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Interview with Felicia Elizondo [6/29/2007]

Anita Whites:

Today's date is June 29, 2007. My name is Anita Whites. I am conducting an oral history interview at 220 Pierce, in San Francisco, California with Felicia --

Felicia Elizondo:

Elizondo.

Anita Whites:

Elizondo, thank you very much. And this interview is being conducted for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. And again, can I get you to state your name and address for the record?

Felicia Elizondo:

Yes, Felicia A. Elizondo; 220 Pierce Street, Apartment No. 8, San Francisco, California, 94117.

Anita Whites:

And what is your birth date?

Felicia Elizondo:

July 23rd, 1946.

Anita Whites:

And were you drafted or did you enlist?

Felicia Elizondo:

I volunteered.

Anita Whites:

Where were you living at that time?

Felicia Elizondo:

In San Jose, California. The Army didn't take me because I was too small, so the Navy took me because I was just -- 5 foot 2 was the cut off, and I was 5 foot 2. So --

Anita Whites:

You didn't quite make it.

Felicia Elizondo:

In the Army.

Anita Whites:

You had to be over 5 foot 2?

Felicia Elizondo:

Yeah, in the Army.

Anita Whites:

And why did you join?

Felicia Elizondo:

Well, the reason is because I am -- let me give you a very brief history of my life. I was born Felipe Alvarado Elizondo. I'm a transsexual woman. I knew I was different at about 5 years old. Then I got had molested from the age of 5 to 10 years old. Then I became a male prostitute in San Jose and San Francisco. Then I thought I was gay, but I wasn't. But I want to be normal because being gay was against the law, and it was sick, and mental and -- all those mental things that you are -- in your mind.

But I wanted to be normal, so I broke up with a lover, and I told my mother that I wanted to join the service because I thought if being gay or being transgender -- I didn't even know that I was transgender at the time because I didn't know the meaning of transgender or transsexual at the time. So being gay and being a boy, I wanted to be normal and I didn't want to live that kind of life anymore.

So I decided if the Navy didn't make me a man, nothing would. So what happened is I joined the service. And I think I was about 18 years old. And I went to boot camp, and that changed my whole -- I was a very effeminate person, so I had to -- what do you call it? -- have an acting -- to where I was, you know, lowered by voice, did the manly thing, and I did. I sort of passed because a lot of the guys used to always make fun of me anyway because I was small and petit and everything like that.

So I did pass boot camp, and I got stationed in Coronado, and I was in the mess hall for a while. And then they transferred me over to the barracks where I was a clerk, where I had to assign beds to guys that were coming to Coronado to get shipped to Vietnam. And was there for a while. And then I decided that I wanted to volunteer for Vietnam because maybe I would get killed and maybe all this hurt and pain would go away. And I just thought that it would be best for me because I didn't know any -- there wasn't any support group or assistance at the time. If there were, I didn't hear about it, and stuff like that.

So I went to Vietnam, and I was there for about, I think, about six months. And then I decide, "I've had enough!" And I was at the USO in Danang, and there was this French teacher that was gay. And he took me to his house and we had relationships, but I was AWOL at the same time. So being AWOL and being gay and having to go to the brig because I was AWOL, I decided to go to a priest and tell him I was gay. So the priest went with me to the head of the Danang thing, and we told him I was gay.

And then the FBI interrogated me because it was time of war, and treason or AWOL was a very serious business. They interrogated me for a long time, and they asked me about my sexual preferences or what I did. And at the time, I didn't have any sex with military men on base, you know. But when I was in San Diego, I used to go to the movie theater and pick up guys and take them home. But that was the extent of my criminal life.

So I got discharged on an undesirable discharge in 1965, '66. And then I came out. All the guys that had served gracefully in Vietnam were being sent home in an airliner, commercial airliner. And being a disgrace, we were sent on a -- what do you call it -- one of these military transport planes. I came home, and I was sent to Treasure Island. And there was a barracks of nothing but gay men there.

And we used to which to San Francisco and have a good time and stuff like that. And after a while, after I was discharged -- I got an undesirable discharge -- I think that was around the '70s, or the '60s. And then around the '60s or '70s, I moved to Chicago with a lover, and I saw the Christine Jorgenson movie, the first sex change. And then I found out where my goals and where I belonged. And I came home after seeing that in San Jose and I started going to the Stanford University Gender Dysphoria Clinic, which was run by Dr. Donaw Laub.

Since it was illegal to have sex reassignment surgery at Stanford, they did it at Chope Hospital in San Mateo. And I was already working for the telephone company, and they had already told everybody what was and who was and everything like that. Blue Cross of California paid for my surgery. Then I decided that I was going to go back to the board of military and ask for an honorable discharge.

So having said that, put in the papers, they called me, and I came to the, I think, Fort Miley. And they interviewed me and stuff like that. So they reversed my unhonorable discharge to an honorable, and I got all my -- what do you call it -- my service stuff connected, like, my school and my hospital.

In 1974, I had my surgery. I was Felipe Alvarado Elizondo then I became Elena Nicole Montez because the reason that I did not want to change it near my name is just in case the media got ahold of my story; I didn't want to embarrass my family. But at the same time, when I was in Vietnam, in Danang, I wanted to be one of the boys. So they found out that I was a virgin, and they took me to whore house. And since I wanted to be normal, I had sex with a girl. I didn't know what I was doing, but I had sex with a girl. And it was over.

And then during that time, when I was being discharged, we stopped in Japan, and me and this African American guy became friends. And we decided to go into the bar in Tokyo, Japan. And since I was still doing the manly thing, the butch "wanna be," he took one the owner home, and I took the waitress home, and I took her home and had sex with her but it never was -- I didn't know what "satisfying" was, you know, but then I knew I had nothing to do with women.

I mean -- but to go back to my story, in 1974: My family was accepting, sort of. I told my brother; I told my mother, and she was accepting. My sisters -- I have three sisters and they weren't too accepting, but sort of accepting, but not really accepting. Then I started working for the telephone company, and I went through my transition there. And Blue Cross of California paid for my surgery, and I never regretted it.

I've never missed my genitalia; it's like it was never there. And, like, screaming to be normal made me normal, being a woman, because I like boys, and society had make it so plain that same sex relations were just freaky and mental and everything like that. So I thought I was normal; finally, I was normal. And in, I've been married nine times. Some of the men knew about me, and some did it not. They never questioned because a lot of men, they don't know what a vagina looks like or feels like, anyway.

So but then the AIDS epidemic came. In 1987, I became HIV positive and I've been positive for almost 20 years. The regimen of me being in the military made me a very stable person. I do not break the laws; I've taken drugs just to see what they were like, you know, as far as what the hoopla was all about, but I never got addicted to anything; maybe alcohol, a little bit -- well, a lot.

After I got out the service, the majority of my life was drinking. And until about 10 years ago, I stopped drinking, not completely, but to a drunk stupor that I didn't know who was in bed with me. But after I got sober, I never had sex again. I just don't know how to have sex sober. And it's crazy, but I've tried at the point -- I was the aggressor when I was drunk, I was the aggressor; I'm the one that supported; I'm the one that made the moves; I'm the one that did it.

But when I got sober, I was none of that anymore. I was scared. If a man didn't come after me, then he didn't come after me. I didn't make a big old thing about it. So I've been ten years celibate now and don't miss it because I'm so -- have you ever heard of that same about -- oh, what is it? Well, I forgot. I've got my senior year, my senior moment. But when they say you're just so used to something that you just -- well, anyway, I set in my ways.

But I've been -- I worked, I worked all my life. I'm very proud that I was a transsexual woman that was passable that people didn't read me because a lot of transgender, transsexual woman don't have that thing, and I am grateful for that. I've been with straight men; I was married to a straight man for about five or six years, but that's just like going back into the closet where I couldn't tell any of my straight girlfriends or his family or anybody of all my life. I went back into the closet again.

And about after five years, I said, "Oh, no. I'm going back to San Francisco to live." All my friends were dying in the late '80s, early '90s. We were going to funerals about three or four times a day. People were dying of HIV, and I thought, "Well, where would I want to die?" And I started here since I was 15, so I decided to move to San Francisco in 1991. And I've been living here ever since.

And when we became HIV positive, a lot of the girls decided, well, "What can we do to raise money for AIDS?" So we decided to do drag shows. We've been doing drag shows for the last 20 years. We've been doing fund raisers. I think we've helped every non-profit organization here in San Francisco.

I was in one of the documentaries, "HIV Stops with Me," commercial. Then I was in the 1966 riot at Comptons, a documentary, "Screaming Queens," that won an Emmy; and then recently, I was named 2008 -- senior leader award from UC Berkeley in the Department of Public Health. And about two weeks ago, this guy from Stanford, Jim, came to me and asked me if we could do a little mini documentary of my life as a senior transsexual woman, and I says, "Yeah." And it aired about a week ago at Stanford Theater, and it was given great reviews.

And right now, I'm very involved with the San Francisco Ducal Court, which is an organization that does a lot of fund raising for non-profit organizations. And once a year, we elect a grand duke and a grand duchess, and we get in our formals and diamonds and hairdos and go to this hotel. And there're courts from all over the country that come to San Francisco for coronation. And that duke and that grand duchess are elected for one year to fund raise to the year. And we go to New York, we go to San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oregon, for all these coronations that -- to elect a new grand duke and grand duchess. Right now I've worked for Project Open Hand for five years; I've worked for Shanti for about three years; and I've worked for the LGBT community for two years.

And what happened was, I think, in the last year, I went on SSI -- SSDI -- because of my neuropathy in my legs stemming from my HIV. And I've been retired, sort of. But I am very happy.

I have two dogs that are very supportive, Sammy and Gypsy. But I have six friends; we call each other the "six pack" because I'm the only transsexual woman and they're four, five drag queens, but they only perform as girls, and they live as boys. So they're gay -- something. And we take care of each other and my best friend, Bobby. And that's how we've been lately. We do shows at Aunt Charlie's Lounge, in San Francisco, and we do the second and fourth Wednesday of every month. And I think that's my life. That has been my life.

Anita Whites:

Okay. Now you said you did not go into the Army because of the height restrictions. Now why did you pick the Navy?

Felicia Elizondo:

Because they were the only service that would take me.

Anita Whites:

And do you recall your first days of service?

Felicia Elizondo:

Well, it was sort of something you just don't go there, but you've got it saved up in your mind. Leaving my mom -- she was single, and I was the only one there. Leaving my mom was hard, but I don't know what led me to join. The first day, I was scared because I knew what my background was, and I had to hide it and that nobody could find me. I didn't want nobody to find me out and disgrace me.

And being 18, and being gay, and going in the service knowing that, you know, that people have been killed for being gay was very traumatic. But I had to do it; something inside of me had to do it, you know. Maybe bringing up of my life to where men served in the military, like, my brother, who was 20 years older than me, served in the Army; and maybe that was a tradition that we had to -- you know, as men, that you are brought up in the Latino community, but you have to serve your country, regardless. So I played a role of stopping to be one person to be another person for the sake of society and my parents and being what I thought was what everybody thought was a man because I wanted to be there. I wanted to leave the past behind, and I wanted to change; I didn't want to be this way. Even if I got killed, at least I died as a man!

Anita Whites:

So when you went into the service, did you have any specialized training?

Felicia Elizondo:

Just boot camp, make sure that -- well, in a time of war, you had to be trained in military: Rifles and all that stuff. So I was trained in marching and military combat. And we went to the rifle ranges and shot rifles and stuff like that.

Anita Whites:

So tell me a little bit more about that experience.

Felicia Elizondo:

When I left that past behind, I decided that whatever it took a man to do, I had to do it, regardless of what I had left behind. I had to, not compete, but be just as good as other guys in my squad or my platoon or whatever they called it at the time -- I forgot -- because there was a lot of Filipino people there. And Filipinos are very, like, perfect, you know; they had had their shined shoes, and they had to be perfect. And you had to compete with them. Not only with them but the other guys too. I don't know how I did it. I did it!

Anita Whites:

Do you remember your instructors?

Felicia Elizondo:

No, no. You see, what happens is that you had big barracks and you had different platoons and something. So everybody has a squad leader. But I don't remember my squad leader. That was what; how many years ago? That was 45 years ago, I think. Was it? Almost that.

No, I don't remember my squad leaders. But I never got disciplined or anything. But I guess I was doing everything right, as tiny as I was, because these other guys were just huge and humongous. And I had to compete with all these men. And I guess I did it right because they stationed me at Coronado Naval Base.

I think about it now, and it was just, like, "God, I did that," you know? I went from being gay and very effeminate to what they called a man, and I pulled it off, knowing my feelings and stuff like that, knowing what could happen to me, knowing all the bad stuff that could happen to gay men in the military. I pulled it off. I'm the one they gave up, you know. I just couldn't take it anymore.

Anita Whites:

But how did you get through that? I mean, pulling it successfully, pulling it off? How did you get through all that?

Felicia Elizondo:

I really don't know, but I thought that's what a man is supposed to do. I just followed whatever the other guys were doing, and I did it, and I passed it. Mentally, I wasn't -- you don't think of analyzing everything, you know? All you think about is what you have to do and what your orders are and how you have to do. Like, I visualized a lot.

After having my surgery, my visions of a woman -- I don't know. I wasn't trained to be a little girl, but I saw women; I looked at them; I studied them. And learned from my mother, my sisters, how a woman is supposed to act. That's the same way that I was in the military: I looked at the guys; I saw what they were doing, and I copied what they were doing because I had no idea, you know?

My father died when I was 3; my brother got married two years afterward, so I didn't have a male model to show me, but -- I should have won an Academy Award, okay? Mentally you just do what you have to do. I mean, you know, I'm sure there's a lot of guys right now that are going through the same thing that I am going through, and maybe it's more lenient now than it was in the '60s, but I doubt it. I don't know.

Anita Whites:

Now how did you adapt to military life? For example, the physical regimen, the barracks, the food, the society life; how did you adapt to that?

Felicia Elizondo:

It's what you had to do. I mean, it just falls into place of everything that everybody else was doing. You have to.

Anita Whites:

So for example, the physical regimen wasn't that big of a deal, or was it a big deal?

Felicia Elizondo:

It was, but I couldn't scream like a sissy. I couldn't let anybody know about my life before. I could not let anybody know or have an inkling that I was any less of a man because I was small. I mean, I think of it, and I haven't thought about it for years -- in maybe 30, 40 years -- how I really pulled it off because I have no idea. I mean, I think about it. And I just went through whatever you had to do to do it, and I did it and the best way I thought or I saw people doing it.

And I did it. God, you bring a lot of stuff. I haven't thought about this stuff. Wow! But being in the military taught me one thing: It taught me to be a good person, to be -- you know. You have laws; you have a regimen that you follow, and that's how I followed it. It was a short time that I was in the military; I followed that thing. Even to this day, I sometimes fold my panties in the military way, you know.

Anita Whites:

So what was it like living in the barracks?

Felicia Elizondo:

With all those men? Not having to -- you can't even look at them or stare at them or anything like that. It was hard, it was very hard. It was very hard living day after day with all those men and seeing them in the showers and stuff like that and knowing who I was. But I just -- I could not let anybody have even a smidgen of an idea that I was even gay or had any attraction to guys. It was scary, it was very scary knowing that you could get beat up or killed.

Anita Whites:

What was the food like?

Felicia Elizondo:

A mess. I know what the food was like because I was in the mess hall. I used to work in the mess hall for a while, when I got transferred to Coronado. The food, it was okay except for the powered eggs that they used to feed you. They were horrible, but when you're hungry, you eat anything.

And it's free so you have to eat it. We did have a chance to go out there after work, after 5:00 o'clock or 6:00 o'clock, whenever you have time or on weekends when you have furlough. But I guess it compensated for the food that we ate inside for free. You just don't want to go work in the mess on the kitchen and know what those guys do to feed those guys. Ugh!

Anita Whites:

Now the first place you were stationed, was that San Diego?

Felicia Elizondo:

Yeah, I went to San Diego boot camp and then I got stationed in Coronado.

Anita Whites:

And where did you come from before you went to?

Felicia Elizondo:

In San Diego. I was in boot camp in San Diego. They transferred me from here to San Diego, in boot camp.

Anita Whites:

So you were in San Francisco before you went to San Diego?

Felicia Elizondo:

No, I was in San Jose. I was enlisted in San Jose then they put me on a bus to San Diego. Boot camp is in San Diego. And Coronado is a Naval base there, so I just got transferred to another city.

Anita Whites:

So was it like, do you remember what it was like arriving?

Felicia Elizondo:

In Coronado?

Anita Whites:

Right.

Felicia Elizondo:

It was beautiful. I mean, it was beautiful. See, what happened is that I was stationed in Coronado, in the barracks. And you know how guys lay down their barracks with their underwear? Well guys used to pass my barracks and tell me, "Boy, if you were only a girl," because I was tiny, you know, compared to them, you know. I was 5 foot 2, and I think I weighed 112. So I was a very small person.

Right now, I'm 5 foot 2 -- well, when you get older, you get smaller -- about 5 foot 1 now, and I weigh 135 pounds. So you have to realize that you just go with the flow; you can't make a mistake. And it's very hard for a lesbian or gay or bisexual person to have to be in the military; you want to fight for your country, yet you have to hide what you are because you might get killed or thrown out or stuff like that.

And it's just like being in a movie: You have been hired to play a part, and you have to be the most convincing than you can ever be to win an Academy Award. And that's what all these people are doing; they're hiding themselves from being who they are because of the consequences. And being in barracks, I mean, I showered with the guys; I did everything. I went out with them and stuff like that. But in my own time, I used to go to the movie theater and find my extra fun with guys, but I was never dressed in uniform. I was dressed in civilian clothes.

Anita Whites:

Now when you went to Coronado, you were working with --

Felicia Elizondo:

In the mess hall then I got transferred to being a clerk where there's a whole bunch of barracks where all these guys were coming, and I had to assign them beds because they had to be trained in combat to go to Vietnam. So I was more, like, a barracks assigner. I assigned beds to people, and I made sure that they were in the bed that they were supposed to be just in case something happened.

So we had about, I'd say, about 10, 15 barracks. And I had to assign barracks to all the guys that would come in, and I would have to make sure they were all there because some of them went AWOL, you know. They wouldn't come back. They would get mixed up in the turmoil of all those guys, and they had to be trained to be shipped out to Vietnam. So when that happened, I saw all those guys, and I says, "Oh, maybe I can volunteer too. Maybe this is the only way to get out of the this pain that I have inside of me."

And I volunteered. My mom did not want me to volunteer. And I says, "Mom, I have to go." And I'm sure she knew what I was going through, but we never really a talked about it because in those days, mothers were very traditional. Your son was your son; men were men; and you couldn't stray from there. Although, I knew my mother knew what I was, but it was never talked about.

Anita Whites:

When you were working in the mess hall what were your job responsibilities?

Felicia Elizondo:

Mostly washing dishes, washing all those dishes. [Laughs] Washing out and washing all those dishes and sometimes helping the cooks or picking up trays and all that stuff. So that was the lowest job that you could get in the military -- was working in the mess hall then you would get transferred somewhere else.

But I think at that time, you would have to start in the mess hall for a certain amount of time, a certain amount of days or something, before they could get your papers to transfer to wherever you were supposed to be transferred.

Anita Whites:

Now in your unit, were there many casualties?

Felicia Elizondo:

Not that I know of because most of my unit was -- okay. When we went to Vietnam, we were not in the barracks, but we were in a ship. So most of our unit was clerks that would help, like, you know, hair dressers, hair cutters, worked in the mess hall, you know. And we were in APA -- what is it, Army Patrol Transfer, something like that. And we were on a boat.

So every time in the morning, we would get up, eat breakfast, and then go to Danang and do our work. And then at nighttime, if we went and stayed for the USO thing; we could stay or not get shipped to the shipped every night. So every day, we would have to be on a boat, back and forth, and every night, back and forth, because our barracks were on the ship. So sometimes we had to go out of the bay because sometimes there were land mines on the sea.

So every time they recognized a mine, we had to leave because we didn't want to be blown up. So we did that about three or four times and then we would come back and then in the morning, we would get on a boat and go to work. And then after being there for a while, I was unloading cargo in the freezers 12 hours a day. And then that's when I decided, "Oh, no, I'm done with this; I cannot handle -- I can't be a man no more." [Laughs]

Anita Whites:

So what's your most memorable experience?

Felicia Elizondo:

My most memorable experience is after boot camp. And I think I was Graduating No. 211, Troupe 211 -- is when my parents came and saw me graduate. That was my incredible moment. I was finally -- to them, I was man. And to me, I was.

Anita Whites:

Now you said your father died when you were 3, and you referred to your parents.

Felicia Elizondo:

My stepdad and my mom.

Anita Whites:

Now were you a prisoner of war?

Felicia Elizondo:

No.

Anita Whites:

And what was highest rank you achieved?

Felicia Elizondo:

Seaman.

Anita Whites:

And did you win any medals or citations?

Felicia Elizondo:

No. Maybe the Vietnam War, for being in Vietnam, the Vietnam Campaign. I think is what they called it, the Vietnam Campaign. And I got two ribbons: One, the Vietnam campaign, and the other one for being in Vietnam during time of war.

Anita Whites:

Now what did your dad do when I was alive?

Felicia Elizondo:

He was a sheepherder. He sheered sheep in Texas.

Anita Whites:

Now what about your mom?

Felicia Elizondo:

My mother was a housewife.

Anita Whites:

And your stepdad?

Felicia Elizondo:

I don't think he ever worked because my mother didn't get married until after I got out of the service. And they were in their 60s. No, no, wait a minute. My mother was 77 when she passed away. No, no, my mother died in 1977, two years after I had my surgery. So that was at the same time when I was in the military, when my mother got married.

I was around 18 or 19. So I don't think he ever worked because I left the house, I think I was in the service; I didn't stay with them. Maybe for a little bit, but not -- I didn't live with them. I think it was time for me to move on. I knew my mother was there, and she was taken care of, so I don't remember my stepfather doing anything.

Anita Whites:

Did any member of your family serve in the military?

Felicia Elizondo:

Yeah, my brother, my brother Javier, who was 20 years older than me. We were the black sheep of the family because he had the blond hair and blue eyes. And I was meant to be a girl because all the girls were dark. So I was a little boy. And we used to tease my mom because he was so light-complected. Of course, my grandma's Spaniard, so they all had blond hair and blue eyes, so I guess they took after her.

Yeah, my brother served, and I don't know whether -- I think it was the Korean War, or maybe -- yeah, the Korean War. And he just recently passed away about a year ago. And he was seventy-something years old. Well, I'm 61. Well, he was almost -- no, over 80. No, 80 because I'm going to be 61, and he died a year -- 59, 20 -- he was around 68 or 69 years old. And he served in the military very proudly, and he got out on an honorable discharge and everything.

Anita Whites:

Now how did you stay in touch with your family when you were serving?

Felicia Elizondo:

Mostly through the mail because there weren't no Internet at the time. [Laughs] There was no Internet service. Oh, maybe once in a while -- I don't remember ever calling home though. Maybe it was too expensive for them to, so I would -- mail, usually the mail, we would look forward to mail. I was much into -- before I left from the service, I was engaged to get married because that was what we were supposed to do. She used to send me -- I was a dying fan of Leslie Gore, "It's My Party And I'll Cry If I Want To." They used to send me a whole bunch of records because we used to have a record player. And it was albums and records and stuff like that at the time. So Leslie Gore was my favorite artist. So mostly by mail, hardly any phone calls though. Maybe none because it was too expensive at that time.

Anita Whites:

Now when you were serving, did you have plenty of supplies?

Felicia Elizondo:

Oh, yeah. They used to send me what do you call these boxes, these gift boxes. I don't know what they're called today, but I forgot what they were called then either: Goody bags or goody boxes or stuff like that, from the mainland. I used to have cookies, toothpaste. See, at the time, the military wasn't too -- well, you had to buy everything. A lot of the stuff you had to buy. Yeah, they'd send me boxes of stuff, which was cute.

Anita Whites:

Now did you do anything special for good luck when you were serving?

Felicia Elizondo:

No, not that I know of. No. Maybe -- no, I don't think so. No.

Anita Whites:

Now how did people entertain themselves? You told, like, you went to the movies; you listened to your records. What else did people do to entertain themselves?

Felicia Elizondo:

We'd go to the USO Canteen. It used to be, like, a football field. That's how many men were under that thing -- drinking, having a good ol' time. Can you imagine what went on in there after they got drunk? [Laughs] We used to go in there once in a while and drink or go to the USO in Danang, Vietnam and have hamburgers or -- what a funny thing; that taste of the hamburger just came into my mouth. We were craving hamburgers, hot dogs that we didn't have on the ship or in Vietnam; and the USO had them. So we all went to the USO to get hamburgers and hot dogs and potato chips. There was no drinking there, hardly, but the canteen in the base used to have a big ol' -- I mean, it was thousands of men in there just getting drunk out of their minds. Or walk around or get on a ship and get in a corner and listen to your radio or -- what do you call it, your Walkman? -- and just look out and see how beautiful that country was, but so far away from home. A lot of times, you would get a lot of homesick because it's -- " Why am I doing this?" A lot of people think of it. You think of it a lot: This is what a man is supposed to do. You know?

Anita Whites:

What did you do when you were on leave?

Felicia Elizondo:

Well, when I was on leave, when I was in Coronado, I came home and hung around with my friends. On leave -- I never went on leave on Vietnam, only when I was being discharged. I stopped in Tokyo, Japan. That was it. I wasn't there long enough in Vietnam for them to give me an R and R. I never stayed that long to get it. I was almost ready to get there, but I just decided that I've had enough. I just could not take it anymore. Being a man is not what I wanted to be. [Laughs]

Anita Whites:

Now where else did you travel while you were in the service? You said you went to Vietnam; you went to Japan.

Felicia Elizondo:

Well, when we left to go to Vietnam, we stopped in Anchorage, Alaska. From Anchorage, Alaska, we stopped in the Philippines. And from the Philippines, we went to the Danang. But there wasn't no party, you know; it was just from one transfer to another. I think we stopped in Hawaii, but we never got a chance to go anywhere. I mean, we could go anywhere, really. [Laughs] I mean, we stopped at places, but we never got out to enjoy them. You know what I mean? So we were just transferred from one plane to another or enough to get enough fuel to get the plane going. That was it. And when I was coming back, we stopped in Japan. But it was only for a day or two, enough to transfer us to, here, in San Francisco, and that's about it. But in San Diego, we used to go -- you know how guys are when you don't have a tattoo, and they want you to have a tattoo? [Laughs] I got a little tattoo right here [Indicating] of the little red devil with the fork. But after my surgery, I decided it was too masculine, and I covered it. And now it's a rose. Gabardine -- we used to order -- instead of those wool sailor pants, me and my friends decided that we wanted gabardine because it was nice and pretty material. [Laughs] We'd go to the movies; we'd go play pool; we'd go drinking and stuff like that. But that's it.

Anita Whites:

Do you recall any particular humorous or unusual event when you were serving?

Felicia Elizondo:

Just, you know, when I was laying in the bed and the guys used to tell me, "God, if only you were only a girl." And little did they know, [Laughs] I wanted to be one! [Laughs] But that's the only humorous thing that I -- I'm sure there's a lot. Maybe my first time having sex with a woman. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn't know if I was doing it right or not. Yeah, that thing in the barracks and having sex with a woman and the second time knowing that you think you know what you're, but you really don't know what you're doing and nobody to tell you that, if you're doing it right or not. So, I mean, it was humorous because I was hoping, through all these years and all these things, that through that sexual encounter with that Japanese girl, I could encountered a baby, and then I would have known what my child would look like. Because when you have surgery, in '74, they don't -- at that time, I didn't know about saving sperm because I would have loved to see what one of my kids looked like, even if he wasn't living with me, but at least know what my offspring would have looked like. That is a big dream that I tell all these girls nowadays before they have surgery: Do me a favor, save your sperm because you never know when one of these days you might want to have one of these mothers have your kid. And what he'd look like, that's what I missed the most of everything in this thing, knowing what I would have looked like as one of my offsprings.

Anita Whites:

Now do you have any photographs of you in the military?

Felicia Elizondo:

I have one. Would you like to see it?

Anita Whites:

Sure?

Felicia Elizondo:

I think. Here I am as a baby. Here I am at 5 years old. Here I am when I came home from my boot camp. Here I am in the military at Coronado, San Diego, right outside my base. And this is in 1969, when I was in Chicago and I found about that Christine Jorgenson movie. This is what looked like in '69: The go-go boots, the mini skirt, and the big hairdo. [Laughs]

Anita Whites:

So you didn't have any pictures of you with your fellow sailors?

Felicia Elizondo:

No. When you think about it -- okay. In '74, I had my surgery. I wanted to forget the past. But I learned that you can't. At the time that you're having surgery, you want to start a new life and you want to destroy everything. I wish I wouldn't have now that I've lived this long because that's a lot of my history. But I regret doing that. I these pictures -- the only reason that I've got these pictures of me being a boy is because my sister had them, and they wouldn't give them to me to destroy. But a lot of my boy stuff, before my surgery, I destroyed it because that person was dead. But little did I know that person would never die, no matter how hard I tried to kill it. That's who I am. And now I learned about the LGBT history, that you have to conserve whatever your life is because that's what made you. That's what made me today. These people made me today [referring to past pictures of her], and I can't forget that. You want to, but you can't because it's what brought you here. If it wasn't for them, you wouldn't be here.

Anita Whites:

Now did you ever keep a personal diary?

Felicia Elizondo:

No, but I do you have it on the Web. I'm trying to write my biography, autobiography. I have it in the computer. I had stopped -- when I think about it or I write down stuff, and I think about it. Hopefully, one of these days, I'll be able to write a book about my life, because I never thought it was going to be important for the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual community because I'm history, a little bit of their history, but some of it. What I went through is important what I went through is what I went through because it was hard and rough for me mentally and physically and stuff like that because we didn't have any of the support systems that the LGBT community has now. The LGBT community has support systems all over the place. They can go anywhere in San Francisco and have tons and tons of stuff. But our youths can do it. The trouble with our youths today is they don't know what we went through. They have it easy today. And what we went through: When we were kids being called queer and being beaten up and sissy. It left them -- whoever it was, it left a mark in your mind that you are not worthy or good enough for anybody because you were different and not normal like they think they are.

Anita Whites:

Do you recall the day that your service ended?

Felicia Elizondo:

[Cries] I was stationed in Treasure Island, right here. And we were in the gay barracks and we were having fun. It wasn't a sad moment. It was part of a sad moment because I had to leave. What I thought everything was normal, but happy that I didn't have to hide it anymore. And to come home and tell my mother that I had a dishonorable discharge was very bad for me because I wanted my mom to be proud of me. That's why I had to fight to get an honorable discharge, because I wanted my mom to be proud of me. It was a sad and happy day. You know, sad, that I had to leave what I thought was what I was supposed to be, but happy, of the feeling that I didn't have to portray that person anymore because it was hard to portray somebody that I wasn't, and yet shame, that I wasn't strong enough to complete everything that I was supposed to do as a man. Sad and happy, you know? The important thing was my mom. I wanted her to be proud of me. But, I guess, deep in her heart, she knew; she knew I was different. I mean, she knew that I had tried.

Anita Whites:

So how were you received when you were discharged? How were you received by your family by the community?

Felicia Elizondo:

My family -- although, I thought that I had disgraced them or disappointed them, I was my mother's son; I was my sister's brother. They were happy that I wasn't in Vietnam and getting killed. At the time, I was in a gay world, so they couldn't -- they didn't care. Well, as far as my family was concerned, they were happy to have me back. I really didn't tell me mom the truth. I just told her it was my time, and I was coming home, the same thing as my friends. I was signed up for four years, and I think the most I did was two. So I just told everybody that I had signed up for two. And they believed me. So I didn't tell them that I was undesirably discharged anyway. I wasn't happy with that. They received me, like, you know, they were glad to have me back. And in the gay world, it wasn't that important; they had other problems of themselves: To get accepted and work through their own problems and turmoils. They just didn't give it a second thought. I just told them that it was my time to come home and I had only signed up for two years, and they believed me. I was signed up for four, but they didn't know, I mean, because I'm a whack; they won't allow you to be like that. [Laughs] So no, I didn't tell them the truth when I came home. I just told them my time was up. My time was up, and that was it. I did tell my mother later, after I went to fight and got my honorable discharge. I told my mom that I had been discharged on an undesirable discharged because I was a homosexual. But at the same time, in the same breath, I says, "I went to fight and got my honorable discharge." So she was proud of me.

Anita Whites:

Now do you remember coming home; what was that like; how did you come home?

Felicia Elizondo:

From Vietnam? On a troupe transporter. Very sad, very disgraceful because the other guys that had served were in a commercial airplane with food and services and stuff, like, drinks and stuff like that. And we were on a -- the people that served undesirably or unworthy were transported on troupe transporters, these big black things with nothing. You sit row by row, and you get harnessed into them. There's no waitress; there's no comfort or nothing. It's just a transporter, and that was it, troop transporter. You know when you came out of that plane, you were a disgrace, and people saw it as that. You were in a commercial [plane], everybody was happy; you know, you were coming from the war, and you had served honorably. But when you come out of that transporter, you feel like a disgrace. And then you get shipped over to Treasure Island and to the gay barracks, and there was a lot of gay men there, a lot of them. They were all being discharged for undesirable discharge or dishonorable for -- if you had had sex with a military guy inside military premises, you would get a dishonorable. If you had sex outside the barracks with a civilian, they'd give an undesirable discharge because you didn't bring it inside the military base; you kept it outside. And that's what I did. I kept it outside. Well, I didn't do it until I got discharged with the gay barracks. You know the gay barracks; they rejected me. [Laughs]

Anita Whites:

So how did you readjust to civilian life?

Felicia Elizondo:

It was easy because I didn't have to play any roles anymore. I could be whoever and whatever I want to. I didn't have to hide anymore or act any different and just act myself. It was a relief. It was a great relief for me because I didn't have to be the masculine -- Even when I got hired at the telephone company for the first male telephone operator in California, my supervisor says, "Lower your voice so they know that you're a man." [Laughs] Yeah, it was a relief; it was a great relief that I didn't have to play a role no more. And I was playing a role; that's not who I was. Big relief.

Anita Whites:

So what did you do in the days and weeks afterwards, after being discharged?

Felicia Elizondo:

Partied, partied with all friends, all my gay friends. I was what, 19 or 20; I came to San Francisco. There was a lot of gay bars in San Francisco. There was the Trax, the Body Shop, the Nickelode and the Rendezvous, the 181, Chuckers, the Hot Spot, the Rosie's, the Landmark, the Peter Pan, Ram's Head, the Deja Vu, Roadrunners, the Windjammer; then there was after hours -- the Shed, after hours on Market. I partied. I wasn't old enough to drink, but I partied. I mean, at one point, I wanted to get addicted to drugs because that's what I heard, that all your worries would go away. But that's not what military taught me because I went there -- if it wasn't for the military, I wouldn't have the discipline that I have today. I tried drugs, everything. I wanted to know what the hoopla was all about, but apparently, I wasn't an addictive person where I got addicted. Drinking, I did. I did a lot of drinking, but hard drugs -- after I tried heroin, I tried speed, crack, all that stuff. But it wasn't for me. I had to have my mind so, like, clear. And I didn't want to be stumbling all over the place. And I had my dignity. I had learned in the service the discipline that it takes to be out in the world. And I kept that discipline through all these years, through me being a woman, me being HIV positive, me being whoever I am today. I kept that. I've always wanted to thank the military for making me the person that I am today because if it wasn't for them, I don't know where the hell I'd be. It taught me such good discipline, the discipline that I never had by a father or by any man before. Maybe that's what made me the person today. Because if it wasn't for the military, I don't think where I'd be because I'd have no male role models, you know, from what, three or five years old? And my stepfather didn't come into play until I was already in the military. So I guess -- thank them for a little bit and thank them for not. [Laughs]

Anita Whites:

Now when you left, did you immediately start working or did you go to school or --

Felicia Elizondo:

When I left, I started working. I started working for Good Will helping. I was a clerk, but it was, like, a bunch of handicapped people doing a lot of -- what is it -- factory components put components together, and that's what the mentally people were doing. I don't know if it's right or not, but I was helping handicapped people do a job so they could work to earn a living. So I was at Good Will, and I was the clerk, and I had used to have the timesheets and stuff like that. And then after that, I went to a hospital, in Los Gatos Hospital, and then I was a nurse's aide. And from there, nurse's aide, I moved to San Francisco and started being a female impersonator/prostitute, but that didn't go too hard. And I moved to Chicago with my lover. From my lover, I broke up. I was working as a clerk for Steinberg and Buam in Chicago for about six months to a year, and we broke up, and I moved. I saw the Christine Jorgenson movie; I moved to back to San Jose, California, and became a telephone operator, and I was there for almost ten years. But from '71 to '78 or '79, I went through my surgery. And Blue Cross of California paid for my surgery. But in the transition, I was in the same job. So in the '70s, all my girlfriends, Mexican girlfriends, never found out about me until the day that I went in. And I gave the letter to my supervisor from the gender dysphoria clinic at San Mateo Hospital and with Dr. Donna Laub. And they talked to me, and they recognized the letter, and they talked to all my coworkers. They took them off one by one and told them about me. And I was supposed to be transferred to another department, to another city, in San Jose, in Sunnyvale; it's right next door. And it got canceled, so I came back as a female in the same place that I had been working at a male for about three or four years. They took it very well because they were told I was coming. And one of the girls had to get with me to the girls' restroom and stand outside so nobody else could come in. Pacific Telephone, at that time, took it very well in the '70s. I'm very surprised that they didn't make a whole big deal out of it or nothing. And they made me comfortable as much as they could in my job, in the '70s, my God.

Anita Whites:

When you got your honorable discharge status -- first of all, did you go to school?

Felicia Elizondo:

No.

Anita Whites:

You haven't gone. But you do have the ability to go to school and have your GI Bill help support that?

Felicia Elizondo:

It lapsed on me. I was too -- I could have bought a home; I could have used my GI Bill to go to school. But what happened is that I was so involved with being who I was or who I was going to be that I forgot about all these fringe benefits that the service had for me. I wasn't there. I wasn't there as logically as I thought I could be because I was in this other world that I had to go, but I didn't know how I was going to get there. And it took us a long period of time to get me where I am, where I was in '74. It took me, what, nine years after I got out of the service that I had my surgery? All that, and you know. I worked. I took my GED test after I got out of the service, and that was enough for me. I wish I could have gone further, but, you know, it's too late now. Well, never too late, but I don't know. See, the trouble is in 1987, everybody was dying. So you put a hold on your life because why do this if you're going to die within a year? And you wait year after year after year, and you think about it. God, 20 years have passed by, and I'm still here. I could have done this; I could have done that; I could have -- but I stopped myself because I didn't think it was worth it. Wow.

Anita Whites:

Did you make any close friendships while in the military?

Felicia Elizondo:

Yeah. I had two of them. One was the hairdresser; I forgot his name. But there's another one, a person, a guy that -- I guess I had a crush on him. His name was Robert Rankin. And I never will forget that name. Why? I have no idea. He just stood out. He just stood out, of all of the guys I've known. And these were in Vietnam in a ship, and I got to know him. And I got to know the hairdresser. He was feminine, but nobody made fun of him. And I knew he was gay, but we never brought the subject. We could not let anybody know we were because they could turn around one second and snitch you out. And that's the same thing that I feel. We talked; we hung out; but we never talked about being gay or having gay friends or anything like that. It was just two guys, you know. I don't think we ever talked about girls though. [Laughs] Yeah, it was the hairdresser and Robert Rankin, Bobby. He just stood out, and he was just my friend. And we hung out after work. And when we got to the ship, he would cut hair all day in the afternoons. And I would come and sit by, next to the next chair that was empty, or outside smoking a cigarette or something, and talking. Then after we got closed, we would hang out in the barracks. But that was the closest guy that I ever thought was gay, but we never talked about whether he was or not. It was too scary.

Anita Whites:

Now do you continue those close relationships?

Felicia Elizondo:

No. I wish I could have, but no.

Anita Whites:

Now have you joined a veterans' organization?

Felicia Elizondo:

No. I tried to, the one that you were [referring to Post 448] -- but they never got back to me, so I let it go. But I'm going to try to do it again.

Anita Whites:

So what was your career after the war; was it working with Pac Bell?

Felicia Elizondo:

Customer Service, telephone operator.

Anita Whites:

And did your military experience influence your thinking about war or about the military, in general?

Felicia Elizondo:

I don't think about it. I'm a very laid-back person. I think of the war, but no matter whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong or whether it's right or whether it's wrong, I'm just one little person. And the President is stuck on having us there, and no matter what the Congress does or the senators or whatever they do, he's got his mind stuck on Iraq. And if you're a Texan and stubborn, there ain't no way that anybody's going to tell you what to do. And that's what's wrong with the President: He's a Texan and stubborn, because he's a Texan and stubborn and he's not going to be told what to do. No matter if he's wrong, he's not going to change. And it's a shame that all of our men are dying needlessly, but he's the Chief of Command right now. All these protests and all this stuff, has it changed his mind? No. Not even that mother that went all over the world, all over the United States, to protest him, did he change his mind? Nothing. So -- I'm going to kick that one right --

Anita Whites:

Now have you ever attended any reunions after your surgery?

Felicia Elizondo:

No. All I remember is my company was 211. I have no idea why I thought of that because I haven't thought of that in a long time. Company 211. I have some beautiful pictures in the Navy. You know, like, you go to a photographer and get pictures, like, in San Diego?

Anita Whites:

Now are there any life lessons you've learned from the military?

Felicia Elizondo:

Oh, what I was telling you about, how regimented and strict. And I learn to be -- the reason I am what I am today is because of them, because of the -- what do you call it -- the way things are done: Timely, mannerly. And you have to be responsible. What it made me is a very responsible person. That's my life thing. It made me to be who I am today because I'm a very responsible, organized person. Because if it wasn't for them, I would be horrible. [Laughs] definitely responsible.

Anita Whites:

Now is there anything you want to add that I haven't covered?

Felicia Elizondo:

No. I think you've done perfect. [Laughs] But it brought back a lot of memories. Oh, my God, things I haven't thought about in years: Never thought about how hard it was for me going through it knowing that I was going through it but yet I had to do it. You know what I mean? God, this would be a great movie, wouldn't it? [Laughs] Oh, my God! And I look at those three people, you know. I look at them, and if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here today. How horrible to think that I wanted to forget about them.

Anita Whites:

And the three people you are referring to are the different picture of you in your life?

Felicia Elizondo:

That's right. I was a pretty little boy. What went through might mind when I was in there? Well, thank you; my God. I want to thank you for coming because, I mean, I haven't thought of this in a long time! [End of Tape]

 
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  October 26, 2011
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