Transgender Women Reflect on A Lifetime of Change
In June longtime transgender activist Felicia Elizondo will celebrate turning 68. Yet she still finds it hard to believe she has reached her senior years.
She also marvels at having lived long enough to see the enormous strides made by the transgender community since she and other trans people stood up against police harassment late one night in 1966 at the now defunct Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
"I didn’t think I would live this long to see the changes that have happened over the last 50 years," said Elizondo, who is also known as Felicia Flames.
In March, Elizondo joined two other transgender women in their 60s on a panel hosted by the GLBT Historical Society to reflect on their lives and the changes they have witnessed.
At 14, Elizondo moved from Stockton to San Jose with a gay man she had met. By 16 she was spending weekends in the Tenderloin, considered back then the "gay mecca" of San Francisco, she said.
"Growing up we were called trash and gutter girls," she said. "We didn’t matter to the community."
Elizondo joined the Navy and volunteered to go to Vietnam, because "I didn’t want to be gay," she recalled. "I thought maybe I would be killed and all this will be over. If the military doesn’t make me a man, nothing will. And it didn’t."
In 1974 she transitioned while working as a long distance operator for Pacific Telephone.
"Transgender women could not be in the closet. We had to be out and proud," said Elizondo. "Gay men and lesbians could be in the closet, go to work and make their money."
Five decades ago "was a bad era. We couldn’t get jobs. We couldn’t get housing," recalled San Francisco native Tamara Ching, 64, a transgender woman who also took part in the panel. "In the 1960s we could not walk around in anything other than our birth gender. The police were mean and would disperse you."
Many of the transwomen Ching knew back then in the Tenderloin turned to prostitution to make a living. They rode the "merry-go-round," she said, a circular path along O’Farrell and Ellis between Leavenworth and Jones they continuously walked in an attempt to avoid being stopped by the police.
"We whored, whored, whored," said Ching. "Sex work empowered me."
While she suffers from diabetes and hepatitis C, Ching remains HIV-negative despite having never used a condom with the "3,500 tricks" she estimates she was paid to sleep with.