I did my baptism, my communion when I was a little boy, my confirmation, all that stuff. At the time, being Catholic was all I knew. I was 20 when the FBI interrogated me for being homosexual, but I never thought [being gay] was that bad. I knew it was against the law, but that was who I was. My religion doesn’t accept me, but God does. I don’t go to church, but I pray when there’s a need to pray, here in my house. My God is here at home.
On July 26, Donald Trump tweeted that “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”* How did you react to his words?
I am proud to have served in the military. I am American. I was taught that people should fight for their country and for freedom. No matter who I was, I had to do what I had to do in my heart. In a way, I had to prove to myself that I could do something that was so important.
[Donald Trump] promised the LGBT community that he would fight for us, and where is he? He wants to ban us from the military? I was appalled. I’m sad for him because he thinks that, just because we’re different, because of who we are, we don’t belong and we don’t deserve the honor of serving our military. I knew I was different, but I wanted to serve. He’s not my president.
What was your experience like when you came home from the military?
Things had changed. Before my service, cops were taking us to jail or harassing us because we dressed feminine — it was against the law to wear feminine clothes.
The hippie generation had evolved. In the ’70s, people started to wear long hair and feminine styles. Still, no one would hire feminine boys. The only thing we could do was sell drugs or pursue prostitution. I started as a prostitute. I wanted to be myself. I was tired of hiding.
In 1971, low-income Latinos were being recruited to start professional work. It was then that I was hired as a long-distance telephone operator. I was still dressing as a girl at nighttime, but my coworkers didn’t know.
At what point did gender confirmation enter your purview?
I found out through the grapevine about a gender dysphoria clinic in San Mateo, and I applied for gender reassignment. I talked to the psychiatrist, and he approved me for surgery. The conditions were that I would have to work as a female for two years and dress as a female for two years prior to the surgery. But two years was too long for me to wait to be who I wanted to be. I had waited a lifetime to find out who I was. I had to go for it. I heard about a doctor in Mexico and went there.
I transitioned from male to female in 1973. When the telephone company I worked for got the letter from the gender dysphoria clinic that said I was psychologically ready to be a female, they accepted me. Still, after I got breast implants and a nose job and came back as female, I drove around the block three or four times before facing my co-workers because my nerves were shot.
Six months after my transition, the supervisors took everyone out and, when I needed to go to the bathroom, they had somebody wait outside the door so nobody could go in and disturb me. They took care of me. In the ’70s, that was something I never expected.
You’re featured in a 2005 documentary about the 1966 Gene Compton’s Cafeteria riot, a protest by transgender people against police brutality that happened three years before the Stonewall protests. Why is it important to you to spread word about the riot?
I was in the service until 1967, a year after the riot had already happened. A lot of the things [after the riot] did not change. Nobody talked about it because it wasn’t in the newspapers. The riot was forgotten for 40 years until Susan Stryker, the documentary director, found a document about it at the San Francisco GLBT History Museum. She started interviewing people who were there in the ’60s. I told her how life was for us then, how I became a prostitute and how Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was the center of the universe for us.
I may not have been there for the riot, but I knew all the girls who were there in the ’60s. I am going to carry the torch for those girls, who did so much, so our transgender history will never be forgotten. Last year, we added a “Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way” street sign on the 100 block of Taylor Street. Since 2005, I’ve held an anniversary every year in August to make sure the girls of the Tenderloin will never be forgotten for their bravery and stamina to be who they were. Last August, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the riot.
Sometimes I want to walk away and let it go and hope the youth of today will take over, but it’s hard because they don’t know. A lot of the people in San Francisco are not from here. Most of the people taking over today don’t know anything about our history. They’re making their own way — they’re not worried about the past or what we went through. That’s why it’s imperative for me to tell people how I perceived it in 1967 at Compton’s, because Compton’s didn’t stop after the riot. If it weren’t for us in the ’60s, the trans youth wouldn’t be [where] they are today.
Other than learning about your history, what advice do you have for the young transgender community today?
Unite. That is so important, in any community. In the ’60s, we were a gay community, all together, all colors, fighting for the same thing. We were standing up. Nowadays, I think the trouble with our trans community is that there are too many disparate leaders and not enough united followers. They aren’t worried about the collective history. They’re reclaiming the word “queer.” I was appalled and sad when I first heard that. We were killed because of that word; it’s painful to me. After a while, I gave up and learned to endure it, but the people out there using it should know what a horrible word it was to us before the ’70s.
What other forms of activism have you participated in?
The AIDS epidemic came out in the ’80s, and I found out I was HIV-positive. I didn’t know what to do or how long I would live. I started giving back to my community. I gave emotional and practical support for people with AIDS, going to people’s houses and taking care of them. I sewed an AIDS Memorial Quilt and sewed everything by hand with love. Now I’ve made 80 of them. In 1987, I became a trans drag queen [with the name Felicia Flames] to raise money for AIDS. I started volunteering and holding office jobs for organizations: Shanti Project, Project Open Hand, the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. I think I’ve raised money for every LGBT-related or AIDS-related organization in San Francisco.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’ve been here in this apartment for 25 years. I have two dogs, a Cocker Spaniel mix and a Pomeranian mix, and I walk them three times a day. They’re my life and my support. They keep me going.
Yes, I’m alone. I haven’t had sex in over 20 years, but I’ve had enough sex to last me a lifetime. Now, if someone doesn’t love me for who I am, I don’t need a man in my life. I am happy. I am the woman I was meant to be. Where I am today is exactly where I’m supposed to be, and nobody can take that away.
The simplest thing I can think of is to know that we’re not all bad people. We’re human beings like everybody else. I would just like more education and more people out there doing good for everybody.