Read more from our Trans Legends oral history project, a growing archive of interviews with transgender icons and pioneers.
Coming of age as a Mexican-American “sissy” in 1950s Texas, a “hair fairy” in 1960s San Francisco, and finally as a transsexual woman in the 1970s, Felicia Elizondo’s memories are a vivid and spectacular rendering of trans life in the latter half of the 20th century. And as an activist, historian, entertainer, and long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS, her work in the decades-long movement for trans rights is a testament to our adaptability, fortitude, and industrious ability to build community in the margins.
Felicia was a regular patron of San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria, a refuge for queens and transgender people in the 60s, and the site of the historic 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, when patrons of the diner fought back against discrimination by police. She is also featured in Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria, a 2005 documentary about the uprising co-directed and produced by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman. Her stories of time spent there reveal a particular moment and place where trans people were able to create chosen family and thrive in each other’s care that is still not widely recognized—even as part of LGBTQ history.
Punctuated by moments of presenting as male in the first act of her life—to avoid arrest for cross-dressing, to satisfy a male benefactor, or to prove her manhood to her mother by joining the army and serving in the Vietnam War—the interludes of Felicia’s survival are well traversed terrain for trans folks. Her memories amount to a wild and explosive ride that proves the accuracy of her nickname, Felicia “Flames.”
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZACKARY DRUCKER: Tell me about when you first came to San Francisco.
FELICIA ELIZONDO: Let me tell you a little bit about my past life, okay? I was born Felipe Alvarado Alessandro in San Angelo, Texas. I'm Mexican-American. My birth certificate says that I'm white. In those days, anything that was not “colored” was white, and Black people were colored. Those days, everybody had their own community. Whites had their own community, Blacks had their community, and Latinos had their own community.
I was raised a little sissy boy. Everybody called me "joto," "queer," "sissy," and all that stuff. I was wondering, how come they're calling me [that]? I don't even know the meaning of all these words, and they're calling me all these names just because I'm feminine. We were raised in a place where queers, sissies, and jotos were in the closet—they were pushed back somewhere. But I was very flamboyant. I had these little hot pants on before hot pants was even in style. When I was around maybe seven or eight, I was wearing hot pants, girl.
In those times, boys discovered each other with each other. We weren't told about sex at all from our parents. We had to use trial and error. Most of the little boys, when I grew up, we used to play with each other. I loved that, because I was one of those girls, but we didn't know that—didn't know anything. I fell in love with my best friend. I used to have a love affair on him for years and years. Even until now, I still have a love affair for him, but he's gone.
Then a lot of things happened through the years. One of my friend’s older brothers, we were playing with each other. He was just about four or five years older than me, letting me do things to him that I thought were normal because we used to always play with each other, so it wasn't a big deal.
"I had these little hot pants on before hot pants was even in style. When I was around maybe seven or eight, I was wearing hot pants, girl."
Anyway, growing up, I knew sissies, but we didn't know that we were sissies. We were just feminine boys. You know what I mean? We didn't know the meaning of "queer," "sissy," none of that stuff because we were just growing up being little boys but very feminine.
This was in the 1950s, right? You were born in 1946.
My father died. My mother moved us to San Ysidro, California. We moved in with my sister. We lived in a mobile home, and this older man—I was around 12, I think—got me in his trailer. That was the first time that I ever experienced a climax. I thought I was going to die.
[Later], we moved to Stockton, California where I met my first gay man.
What was that like?
Big, tall, handsome, very feminine boy that everybody made fun of him and stuff like that. We were going to have an affair, but we were two girls, so we just said, "Oh no. It's not going to work out for us." That was my first gay [friend]. Then I thought, "Oh my God. I'm not the only one." I mean, we were feminine boys, but we didn't know what “gay” or “queer”—none of that—meant until I was at least 12 or 13, maybe 14.
Then, we moved to San Jose, California. I was around 14 or 15. You know how, in the early 60s, the sissy boys used to wear their coats off their shoulders to make them look feminine? I was walking down Santa Clara Street in San Jose, and this guy picked me up—beautiful Irish redhead. Red hair, red hair everywhere. I could be in love with that boy. It was just a quickie, you know? Then he told me, "Well, there's a whole bunch of you guys over there on Saint James Park." I thought, "Oh really?"
There was a park right downtown in San Jose called St. James Park. I met my best friends there, the gay sissies of San Jose. We started hanging out at Saint James Park. We couldn't go to the bar because we were too young, so we hung around Around the Clock cafeteria or restaurant. We used to go to the park and get our tricks and make money and then go eat or something.
"When I was a hustler, I was a boy. When I was in a relationship, I was a girl."
When I was a hustler, I was a boy. When I was in a relationship, I was a girl. I had to have a man with me. I may go down on him and stuff like that, but as far as me playing a man's part on my love of my life or my boyfriend? Never. I would drop him right there and then, because I didn't want another girl with me. I wanted a man.
I met this guy. He was an older man. He was married, but he used to like to play with young boys, so he picked me up, and became my sugar daddy. I played the man part because he was older and he liked young boys. I go, "Hey, it's money. Money that I don't have, and I'm too young to work." He would take me to Santa Cruz. He would take me all over the state. One day, he took me to San Francisco. I was around 15 or 16.
It was like 1961 or 1962?
Yeah, around that. He took me to the Tenderloin in San Francisco. Then I noticed that there was a lot of people like me. Not only in San Jose, but in San Francisco. My God, it was the Mecca of gayness. Me and my best friend, Bernie, used to play hooky from school and come into the Tenderloin on a Greyhound from San Jose to San Francisco. Greyhound [station] on 7th Street. We would walk to about two or three blocks away from Compton's Cafeteria. We'd just stand there, and we'd just admire, because we were scared of what could happen to us.
Then, one day, we were standing out there, and this guy came up to us, and says, "You scared to go in there?" I said, "Yeah, we're just from San Jose, and we're just brand new at this stuff, and we don't know what to expect." His name was Siro. He took us to his hotel room—because most of the queens and the sissies and the hustlers were living in hotels. That was the only place that we could find a place, because if you [were a] sissy or a joto or whatever, they wouldn't rent to you outside the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin was the gay Mecca of San Francisco in the 60s.
That was when being a queer, dressing up like a women, or any position of being feminine was against the law, period. They would take you to jail. The only people that were allowed to dress like women were female impersonators [at] Pinocchio’s or other gay bars that had drag. You walked in as a man, and you walked out as a man.
What happened is that Siro was putting on his little eyebrows and hair, but still was against the law. All of this was against the law. White, skintight pants, tennis shoes, angora sweater, and a white jacket, that's as feminine as we could go in the 60s before they would take us to jail. [People like Siro] were called “hair fairies.”
There was the Embarcadero right next to the YMCA where all the servicemen used to come and party. When you walked up Market Street, you would walk into the Tenderloin, and it was like la la land. I mean, we could be who we were and not worry. There was like Woolworths on Market and where the trolley car goes around. That was where the girls used to wear the makeup, the hair, whatever they needed to get. Then we would come back to the Tenderloin. I just was there at a very young age, and [eventually] my girlfriends from San Jose came to San Francisco and started being hair fairies.
"Compton's Cafeteria was the center of the universe for us."
The only way that they could make money is by selling drugs or selling themselves, because they wouldn't hire us because we were too feminine. You couldn't work in San Francisco because a lot of people would be jealous and out you. You know what I mean?
Compton's Cafeteria was the center of the universe for us. It was a place where we could make sure that we had lived through the night. It was like a society club—it was cheap food, cheap coffee, cheap breakfast. Windows on both sides on one corner of Taylor Street and the other corner of Turk Street was nothing but windows. You could see who was coming in, who was coming out, and who was there and who wasn't. A lot of times, Compton's was a revolving door.
People came in, did what they did; if they liked it, they stayed, if not, they went about their business to another state or back home or wherever, because a lot of the kids that came into the Tenderloin at the time was kids who were thrown out. And a lot of the kids came from broken homes. The kids came to start a new identity and a new life and forget about the past. A lot of times we didn't know where they came from or their real names, because as soon as they came into the Tenderloin, they would change their names. Like Gypsy or Greta or Vicky or Alexis.
So then I went back to San Jose, and I had just broken up with my lover and I told my mother I was gonna run away and she would never see me again. And then I just said, "Well, you know something? I'm going to join the military."
I joined the US Navy in 1964. I lowered my voice, I played the role of an Academy Award winner, okay? I decided if the military doesn't make me a man, nothing will. And it didn't. I went into the boot camp in San Diego, then I was stationed at Coronado, and then they were asking for volunteers to go to Vietnam. Then I said, "Oh, there's more money." And I was [a] scared little sissy, but I volunteered to go to Vietnam. Not only because of that; because this is the only way that I could prove to my family that I was a man.
And another thought behind my head: If I got killed, I would become a hero to my family. And it was important to make my mother proud, because I hadn't made her proud before, because she knew what I was. She never said anything; she never turned against me or anything. But I still wanted to make my mother proud.
So, one day, I was in Da Nang, Vietnam, and I was working unloading cargo from freezer ships where they had all the freezers in the bottom of the boat, and you would come up. And then one day I thought, "Oh my God. I've had enough. I am not going to do this. I've put myself through hell, and I will not put myself through hell anymore." I went to my priest and told him that I was gay. I went to my commander and told him I was gay. They put me in the “brick,” whatever they call it. And they interrogated me, then they sent me back home. I came to Treasure Island here in San Francisco. There was a gay barrack.
I was discharged from the military January of 1967. I tried to do the straight thing like work for Goodwill, work for a hospital as a receptionist and all that stuff, but it didn't work. So what happened is, five queens from San Jose, we were living together in this house and the cops busted us. And it's either you go to jail or get out of town. Well, there's five queens on the Greyhound bus depot in 1967 headed to the Tenderloin.
We moved back into the El Rosa Hotel. That's how we became female impersonator prostitutes. Cause nobody would hire us because we wanted to be who we were meant to be and be free, and the Tenderloin was the only place that we could do that. We had a whole bunch of people who were doing it with us.
Compton's was a place where you could go and you could see whether some girls had stayed, some girls had left, some people had been killed, raped, put in jail.
It was against the law to wear long hair. It was against the law to dress like a woman. If the police [saw] you on the sidewalk walking, they would take you to jail for obstructing the sidewalk.
We were in danger all the time, because we didn't know if the pigs were going to target us, find out about us.
"Compton's was a place where you could go and you could see whether some girls had stayed, some girls had left, some people had been killed, raped, put in jail."
So, I moved in with Larry, he was one of my girlfriend's boyfriend. He was a martial artist, and we moved to Chicago. He didn't want me to stay there, all that time at home by myself. So later on that year, we went to the movies to see that Christine Jorgensen movie. And I thought that, Oh my god, that's who I am! How the hell am I gonna get there? Being in my twenties and whatnot, I had no money, no future, no nothing.
So I came back home to the Tenderloin, got another boyfriend, and his name was Joe. He was a longshoreman. He took me to North Beach here, to a nice, high society apartment. But one day he got a flashback from Vietnam and started beating me with an iron over my head. So I went to the hospital and they told me, "Are you guys queer?" I says, "No!"
"If you are you're gonna go to jail,” [they said].
I says, "Oh no, we are not queer! We are not queer!"
So, when I went back to the Tenderloin, [but] it wasn't the same anymore. So, I started working in the early 70s; they were hiring minority people for the telephone company. I got hired as [a] male long distance operator. But they wanted me to lower my voice because it was so feminine. So I went through all that stuff, and then I heard about a gender dysphoria clinic in San Mateo, California. And there was a doctor that was doing surgery there. So I went there and they gave me a letter. I saw a psychiatrist, and I gave it to my supervisor. And they read it, they accepted it, they told all my coworkers what I was gonna be doing. And I transitioned in 1973. From male to female, at work with the Pacific Telephone at the time.
When I came to the first day at work, I still had my male ID, so I showed it to the security guard and he told me, "Hey you know something? You look better than some of these real girls." And that made my day!
The telephone company and their employees and their management were the best thing that ever happened to me, because they made sure that when I went to the restroom, there was a girl standing outside to protect me from anybody complaining that I was a man and stuff like that.
"My community who started the gay movement in San Jose and started the gay movement here in the Tenderloin will never be forgotten."
I applied for [the company insurance to cover] my surgery, and about four months later they approved me and three other kids that worked at the telephone company to do the surgery.
The company gave me all of the time that I needed to recuperate. They paid my wages. Years later, after I'd been married, my boyfriend David, I married him. I stayed in San Jose working for the telephone company from 1972 or 73 when I first got hired, ‘til 1992 or ‘93.
Wow! So that was a really stable job for you.
Yeah. Because I was a girl now. And I was happy. And nobody could tell me anything, you know what I mean? So in 1987, I became HIV positive. And I joined the ARIS Project and volunteered. I wanted to make sure that the trans community was involved because we needed a community.
So I started volunteering, and I made the first AIDS memorial quilt for Michael Burnay, a mother that had just lost her son. And we all gathered together, and they organized it, and I sewed every little piece by hand; that was my first one. I've made eighty something quilts by now.
I moved to San Francisco in 1993, because the best possibility of surviving AIDS was the mecca of the medical center of everything. I worked for The Shanti Project for years. I worked for Project Open Hand for years. I worked for the LGBT community center for years.
Although you weren’t present for the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, you appeared in Susan Stryker’s documentary about the riot, Screaming Queens , and you were very much part of the broader movement at that time…
My community who started the gay movement in San Jose and started the gay movement here in the Tenderloin will never be forgotten. I'll be damned if Stonewall, which was the primary struggle in our community, is the only uprising remembered. Compton’s had been forgotten for 40 years until Susan Stryker came out with the movie. [After that,] I said, “Okay. I am going to take the torch and going to make sure [the world knows] the transgender community started the gay movement, no matter where.”
But when you have no money, you can't do nothing.
What happened to the seniors that made this happen that were killed, raped, thrown in jail, murdered? What happened to them? What happened to those people that made it happen? If it wasn't for us, a lot of the kids today wouldn't be who they are today. We had the balls to go out there and be who we were meant to be, because that was who we were. We couldn't be nothing else—no matter how many times I tried to. I even tried to get married and stuff like that. It was not the place. You know what I mean?
What's really good about [the younger generation] is that we had no family when we were young. But you guys do. You guys have family. You've got your families backing up a lot of you guys, where we were thrown out like trash. It just makes me think that the kids of today don't understand what we went through to be who we are today, and it's just upsetting that I'm 72 years old but the kids today don't want to hear about us. They’ve got their own lives, their own destiny, their own goals. They don't have to worry about the seniors that made it happen.
What would you like those young people to know out there?
Don't forget the people who made it happen. Don't forget that all those people that died.
Another thing that I'm against is the “queer” word. The “queer” word, in our generation, was being murdered by that name. The “queer” word was just horrible for us because if we were queer we were killed, thrown out, or disposed like trash. Now that the new generation is restoring “queer,” you have to be proud. You have to know the history of what “queer” was to us. To be proud of that word—it's not in my vocabulary at all.
"I am your history. You can never change that no matter what you do to me."
All of my friends passed—died. All the people that, years before us, came and they were killed and murdered and thrown in jail because they were queers.
“Gay” was the word that we used in the diction for all of us. We weren’t lesbian, gay, queer, whatever, transgender, whatever. We were gay. We were a community. We weren't silent. We were together. Now that they have it in little boxes, we can't get in here. We're not allowed to go into the little boxes. Do you know what I mean?
One more thing, too, I think that the “transgender” umbrella is a joke.
How can we ever unite when everybody's got their own little piece of the puzzle, you know what I mean?
Transgender is before surgery. Transsexual is after surgery. That should be it. You can do whatever you want to with whatever sexual you are, but don't name it because that destroys the unity of our whole existence.
What were some of the things that helped you survive those difficult times?
I don't know how I survived at Tenderloin. I really don't. Because it was bad, but Compton's was the center of the universe for us.
That's why I tell the kids: I am your history. You can never change that no matter what you do to me. I was the number one person putting Gene Compton’s Cafeteria historical plaque on the 100 block of Taylor Street.
This year, we had our 52nd anniversary of [the] Compton's Cafeteria [riot] and the person that runs that building actually walked into Compton's Cafeteria. I mean, it's not “Cafeteria” anymore—it's transitional housing for criminals. We walked into that door and I cried. I cried because the people that walked in through those doors, whatever became of them, or whatever their future, they came through here. They came through those revolving doors of Compton's, where it was the center of the universe because we had nowhere else to go. The end.