Jasmyn Morris (JM): It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Jasmyn Morris.
If you’ve been listening for a while… you know our mission is to give everyday people the chance to record and preserve their stories… we have a fierce commitment to raising up the voices of those we rarely hear from — and in the LGBTQ community, those are often the voices of trans women of color…
So in this episode, we’ll hear from those who have many times been the first to stand up for equality… but are typically the last to be recognized for their contributions. And a warning… the stories in this episode contain strong language and graphic imagery.
Felicia Elizondo (FE): Hi, my name is Felicia Elizondo. I’m also known as Felicia Flames. I’m a transsexual woman. I’m a screaming queen, a diva, a 27-year survivor of AIDS and a Vietnam veteran.
JM: 72-year-old Felicia “Flames” grew up in San Angelo, Texas. She came to StoryCorps to talk about moving to California as a teenager in the 60s… and finding her way to the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.
FE: In those days, to the police or to our families, we were nothing. It was a regular thing for the police to harass us, because it was against the law to dress like a woman.
And you have to understand at that time, the Latinas, the Asians and the African-Americans, we were just like discarded trash. I was a prostitute. And, of course, I was scared; you didn’t know who was going to pick you up, but no matter how dangerous it was for us, we had to make a living.
So that was where Gene Compton’s Cafeteria came in the picture. It was a social gathering where everyone could come in with your hair and your jewels, or whatever, your miniskirts. And, if you had a cute husband, you would show him off in front of all the girls. It was a place where we could feel comfortable. Everybody could come at any hour of the day and know that you were still here, that you had survived that night.
JM: Because Compton’s was a gathering place for many LGBTQ folks in the 60s… it was often raided by police.
And one morning in August of 1966 — three years before the Stonewall Uprising — patrons… who were mostly trans women… fought back.
This became known as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, and it was one of the first known LGBTQ uprisings in U.S. history.
Although Felicia wasn’t there on this particular night, it’s a legacy she’s proud of.
FE: Whatever they used to call us at that time: queers, sissies, jotos, hair fairies, female impersonators, drag queens. We did what we had to do to survive; but we went through hell, and we were murdered, killed, raped, and thrown in jail because of who we were meant to be.
Did I think I was going to make it until now? No. I wake up every morning and think, I’m still here…and I’m very proud of making sure that our history is never forgotten.
JM: That’s Felicia “Flames” Elizondo… at StoryCorps in San Francisco.
Next… we’ll hear from Alexis Martinez, who was a young teen at the time of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot… and was growing up on Chicago’s South Side.
Alexis Martinez (AM): When I came out to my mom that I was transgender, I think I was 13 or 14, and she called the police. And I always remember that when the police showed up, you know, they just laughed and told her, ”You’ve got a fag for a son, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
You know, so, I went as macho as I could be, you know, to mask what I really was underneath. And by that time I had become a member of a gang. People just didn’t mess with me, you know, because they knew they had a fight on their hands. When I look back at it, it was almost schizophrenic, because I would be wearing combat boots and blue jeans and a leather jacket. But underneath, I would have like stockings and a bra. And so, I remember it as a very dark period. I mean I really didn’t believe that anybody could love somebody like me.
JM: Alexis continued to live with this secret… got married and raised a family… And at StoryCorps… she sat down with her daughter, Lesley, to talk about how their relationship evolved over time.
Lesley Etherly Martinez (LEM): I remember as a little girl that you would say these things like, “Well, I know that I’m not loved.” I just remember growing up like, “Daddy, I love you.” You know, it was just such an important thing for me to express to you how much you mattered.
And, it was a big to-do, I discovered some female clothes—it was sort of, you know, my uncovering the secret.
AM: You asked me, “Why?” And I think if I had tried to cover it up, a lot of trust would have been lost between us.
LEM: It was like freedom because now I could talk to you freely about being a girl, you know, and you’re the one who taught me to put on makeup.
AM: You know, I was really torn between being a female role model and a dad. And so, I said to myself, Okay, well be the best parent. Whatever it takes, however I do it, you have to look out for your baby.
But one of the most difficult things for me was, I was always afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed to be in my granddaughters’ lives, and you blew that completely out of the water, you and your husband. One of the fruits of that is, you know, my relationship with my granddaughters. They fight with each other sometimes over whether I’m he or she, you know.
LEM: [Laughs] But they’re free to talk about it.
AM: Yep, they’re free to talk about it. But that, to me, is a miracle.
LEM: You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to tiptoe. You know, we’re not going to cut you off. And that is something that I’ve always wanted you to, you know, just know—that you’re loved.
AM: You know, I live this every day now. I walk down the streets as a woman, and I really am at peace with who I am. I mean I wish I had a softer voice, maybe, you know…
AM: But now I walk in love, and I try to live that way every day.
JM: That’s Alexis Martinez with her daughter, Lesley Martinez Etherly, at StoryCorps in Chicago.
Their interview was recorded in 2013… and Alexis has now been living openly as a woman for over a decade.
We’ll be right back. Stay with us.
JM: Welcome back.
Next, we’ll hear from one of the families who lost a loved one in recent years… because of violence against trans people.
Angie Zapata was 18 years old when she was killed by someone she knew — just over a decade ago this week.
At StoryCorps, Angie’s family recorded two interviews to remember her: one between her sister and niece and another between her mother and brother.
You’ll hear excerpts from both conversations.
Jessica Murguia (JM): She was kind of like a mom figure to me. But, you know, I never knew her as a boy. When did she start doing her makeup?
Ashley Zapata (AZ): She was thirteen and grandma started calling her m’ija.
JM: Did Ang come out to you first?
AZ: Yeah. I remember we were just talking and Ang said that she wanted to be a girl.
Growing up, she didn’t want to go to school, because kids were just mean. But around 16, 17…
AZ: …is when she, like, really bloomed.
Gonzalo Zapata (GZ): Do you remember what Angie told you she wanted to be when she grew up?
Maria Zapata (MZ): She was gonna be a cosmetologist. So Angie went to apply to cosmetology school. And they told her that she had to conduct herself as a boy. But Angie said, “This is who I am. If you can’t accept me, then goodbye.” That was it.
I don’t know if I told you but, one time, I taken Angie to, um, Walmart. We were at the cashier’s and there was this lady just looking and looking. And I said, “What are you looking at?” I was ready to just smack this woman; I don’t like people staring. But Angie says, “She’s looking at me because I’m pretty.” And Angie, when she said that, it calmed me down quite a bit.
You know, she taught me a lot of stuff that I should’ve known before. I didn’t know what transgender was all about. Still, I always used to tell her, “Be careful. I wish I could have youse in a bubble… where nobody would hurt you.”
AZ: I remember her telling me about when she was talking to this guy. She just had this glow on her face; she was so happy, but we always worried about her safety. And later on, that guy was at her house and he attacked her with a fire extinguisher. She got up and he continued hitting her…
MZ: July 17th, 2008, she was murdered. When this had happened to my Angie, it just seemed, it was me against the world, and, uh, I didn’t want to be a part of that world at that time. But every weekend, I’ve been going to the cemetery. I carry on a conversation with Angie and it’s my way of… of healing, I guess. They say that every day goes easier. It doesn’t. It’s like a part of my heart is gone. But there isn’t a day has gone by that she’s not missed and that she’s not loved.
JM: That’s Angie Zapata’s family… her mother, Maria Zapata, and brother Gonzalo Zapata. You also heard from her niece, Jessica Murguia and sister, Ashley Zapata… in Brighton, Colorado.
Gonzalo performs regularly in the Denver drag scene – under the drag name Angie Chanel – as a tribute to his sister.
The man who murdered Angie was convicted of a hate crime… and is now serving a life sentence plus 60 years in prison.
JM: Lastly, we’ll hear from a trans elder who’s been fighting to protect people in her community for close to six decades…
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is 78 years old… and she sat down for StoryCorps with her good friend Jay Toole, who she met in the early 60s.
Jay Toole (JT): I remember a few years ago you called me up and you said you’re moving to Little Rock, Arkansas and I said, “Are you kidding me?”
Miss Major (MM): I know. I’m there to help the girls because a lot of the girls that I met in New York and San Francisco were from the South.
MM: And they always left because they couldn’t live their lives fully and couldn’t get access to doctors and things that the girls in Chicago and New York get. You know?
MM: So I thought if I move there, maybe I could help to create a sense of family, to give us a chance to connect and realize that no one else is going to take care of us.
When girls call me mama or grandma, it’s like, I want to make sure I don’t let them down.
MM: I want them always to be safe and to stay strong. My trans girls are a tough bunch of bitches, child. We’ve gone through hell and we’re still here. I got here and I’m proud of it. [Laughs]
JT: You know, I just love you.
MM: I love you too.
JT: Knowing that you’re in this world makes me stronger. You know, and even when we’re gone, hopefully people will… you know, when they do think of us, we’ll make them stronger.
JM: That’s Jay Toole speaking with her friend, Miss Major, at StoryCorps in New York City.
That’s all for this episode. It was produced by Mia Warren, Jud Esty-Kendall and me. Our engineer is Jarrett Floyd. Our fact-checker is Natsumi Ajisaka. Afi Yellow-Duke is our Production Assistant. Special thanks to John White, Michael Garofalo and StoryCorps facilitators Yosmay del Mazo, Liyna Anwar, Yasmina Guerda and Jey Born.
Head over to our website, StoryCorps – dot – org, to find out what music you just heard, and to see original artwork for this season. And if you haven’t recorded an interview on the StoryCorps app for Stonewall OutLoud, it’s not too late. Go to StoryCorps – dot – org – slash – OutLoud to learn more.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Jasmyn Morris. Thanks for listening.