Ethnic Transgender Women Reflect on a Lifetime of Struggle and Change

Ethnic Transgender Women Reflect on a Lifetime of Struggle and Change

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Photo: Felicia Elizondo, left, speaking on a San Francisco panel titled, "Trans in the Tenderloin Since the 1960's" at the GLBT Historical Society. Others shown are, from left, Veronika Fimbres, Tamara Ching, and moderator Don Romesburg. (Bay Area Reporter)

Part 6 of a Series. See Part 1 for links to the full series.

SAN FRANCISCO -- 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.

Elizondo also marvels at the enormous strides she’s seen 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 the trans Latina, who is also known as Felicia Flames.

Transgender refers to people whose physical or sexual characteristics do not match their gender at birth. They are often subject to discrimination and accused of trying to deceive others for wanting to live their authentic lives in their preferred gender.

In March Elizondo joined two other transgender women in their 60s on a panel hosted by San Francisco’s GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) Historical Society to reflect on their lives and the changes they have witnessed.

More Racism, Struggle Than Others Face

Despite the advances San Francisco’s transgender community has achieved, such as getting AIDS researchers to collect data about transgender people, Veronika Fimbres, 64, said more work is needed to end transphobia and race-based discrimination.

"There is still prejudice, even in our LGBT community,” said Fimbres, who is African American.

Overall, transgender people struggle more than their lesbian, gay and bisexual (LBG) peers, according to the 2013 report, "Addressing the Needs of LGBT Older Adults in San Francisco: Recommendations for the Future."

The report, based on a survey of 616 LGBT residents ages 60 to 92, was commissioned by the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force. Only 4 percent of study participants identified as transgender. All were under age 70 and were more likely to be from ethnic backgrounds than their LGB peers.

The study found trans people to "have even higher rates of disability, poor general health and depression than [lesbian, gay and bisexual, or LGB] older adults." They were also less apt to have attended college and more likely to be living on incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $22,000 a year or less.

Three-quarters were renters, with on 16 percent owning their homes or paying a mortgage, compared to 43 percent of the non-transgender respondents who were homeowners and 53 percent who rented.

In contrast to the survey's LGB respondents, the transgender participants were "more likely to use meal sites/free groceries, day programs, mental health services, caregiver support services, and health promotion services," according to the report.

Fimbres, a former sex worker, transitioned from male to female in 1978. Originally from Evanston, Ind., the onetime Clairol model moved to New York but became addicted to cocaine. Diagnosed with HIV in 1989, she returned home before moving to San Francisco in 1996, to access HIV-related services.

"I told my parents I was going to San Francisco to save my life," said Fimbres, who had lost a brother to AIDS. "I knew no one here. It was all knew to me."

Also a veteran, Fimbres eventually found acceptance in San Francisco’s trans community. She reconnected with Elizondo, who she’d first met in the 1970s when both were stationed in San Diego.

No Closet for Trans Women

At age 14, Elizondo moved from Stockton to San Jose with a gay man she had met. By 16 she was spending weekends in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, then considered a "gay Mecca," she said.

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 as a female 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," said Ching, whose multi-ethnic heritage is Chinese-Hawaiian-German.

Many of the transwomen in the Tenderloin then turned to prostitution to make a living. They rode the "merry-go-round," Ching said, a circuit along O'Farrell and Ellis between Leavenworth and Jones Streets. They continuously walked, attempting to avoid the police.

"We whored, whored, whored," said Ching. "Sex work empowered me," she declared, explaining that it gave her a way to survive with no other means of support.

While she suffers from diabetes and hepatitis C, Ching remains free of HIV despite having never used a condom with the "3,500 tricks" she estimates she was paid to sleep with. "I expected to have HIV and AIDS like all my sisters," she said.

In 1987, though, Elizondo was diagnosed as being HIV positive. "I expected it as a punishment for what I had done," she said. "The AIDS epidemic took a lot of our generation; it took a lot of our history."

Counting on Friends

Nowadays one of the biggest challenges Elizondo faces is keeping busy and remaining connected to others.

"As a senior the loneliness is the worst," she said. "As much as we want the trans community to be united, we are not."

It can be tough to grow old in San Francisco, said Elizondo, unless one has friends they can rely on for support.

"I have a close transgender woman I am friends with. I can count on her for anything and she can count on me," said Elizondo.

Matthew S. Bajko wrote this article for Bay Area Reporter through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.