Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Felicia Flames, a transgender pioneer, diva, icon, and a Screaming Queen, 27 years survivor of AIDS and a Vietnam Veteran - one of the participants of the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria Riot, which was one of the first documented instances of transgender resistance to authority in the USA. Hello Felicia!
Felicia: Hello Monika and thank you for interviewing me, it is an honor for me.
Monika: I must say you can boast one of the most impressive LGBT legends. The Compton's Cafeteria Riot occurred in August 1966, so it preceded the more infamous 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. However, it is not so well-known …
Felicia: You have to remember it was in the 1960s, and a lot of people thought we were sick, mental, trash and nobody cared whether we lived or died. Our own families abandoned us, and we had nowhere to go. And we were tired of the police harassing us because of who we were meant to be.
We were murdered, killed, thrown in jail, raped, and thrown out like trash by our families and friends. And in those days, I hear that the mafia had control of the TL, and all documents to this day were lost and no record of that day survived except for an unknown newsletter that documented that day. And nothing else.
Monika: How do you recall those years?
Felicia: In the 1960s, my first trip to Tenderloin, San Francisco, was when I was around 16 or 17 years of age. I lived in San Jose, Ca. and my sugar daddy brought me here. And I found out about the TL, it was like Oz; there were female impersonators, sissies, queens, hustlers, and Hair Fairies.
Hair Fairies were known because of ratted hair, some make-up, Angora sweats, skin-tight pants, and tennis shoes, which was as close to us as becoming a female because it was against the law to wear long hair and dress like a girl. You would go to jail for impersonating a female if you were in full drag. It was fun, and at the same time very dangerous. We couldn’t get jobs, because we were sissy looking or too feminine; so we turned to prostitution, sold drugs, clipped men to survive, to pay rent, food, and the necessary things.
Monika: Do you still keep in touch with other Screaming Queens?
Felicia: I still hear about Tamara, Dee Dee.
Monika: You fought in the Vietnam War. Was it before or after The Compton's Cafeteria Riot?
Felicia: It was before; I didn’t want to be this way, and I truly wanted to change. I wanted to be the man my mother wanted me to be, and I volunteered to go to Vietnam. Maybe if I had got killed, this pain and confusion would have finally ended. I got engaged to Pamela.
When I was in Vietnam, I even had sex with two women, maybe that might have changed me. And when I was in Vietnam, I was working unloading cargo from a ship freezer, and I told myself if the Navy hasn’t made me a man, nothing would. I said I am done and tired of being who I am not, went to my priest and told him that I was gay, and then went to my captain and they got me out of Vietnam so fast.
I came home broken that no matter what I did, it was not going to change who I really was. I got an undesirable discharge and later after my surgery in 1974, I requested a change in my discharge to be overturned into an honorable one, and they changed to an honorable discharge.
Monika: You have been HIV+ for many years. However, you have never given in to the disease, indulging yourself in awareness campaigns and other actions.
Felicia: In 1987 when I was diagnosed with HIV+, I thought I deserve it, because of who I was; it wasn’t a shock to me. I told my family and it didn’t bring me any closer to them. I need love and I needed to be taken care of, but it made me stronger. My dogs were my strongest loves and friends, Sammy and Shadow, the loves of my life.
The Transgender Community was known as prostitutes, thieves, drug addicts, and just plain no good, and I decided that I would educate the gay and lesbian communities, about transgender persons, that we grew up with and we wanted to be good respectable persons in our community. I have been an activist for over 30-50 years. Things I did were not for fame or money because it was in my heart to do it. I was in the hivstopwwithme.org in 2004, I think. You can YouTube it.
Monika: In the 1980s you began taking part in drag shows. Could you say a few words about your stage career?
Felicia: It started when I moved to Chicago, Ill. In 1969-70 I wanted to try it out and I performed at a gay bar as a stripper. And in 1987 when I became HIV+, Nicki Nations asked if I wanted to join her group to raise money for AIDS, and I did and I performed at different bars in San Jose, CA. and when I moved to San Francisco in 1992, I met Vicki Marlane after knowing about her in the 1960s when she performed at 181 Club.
I performed at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge with the Hot Boxx Girls and Dream Queen Revue. And now I perform when I am asked to do the Gay Pride show “The Center Stage Divas” for Laguna Honda Hospital for Gay Seniors that can’t join San Francisco Pride Parade. I was involved with SF Ducal Organization and we raised a lot of money for different organizations here in San Francisco, Miss Debutante 2005 and 2006, I became Princess of Akukan and Royal Crown Princess. This was a way to raise money for all non-profits.
Felicia: San Francisco Transgender Task Force, and since 2006 we have been celebrating the 1966 Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot Anniversaries. Recently we have added Vicki Marlane to the 100 Block of Turk St. Vicki Marlane is the first transsexual woman to have her name added to a San Francisco Street or anywhere in the United States. I am involved with San Francisco Trans March, and SF Transgender Day of Remembrance, and to do a mural on the corner of Turk St and Taylor St. to, soon in less than two years, celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the 1966 Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Felicia: I was 28 years old when I became the woman I was supposed to be. In the 1970’s I started working for Pacific Telephone, and I heard about a Gender Dysphoria Clinic at Stanford University, and Dr. Donald Laub was holding a clinic at Chope Hospital in San Mateo, Ca. In those days Stanford didn’t allow sex reassignment surgeries in the medical center. All surgeries were done at Chope Hospital.
I transitioned in 1974, but it would take two years before they would consider me for surgery. I would have to live as a female and work as a female before they considered me for surgery, but I knew what I wanted and I went to Tijuana, Mexico, and got castrated, and six months later I got my surgery in November of 1974 and Blue Cross of California. I paid for my surgery, my breast implants, and my nose. Pacific Telephone was so good to help me transition in the early ’70s, they made it a good experience for me.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Felicia: When in Chicago, Ill., I saw the Christine Jorgensen movie. In 1970, I knew who I was and that I was going to be who I was meant to be. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to get there, but I was determined to do it. At the time I didn’t know if it was ever going to happen, but it did.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Felicia: My family; to this day I talk to my family once in a while, and they are so distant, and one of my sisters tells me "I miss my brother". Hurting my family; and if you know about Mexican families, they are so traditional. They are very hard to accept change.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Felicia: I think it is great, and more are coming, but the young transgender of today, they don’t know the history of what we got through in order to get where we are today; they have it much better than we did.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Felicia: Every year we get more power and influence a lot of people, and what we do is not a game it is our true feeling.
Monika: A few months ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Felicia: I haven’t seen the movie yet but I will see it now.
Monika: Your LGBT advocacy was recorded in many documentaries and publications? Could you name some of them?
Felicia: I don’t know to tell you the truth, Bar Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, Chronicle, New York News Paper, and many others I am sure.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Felicia: Hello! Yes! Look at Trans March and Transgender Day of Remembrance. In order to add Vicki Marlane's name to the 100 Block of Turk St. I needed all the LGBT Community and the straight community to back us up on this historic event. A lot of people don’t know that the Transgender Women of San Francisco, we Mexican, Black, Asian, and White trans persons that started the Gay Movement in San Francisco, simply because Lesbians and Homosexual men stayed in the closet and got an education and made a lot of money. And the Transgender had to be who they were meant to be. If we had stayed in the closet we wouldn’t be who we are today. Poor but with a rich history that you all could be proud of all the girls from the 60s.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Felicia: I feel that Harvey came ten years after us, and the gay community needed a hero, and since Harvey Milk did get assassinated they made him a hero. The Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot Girls and boys rioted that day but our history was forgotten for 40 years. Check the documentaries, “Screaming Queens”, "The 1966 Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot", "Tenderloin: A Forgotten History", "Coming out in the 1960s", "Felicia", and hopefully another one "Before Stonewall".
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Felicia: No way, I am not into politics. And yes, we need to support some of our Trans Women and Men to get them into politics. A lot of organizations use the T in LGBT to get funding and to tell you the truth they rarely help the Trans Community, a lot of it is for the White Lesbians and Homosexual men.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Felicia: Girl, what can I tell you about Love? I looked for Love in all the wrong places. I have been married nine (9) times, some to straight men that didn’t know about me. I haven’t had sex in almost 20 years, give and take. And being HIV+ people know about you; it is very hard nowadays to get a man to love and settle down with a Trans Woman with HIV+. I get all the love that I need from my two dogs Gypsy and Simon.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Felicia: After all, I have said do you think I should? I started many times but I never had the time to finish. I am making sure that the T in LGBT is never forgotten.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Felicia: Check this out: Working on Tour of Tenderloin - 1. Hanging banner on the corner of Turk & Taylor. 2. Name Project. 3. Sidewalk sale. 4. Fundraiser. 5. TDOR. 6. Trans March. 7. Organize my history. 8. Show on Sept. 20 in San Jose. 9. 50th Anniversary of Gene Compton's Cafeteria 1966 Riot.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Felicia: Watch the Christine Jorgensen Movie, and watch Vicki Marlane “Forever Gonna Start Tonight". And all the documentaries about real trans women, and know your history and be very Proud of all the Trans Women and Men that came before you and pave the way for all of you to be who you were meant to be without shame or guilt.
Monika: Felicia, thank you for the interview!
All the photos: courtesy of Felicia Flames.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska