In the 1960s, topless entertainment became legal in San Francisco, although cross-dressing continued to be criminalized. This article documents queer Latina/x visual and performance cultures of San Francisco’s strip club industry during this critical moment. It employs visual and performance analyses that draw from ethnographic interviews and archival research about three Latinas who performed as exotic dancers during this period, two of whom were out transsexuals: Roxanne Lorraine Alegria, Vicki Starr, and Lola Raquel. Engaging Marcia Ochoa’s notion of “spectacular femininities” and Juana María Rodríguez’s theory of “queer gesture,” the article maps out a queer Latina/x herstoriography about the early days of topless entertainment in San Francisco. It demonstrates how the transgressive practices of these Latina performers enrich genealogies of queer and Latina/x performance and visual cultures since the 1960s. It thus contributes to the expansion and intersection of the fields of performance studies, Latina/x studies, and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies. These fields and their intertwinings offer critical tools to resist the sexism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, and whorephobia that pervade every level of society, as well as the cultural amnesia to which San Francisco has been increasingly prone due to its incessant gentrification and growing technocracy since the early 2010s.
RESUMEN Este artículo documenta las culturas visuales y de performance latinas/x queer de los clubes de striptease de San Francisco durante un momento crítico en la historia de la ciudad. En la década de 1960, los shows en topless se legalizaron en San Francisco, aunque el travestismo se continuó criminalizando. Otálvaro-Hormillosa emplea análisis visuales y de performance que se basan en entrevistas etnográficas e investigación de archivo sobre tres latinas que actuaron como bailarinas exóticas durante este período, dos de las cuales reconocían públicamente que eran transexuales: Roxanne Lorraine Alegria, Vicki Starr y Lola Raquel. En diálogo con la noción de “feminidades espectaculares” de Marcia Ochoa y la teoría de “gestos queer” de Juana María Rodríguez, Otálvaro-Hormillosa describe una historiografía latina/x queer propiamente femenina sobre los primeros días del entretenimiento en topless en San Francisco. El artículo demuestra cómo las prácticas transgresoras de estas intérpretes latinas enriquecen las genealogías de las culturas visuales y de performance queer y latinas/x desde los años sesenta. Al hacerlo, contribuye a la expansión e intersección de los campos de los estudios de performance, estudios latinas/x, y estudios feministas, de género y de sexualidad. Estos campos y sus entrecruzamientos pueden ofrecer herramientas críticas para resistir el sexismo, la homofobia, el racismo, la transfobia y la putafobia que permea todos los niveles de la sociedad, así como la amnesia cultural a la que San Francisco ha sido cada vez más propenso debido a su incesante gentrificación y creciente tecnocracia desde principios de los años 2010.
RESUMO Este artigo documenta a cultura visual e de performance na indústria de clubes de strip-tease de São Francisco, durante um momento crítico da história da cidade. Nos anos 60, o entretenimento topless se tornou legal em São Francisco, embora a prática do cross-dressing continuasse criminalizada. Otálvaro-Hormillosa emprega análise visual e de performance baseadas em entrevistas etnográficas e pesquisas de arquivos sobre três latinas que se apresentaram como dançarinas exóticas durante esse período, duas das quais eram transexuais: Roxanne Lorraine Alegria, Vicki Starr e Lola Raquel. Engajando a noção de “feminilidades espetaculares” de Marcia Ochoa e a teoria do “gesto queer” de Juana María Rodríguez, Otálvaro-Hormillosa mapeia uma herstoriografia queer latina/x sobre os sobre os primórdios do entretenimento topless em São Francisco. O artigo demonstra como as práticas transgressivas dessas artistas latinas enriquecem as genealogias das culturas visual e de performance queer e latina/x desde os anos 1960. Deste modo, contribui para a expansão e intersecção dos campos de estudos da performance, estudos latinos e estudos feministas, de gênero e sexualidade. Esses campos e seus entrelaçamentos podem oferecer ferramentas críticas para resistir ao sexismo, homofobia, racismo, transfobia e putafobia que permeiam todos os níveis da sociedade, bem como a amnésia cultural para a qual San Francisco tem sido cada vez mais propensa devido à sua gentrificação incessante e crescente tecnocracia desde o início dos anos 2010.
San Francisco’s radical communities have gone missing. And its radical urban memories are endangered. These phenomena have compelled me to be a custodian of memory, in part by documenting the queer Latina/x visual and performance cultures of San Francisco’s strip club industry during critical moments in the city’s history. I approach this research as an act of urban memory preservation at a time of significant demographic changes that have been well documented since the mid-2010s.1 One attempt to address the current threat of cultural amnesia was a two-year public engagement program in 2017 on the topic of urban change and cultural memory initiated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Public Library.2 While such efforts are well meaning, these institutional approaches and others pay little attention to the communities that gave San Francisco its status in the cultural and erotic imagination as a gay mecca, a capital of sex-positive culture, a pioneering city for adult entertainment—what former mayor and president of the city’s board of supervisors Dianne Feinstein once referred to as the “smut capital of the United States.”3 These days, anyone who reads the news related to San Francisco knows that it now primarily occupies the technological imagination, not the cultural or erotic one. Such drastic changes have inspired me to do my part to preserve urban memories that official histories, archives, and commemorations ignore. These memories are shared by the legendary burlesquers, female impersonators, strippers, and transgender and cisgender Latina activists I have interviewed over the course of my fieldwork since 2016.
In the selected case studies and archival objects that follow, memories unfold about the spaces in which these communities at times converged during the 1960s era of sexual liberation in San Francisco. Some functioned as sites within the larger “urban palimpsest,” to use Andreas Huyssen’s term—whether they were gay venues that became strip clubs, Chinese American nightclubs that were converted into adult movie houses, or cafés that became historic sites in the struggle for transgender rights.4 These less-visible queer spaces functioned rhizomatically, oftentimes, bringing together the marginalized communities of San Francisco’s Tenderloin and North Beach districts. From the 1960s through the 1990s the city was an inaugural site of movements for both LGBT rights and sex workers’ rights as well as battles over censorship and labor issues concerning the strip club industry, often led by strippers and other sex workers. Many of them were queer, of color, Latina/x, or transgender, and are also the protagonists of this article.
The first section maps out the specific terrain of the venues discussed, followed by a close reading of an archival object that led to a snowball effect during my fieldwork. In conversation with recent scholarship about the difficulty and evasiveness of working with queer archives, my mappings provide a backdrop to the “intimate tracings” I conduct in the second section, which covers three case studies of Latina/x performers from the 1960s and 1970s, among them Lola Raquel.5 The two other case studies, Roxanne Lorraine Alegria and Vicki Starr, were out transsexual performers to whom I refer as “metamorphic brown bodies,” thus inspiring the title of this article. I will demonstrate how the transgressive practices of these Latina/x performers enrich genealogies of queer performance and Latinx performance since the 1960s—the scholarly engagements of which are still predominated by normative visions concerning race, class, gender, and sexuality. My intervention attends to the histories of transgender communities and sexual subcultures that contribute to the much-needed expansion and intersection of the fields of visual studies, performance studies, Latinx studies, and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies. It is at this intersection that we can evolve the critical tools necessary to resist cultural amnesia and interrogate traditional archival and historiographic methods, as well as the intersection of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and whorephobia.
QUEER SAN FRANCISCO HERSTORIOGRAPHY
In the 1960s era of sexual liberation, strippers of various genders, male hustlers, and female impersonators performed together in the multitude of strip clubs and burlesque theaters that once existed in San Francisco’s North Beach and Tenderloin neighborhoods. While the topless craze took hold of the city, resulting in the frequent arrests of topless entertainers, female impersonators were also being arrested because cross-dressing was still illegal.6 In August 1966, transgender women congregated at the historic Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin. When the customary police harassment began, the women fought back: in Susan Stryker’s 2005 documentary film Screaming Queens, eyewitnesses recount stories of coffee cups being hurled at policemen and riots bleeding into the streets.7 These riots signaled a critical moment in LGBT history, preceding the Stonewall Riots in New York considered by many the launching point of the LGBT rights movement.
Like Stryker’s film, my work contributes to revisionist histories concerning the LGBT rights movement, the city of San Francisco, and its visual and erotic performance cultures by engaging with what scholars in the field of “porn studies” refer to as the pornographic archive. More specifically, the objects I have curated here form an archive of Latina/x feminist pornography. A field within feminist studies and film studies, feminist pornography accounts for the ways that pornography can be a form of expression and labor in which women and other sexual and racial minorities produce power and pleasure. Celine Parreñas-Shimizu, Mireille Miller-Young, Juana María Rodríguez, and other pioneering scholars of this field have written about representations of women of color in porn throughout the twentieth century, from their perspectives as Asian American, African American, and Latina feminist scholars and producers. Their interventions are important given the lack of critical engagement with race politics in porn studies. As well, these contributions are crucial to the legitimization of porn studies, which is a neglected area of visual culture that has the potential to challenge the authority of official archives, as scholars in this burgeoning field have argued.8
For those with some knowledge of the city’s history concerning the sex industry, and/or for the average longtime San Franciscan, figures like the Mitchell Brothers and Carol Doda are household names. Doda was celebrated for her blond hair and breast enhancements, and for supposedly revolutionizing the local burlesque scene in 1964—the year she was arrested for performing topless at the Condor Club in North Beach.9 The Mitchell Brothers gained fame after opening the O’Farrell Theatre, which has operated as a family-run strip club for almost fifty years in the Tenderloin, and in 1972 produced one of the first feature-length hardcore pornographic films, Behind the Green Door. Much has been written about this particular history of smut in San Francisco, which privileges white performers like Doda as well as pornography that caters to heterosexual men, such as the films produced by the Mitchell Brothers.10 Such limited views of sexual pleasure and the history of sexual entertainment in San Francisco are part of my motivation to write a herstoriography that foregrounds the contributions of people of color, with a focus on Latina/x and queer performers.
My neologistic “queer Latina/x herstoriography” stems, of course, from the emergence of the usage of “herstory” during second wave feminism as a critique of “history.”11 In this performative act of writing, I seek to actively reinsert lesser-known figures, such as the case studies examined here, into official narratives about San Francisco’s queer and sexual subcultures. To map this queer Latina/x herstoriography onto the “urban palimpsest” of San Francisco’s visual and erotic performance cultures, I also employ Guy Debord’s notion of “psychogeography.” This method, described in his theory of the dérive (drift), is a study of the effects of geography on emotions and behaviors by opening oneself to chance encounters and demystified experiences of space.12 Through chance encounters in my walks through the city, in the space of the archive, and in my ethnographic encounters—both in the flesh as well as in the ghost world—I have excavated networks and collaborations while tracing the lesser-known figures who performed in the early days of topless entertainment.
Such collaborations, in the form of cross-pollinations of venues frequented by queers, queens, and strippers, are evidenced in a promotional flyer for the Chi Chi Club that I discovered at the GLBT Historical Society archives (Figure 1).13 My chance encounter with this postcard produced a serendipitous snowball effect that led me to various other people and archives. The snowball began with the simplicity of a Facebook post on September 25, 2016, thanks to Susan Stryker, the filmmaker, professor, and former director of the GLBT Historical Society. She posted the Chi Chi flyer on my behalf, asking if anyone in her network could identify the pictured individuals. A string of comments emerged from trans activists from the days of the Compton’s Cafeteria riots as well as legendary San Francisco performers such as Ellion Ness—pictured in the postcard—whom I eventually interviewed. The conversation that unfolded in virtual space was an act of collective memory reconstruction about San Francisco’s entertainers and “wicked” places of memory that once existed in North Beach and the Tenderloin. In some instances, the illicit nature of these places of memory has led to their strategic memorialization as “sites of queer memory.”14 These sites honor the city’s sexual outlaws and activists as heroines, not deviants, while demonstrating acts of urban memory preservation to which I am contributing as I write this queer Latina/x herstoriography.
For example, the plaque outside of the Condor Club in North Beach commemorates the site as “The World’s First Topless and Bottomless Entertainment . . . Starring Ms. Carol Doda” (Figure 2).15 In the Tenderloin, just in front of the former location of Compton’s Cafeteria, another plaque commemorates the trans women who led the riots (Figure 3). I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview trans Latina activists such as Felicia Elizondo Flames and Donna Persona, both of whom frequented Compton’s in the 1960s. They also played a crucial role in queer memorialization efforts, such as the renaming of the 100 block of Turk Street in 2014—the same block where Compton’s existed—in honor of their legendary drag mom, Vicky Marlane.16 In this pornographic mapping of sites of queer memory, I have been connecting the dots—places and faces I encountered, who in turn have made the “archival other” that I encountered in the Chi Chi postcard less strange, and more proximate.17
“INTIMATE TRACINGS” OF “SPECTACULAR FEMININITIES”
The Chi Chi postcard features people posing in all of their “spectacular femininities,” a concept Marcia Ochoa invokes to describe those who “employ the conventions of spectacularity in their production.” Ochoa applies this project of self-making in dialogue with mass-media spectacles to cis and trans women alike in a Venezuelan context. Building on J. L. Austin’s speech act theory, Ochoa describes this “spectacular legibility” as a function of “felicitous spectacle . . . that accomplishes what it sets out to do—a spectacle where one feels in command, and where one receives the kind of attention one desires. ‘Felicitous spectacle’ requires some kind of display, and an audience—real or imaginary—that can provide the recognition one seeks.”18 The people posed in this postcard perform gestures in which they display their spectacular legibility and grandeur. They “hail” me as the “future other,” their imagined audience, as they command and celebrate their collective felicitousness and their alternative sexual ideology. I give them my full attention with my sincere attempt to recognize them.
Ellion Ness, whom I interviewed and is pictured in the postcard, identified the farthest-left woman of color by her stage name, Velvet. Holding a large violet feather fan behind her, she stands strong, performing a distinct “queer gesture.” I imagine myself in the front row, listening to the sounds and feeling the sensations emerging from the fan while her choreography unfolds: she performs a rhythmic visualization as she moves the fan from the back, to the front, to the side, and dramatically ends with a swift upright motion.
Juana María Rodríguez, in her “theory of queer gesture that works in the interstices between sexual desires and political demands,” highlights the everyday labor of political, social, and sexual energies marking our collective will to survive. Whereas José Esteban Muñoz foregrounds the futurity of gesture (in his theory of queer utopia), Rodríguez emphasizes the “ways histories of movement can be ossified in our gestures.” As such, these archives of received social behaviors and norms reveal “how memory and feeling are enacted and transformed through bodily practice.”19 Like Velvet, the other figures in the postcard perform their own versions of “queer gestures” as acts of collective defiance, survival, and pleasure. The gestural archives I read in the postcard reveal how memories and feelings are enacted through the bodily practices that extend from the past, to the present, and into the future. The figures pictured provide the conceptual and visual armature to this photograph through their “felicitous spectacle.” The various shades of flesh and the different hand gestures stabilize the photographic composition, as the figures perform a delicate balance between muscularity and voluptuousness. They succeed in capturing my full attention as they hail me across the distance of time that separates us. But it is not a hail of interpellation; it is a hail of seduction.20 The sexual ideology that they perform through queer gesture hails me as a desiring subject. Building on Jennifer Brody’s discussion of the performative nature of reading visual artworks as acts of translation, I respond to the postcard within this San Francisco porn archive with my reading-as-doing-as-desiring.21
The Chi Chi postcard suggests a commingling that existed between strippers, queers, Latinxs, and female impersonators in San Francisco’s early days of topless entertainment. During our conversation, Ellion Ness identified the man on his knee and the hailing man at the far right as Cleo and Antonio—they were lovers and performers at Finocchio’s (the city’s most popular female impersonation venue, a few doors down from the Chi Chi), where the latter was billed for his “colorful Cuban and flamenco dancing.”22 The Chi Chi was owned and operated by Meyer Neft and his wife, Miss Keiko, the emcee who appears front and center. Keiko too performs a queer gesture: as she glides forward, her arms come up to announce the spectacular show that awaits us. She is proud of her boys and girls, and demands that we give this fabulous chorus line our sensual concentration. In Gypsy Rose fashion she seductively hails us—the future, real, and imagined audiences—and says, “Let us entertain you.” During my conversation with Ellion, this archive of gestures came alive as she helped me imagine the scene unfold: the Spider Lady in red with the elaborate headpiece will perform a most sensational spider dance; Antonio, next to her, will perform a flamenco number; Ellion, the redhead next to the Spider Lady, will perform an act as a secret agent, involving a pistol—after all, she takes her name from Eliot Ness, the legendary crime fighter. I learn from Ellion that Neft and Keiko also helped facilitate the heterophily that occurred at venues frequented by queers, female impersonators, and strippers. They owned clubs in North Beach and the Tenderloin, such as the 181 Club on Eddy Street, which at times functioned as a gay after-hours venue according to San Francisco legends I interviewed such as Ellion Ness and Monique-Isis Starr. The latter also performed as Monique the Unique Freak and as part of a dynamic interracial duo with her female-impersonating husband at the time, Chico Starr.
Monique-Isis Starr began her performance career in San Francisco in the years leading up to the Summer of Love in 1967, known for its unprecedented migrations to San Francisco. But she and other legends with whom I conversed emphasized that free love was not as free as one would like to think. It was very white and straight, and interracial relationships, even here, were still considered a novelty.23 The interracial Starr duo was known for their “He and She Love Act,” which they performed at the El Cid, formerly across the street from the Condor.24 Performative “love acts” were popular throughout the 1970s, and mostly were male-female or female-female. They might be considered an extension of the “love-ins” that were prevalent in the late 1960s, in which large groups of people would gather in public to demonstrate mutual love as an act of peaceful protest—hence the antiwar slogan “Make love not war” that became popular during the Vietnam War protests.25
The Starr “love act” duo first met in the early 1970s at a weekly gay after-hours event in North Beach, the Big Basket (referring to a man’s crotch), which took place at a venue previously known as the Red Balloon. Coincidentally, I later found out that Vicki Starr (no relation to the Starr duo) and Roxanne Alegria performed at the Red Balloon in 1966—one of the many chance encounters that occurred during my research. In addition to his collaborative performances with Monique-Isis, Chico performed as a female impersonator at Tenderloin clubs such as Neft and Keiko’s abovementioned 181 Club, not the more touristic Finocchio’s in North Beach, where in fact many straight men performed. He was known on Broadway as the King of the Male Nude Dancers. A San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle story dated June 25, 1972, about San Francisco’s first Charm School for Topless and Bottomless Dancers (its recruitment was supervised by the Condor’s publicist, Dave Rosenberg) describes Chico in class, teaching his “mastery of sensual movement” to women who performed on Broadway: “‘You’re getting the idea now,’” he prompts in satin voice. ‘Now you’ve got the audience hooked—look right at them.’ Chico pouts out his lower lip, half-closing his mascaraed lashes. Expertly, he tilts his Afro to catch the beam of the spotlight.”26 This spectacular description of a subtle and not-so-subtle gesture—one that is both queer and Afro-inflected—performed by the King of the Male Nude Dancers (he also impersonated Diana Ross) functions as yet another “hail” across time and space.27 In this short excerpt, Chico underscores the power of the “stripper gaze,” a point taken up by many of the women I interviewed during my research. In the same way that I have imagined the Chi Chi performers enacting their queer gestures, I begin to imagine Chico as he performs his queer “stripper gaze” through the use of his ornamental Afro, which is as much about his “spectacular femininity” as it is about Black beauty and pride.28 I wonder what it would have been like to learn the art of sensual movement from a male stripper and female impersonator like Chico, a seasoned pro who could catch the beam of a spotlight by way of his Afro.
Though I did not have a chance to interview Chico, I was able to speak with Monique-Isis, who told me about her own training in the art of sensual movement. During our interview, she mentioned another dancer I later encountered through multiple press clippings: a Latina named Lola Raquel who mentored her when she first started working at the Condor on her twenty-first birthday. Monique-Isis described the North Beach scene as mostly white, but with a few exceptions such as Lola, who also performed the “girl on the piano” act for which Doda was famous. Monique-Isis told me that when Lola retired, she disappeared from the scene. I found mentions of Lola in old newspaper clippings and searched for her in hopes that she might be alive and available for an interview. But I have not found her yet—at least not where I expected. Unbeknownst to me until later in my psychogeographic explorations, we had had ghostly chance encounters in multiple sites, as discussed in the next section.
The pornographic mappings presented thus far have interconnected some of San Francisco’s wicked venues and entertainment figures, such as the Chi Chi performers and promoters, the interracial Starr duo, Vicki Starr, Roxanne Alegria, and Lola Raquel. These mappings from North Beach to the Tenderloin reflect the mazes that led from one illicit district to another through networks built by strippers, queers, female impersonators, and Latinxs alike. Such bold entertainers literally danced together, performing in the same spaces (even alongside one another), while making San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s the wicked city it became in the cultural imagination—the capital of smut, free love, disco, and gay liberation. To provide deeper focus into this period through a Latina/x lens, I now turn to performance documents relating to Lola, Roxanne, and Vicki. I approach these materials as “performance remains” and “ephemera of evidence,” which I have curated here as a Latina/x feminist porn archive.29 In my engagement with this archive that I read through a feminist lens, these performers and their performances of resilience and eroticism remain—in the form of ghosts, newspaper clippings, tabloids, first-person accounts, and short films in which they were featured. In these “performance remains” of varied visibility, I seek to uncover queer Latina/x gestural archives that reveal “how memory and feeling are enacted and transformed”—from their bodily practices to mine.30
GHOSTLY ETHNOGRAPHIC ENCOUNTERS: LATINA STRIPPER BODIES
“Ghosts hover where secrets are held in time: the secrets of what has been unspoken, unacknowledged; the secrets of the past, the secrets of the dead. Ghosts wait for the secrets to be released into time.”—Alice Rayner31
As a performance ethnographer seeking to uncover unspoken and unacknowledged secrets of the past, I have been ghosted by Bay Area queer Latina/o/x performers and scholars who preceded me. During my archival research, I learned about Lola, Roxanne, and Vicki. Vicki was a Puerto Rican transsexual topless performer who was interviewed by the late Horacio N. Roque Ramírez for his dissertation “Communities of Desire: Queer Latina/Latino History and Memory—San Francisco Bay Area, 1960s–1990s.”32 While he was a professor in the Department of Chicano/Chicana Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Horacio began work on a digital archive and collection comprised of items from a suitcase belonging to Vicki that had fallen into his hands.33 In 2014 he presented the paper “Archives of Sexual Crossings: The Meanings of Puerto Rican Topless Transgender Performer, Vicki Starr” at the annual American Historical Association conference. Following Horacio—as well as Isaac Julien, who looked for Langston Hughes, and Tina Takemoto, who looked for Jiro Onuma—I too have been looking, in order to release secrets of the past into time. When I initially began my search for Lola and Vicki, I was unaware of Roxanne. Though my search for Vicki has yet to garner the results for which I was hoping, my excavation led me to Roxanne, another Latina transsexual topless entertainer who, like Vicki and Lola, performed in North Beach in the late 1960s. Thus I began my search for these Latina/x ghosts—Lola, Vicki, Roxanne—while mourning the loss of a queer Latino scholar whom I personally knew—Horacio Roque—whose unfinished research on queer Latina/o desire in San Francisco was deeply relevant to my research.
In her discussion of longing, Juana María Rodríguez suggests that Latinas reconcile negative interpellation through gestures and politics to cultivate other ways of being Latina and ways of longing that remain outside of language, in order to “stake out a claim for the urgency of confronting alternative forms of racialized queer female sexuality.”34 My encounters with the Latina/o/x ghosts of Lola, Vicki, Roxanne, and Horacio, who performed alternative racialized sexualities in both erotic and academic contexts, have shuttled between the realms of embodiment and language. In this liminal space, my scholarship has been enabled by and stakes out a claim for the persistent, albeit evasive, presence of these ghosts—during my fieldwork in strip clubs as well as my research in academic institutions, both of which comprise my emerging epistemology.
Alice Rayner takes up the importance of ghosts to emerging epistemologies in her book Ghosts: Death’s Double and the Phenomena of Theatre (2006), from which the epigraph to this section is drawn. Rayner argues that ghosts have become central figures in emerging epistemologies and “serve not only to disturb the certainties of empiricism and the mastery over a field of inquiry but also to complicate distinctions between the scholar and her object, between subjects and objects, personal and political, the past and the present, the living and the dead, materiality and imagination.”35 This productive complication of distinctions has informed my research and writing, and is one with which other scholars have wrestled. For instance Rayner cites the theater and performance scholar Rebecca Schneider, who describes ghosts as “disembodied signifiers” in a personal narrative about her paranormal encounter as she was writing The Explicit Body in Performance (1997).36 Schneider tells a story of being visited by the ghost of her Native American great-grandmother while writing about Spiderwoman, a performance company comprised of three Native American sisters. She demonstrates how that encounter complicated the distinction between her role as a scholar and her object of study: “An invisible body makes a strange impression—especially to an academic preoccupied by theories of bodies made explicit.”37
I, too, have encountered invisible bodies in various locations throughout this research—in special collections that house archival materials related to these Latina/x ghosts, in the same physical spaces we have occupied (ranging from my fieldwork sites in North Beach to my research institution in Palo Alto), and on the internet, where I have examined documents and film footage related to their performances. These ghostly ethnographic encounters with Lola, Vicki, and Roxanne have made strange impressions on me, given their performances of “spectacular femininities” in constructing cis and trans variations of the Latina stripper body. As I demonstrate below, their performances were inflected by both politics and desire. They sought to seduce, educate, and be understood at a moment in history when they were being negatively interpellated—not only because they were Latina, but also because they were strippers, and in Roxanne’s and Vicki’s cases, transsexuals.38
DANCING WITH LOLA
My first encounter with Lola preceded the moment I learned about her during my interview with Monique-Isis Starr, which prompted me to conduct archival research at the San Francisco Public Library’s History Center. Before I ever set foot on its campus, Lola likely made Stanford history as the first “out” Latina stripper to visit the university on October 20, 1970, with a coworker and the Condor’s publicist, Dave Rosenberg. The purpose of their visit was to give a talk for Bill Rivers’s communications course “Problems with Mass Media.”39 A month later she was featured in a Stanford Daily story about the marching band’s annual performance through San Francisco in preparation for the annual “Big Game” against the University of California at Berkeley. Apparently, the band and “pom pom girls” in their “Indian” costumes performed on the streets of North Beach in front of the Off Broadway—a club that featured vaudevillian burlesque and strip acts—while a nude dancer in heels joined Stanford’s “primitive” spectacle.40 In the San Francisco Examiner’s coverage of the same event, Lola is described as wearing a “Beat Cal” banner across her chest while overlooking the street performances from a fire escape.41
Another ghostly encounter with Lola took place at the Condor, one of the clubs where I conducted fieldwork and met some of my research participants.42 The Condor stage was graced by the likes of Carol Doda, Lola, Monique-Isis, and other legendary performers. During our interview, when Monique-Isis mentioned that although there was not much racial diversity at the Condor, she nevertheless very clearly remembered Lola—her big black hair, her big brown eyes, and the mentorship she provided when Monique-Isis first began working at the club. Another ghostly encounter with Lola occurred in rare footage housed at Oddball Films, a San Francisco stock footage company.43 In one clipping, an uncredited Lola appears in the same outfit that she wears in an image published in Dick Boyd’s book about North Beach: elegant white gloves and the elegant “ornament” of her brown flesh.44 In the footage, she also wears a white top hat. With Monique-Isis’s help, I submitted the correct credits to the archivists at Oddball Films, thus contributing to the evolution of their porn archive.
Watching this short clip, which lasts no more than a minute and a half, I wonder why the voluptuous Lola wears the white top hat and evening gloves. Perhaps to accentuate her dark features? At the start she is also wearing white bottoms; then it cuts to a later sequence in the same performance in which she is only wearing the hat and gloves, moving slowly and sensually to a blues-like tune. It appears that most of her movements are concentrated in the hips, moving in a figure eight characteristic of Latin American dance forms like salsa and merengue. She moves her wrists in an equally sensual, circular, slow motion. My “Latina longing” for Lola is temporarily assuaged during our encounter in this Latina/x feminist porn archive, though I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like to be a dancer with dark features at a time when there was little racial diversity in the industry, as suggested by the various legends with whom I spoke. In her elaboration of “other Latina longings,” Rodríguez focuses on distinct gestures such as dance and sex: “Dance, sex, touch, gestures, and utterances all blur the lines between the sexual and the nonsexual, as they allow us to imaginatively resignify sensory practices of meaning making.” She elaborates by suggesting that queer practices of sexual interpretation and resignification expose the complexities of our corporeal and political vulnerabilities and pleasures. Further, she argues, it is precisely through eroticism and pleasure that we are presented with possibilities to reinscribe social and sexual conventions that have racialized us.45
Through the queer practice of sexual interpretation and resignification of stripper bodies to which this article is committed, Lola, along with Roxanne and Vicki (discussed below), are reinscribed as women who played a significant role in the historic moment that shined a light on San Francisco as the country’s topless capital, and more generally its smut capital. Thus, this queer Latina/x herstoriography reinserts them into the narrative of San Francisco’s wicked map. Archival evidence suggests that these women took pride in their work and had a desire not only to be desired, but also to be heard, and to be understood by both the past audiences to which they performed and the future audiences who would long for them.
I have responded to their hail of seduction with my own queer gestures and “Latina longings” that have guided my practice as a performance ethnographer and advocate. Before the feminist sex wars of the 1970s and 1980s, Lola had already publicly performed as an advocate, asserting her right and pride to strip down to her brown voluptuousness. She was featured in local newspapers on several occasions, whether for being arrested because she appeared as a topless Santa during the Christmas parade in December 1969 or, in September 1970, for ironically joining the Christian picketers who frequently protested topless clubs in North Beach.46 We might view Lola, like Roxanne and Vicki, as a proto sex radical, anticipating the feminist sex wars and debates of subsequent decades. She performed and demanded recognition through the “felicitous spectacles” of her courageous brown femininity from San Francisco’s North Beach to Stanford University’s campus and beyond.
METAMORPHIC BROWN BODIES
“Now, at long last, I am living my dream. I am so successful in my newfound womanhood that I am not merely a girl, but a very special kind of girl. In San Francisco, I am billed as The First Topless Sex Change Dancer; as America’s Most Beautiful Sex Change; as the Latin Answers to Europe’s Coccinelle and as The Boy Who Became Miss Playgirl. My present act is a Latin striptease which consists of four small numbers. I open with a classical Spanish Flamenco which goes into a Latin Afro-jazz beat. During this, I strip down to my topless costume.”47
Roxanne Alegria shared these words in an interview for the now-defunct gossip magazine Confidential in January 1967; the cover features her image (Figure 4). Jack Benjamin’s book Transvestite ’69 (1969) also features an interview with Roxanne, which differs from the Confidential story with respect to the amount of detail regarding the operation she underwent in Casablanca, Morocco. Despite these discrepancies, which call into question the degree of editorial intervention in her wording (these publications tended to sensationalize and/or pathologize their subjects), in both interviews Roxanne is consistent and adamant about her intention to tell her story.48 In Confidential she states, “I only hope that my story will help some other unfortunate person who has dreamed similar dreams, to go ahead and make the dreams come true.”49 In Transvestite ’69 she explains that the reason she is open about her sex change is not so much about having a “gimmick” as about reaching other people like her and encouraging them not to commit suicide. Furthermore, she states that she agreed to the interview in the hopes that it would raise awareness among the general public: “That’s my reason for the interview. . . . I want to give hope.”50
Not only did she give hope, but she performed a “felicitous spectacle” through her detailed description of metamorphosis from man to woman while asserting her pride as a Latina performer, as suggested in the quote that introduced this section. Her “felicitous spectacle” is a performance and convergence of brown pride and trans pride as we know them today. Setting herself apart from other North Beach strippers and their gimmicks, she asserts to Confidential: “I am truly different. I am the only topless dancer who was born a boy. My name is Roxanne Lorraine Alegria. That’s Miss Roxanne Lorraine Alegria.”51 She then explains to the reader that alegría in Spanish means “happiness,” of which she was deprived while growing up, but finally attained once she underwent her sex change and, as Marcia Ochoa would put it, “accomplished femininity.”52 Her decision to keep her surname, which symbolizes the hope and happiness she wishes to bring to others like her who have suffered, demonstrates her resilience and desire to educate. And what better venues to educate than in nationwide mainstream publications and the topless capital of the United States, where gender and desire were being performed? At times these performances destabilized the status quo through what I call the efficacy of erotics, a concept that engages Jon McKenzie’s notion of “efficacy” in performance, which I have applied to my broader research project about San Francisco strip club performances since the 1960s.53
At a time when topless entertainment had just been legalized, but cross-dressing was still criminalized, Roxanne’s bold spirit and metamorphic brown body crossed multiple boundaries. She is a legend in the Bay Area trans community as not only a topless performer but also an activist-educator. She appears in Stryker’s film about the Compton Cafeteria riots, thus reemerging in discourse decades later as an important figure in that historic event. Other legendary San Francisco Latina trans activists personally knew Roxanne, such as the abovementioned Felicia Elizondo Flames, whom I interviewed and who was also featured in Stryker’s film. During the 1960s Felicia and her Tenderloin “crew” of trans women of color all knew of Roxanne, since she was one of the first local strip club dancers to undergo a sex change operation. One of the North Beach topless venues she performed at was a club called Gigi’s (my own name)—a coincidence that led me to ponder if perhaps she began to look for me before I began to look for her.54
Felicia, Monique-Isis, Ellion, and others I interviewed suggested that there was greater racial diversity in the Tenderloin, where female impersonators, male and female hustlers, gay men, and strippers converged with more frequency, than in North Beach. According to Felicia, most of the white female impersonators performed in North Beach, whereas trans women of color survived and worked the streets of the Tenderloin. Roxanne traversed both, as evidenced by her appearance in in Stryker’s film Screaming Queens (Figure 5).55 I would imagine that for trans women who knew about her, Roxanne succeeded in providing hope by performing the “efficacy of erotics” through a doing and undoing of gender that was nearly unheard of at the time, indeed helping to prevent suicides. She has also given me hope, appearing as she did in the midst of my search for Vicki Starr, whom I sought to find (but have yet to) before I knew about Roxanne.
I first considered the possibility that trans performers like Vicki and Roxanne were present in the North Beach scene during that first encounter with the Chi Chi postcard. From my discussion with Ellion related above, I subsequently learned about the close proximity between female impersonation venues and “straight” strip clubs. In addition to its inclusion in the Willie Walker Erotica Collection housed at the GLBT Historical Society, the postcard is also part of Harvey Lee’s collection housed at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Lee was an Arkansas native and female impersonator who performed at Finocchio’s in San Francisco and kept an extensive archive of other female impersonators with whom he performed. During this earlier part of my excavation, my encounter with the Chi Chi postcard prompted me to do an online search for “transsexual topless performers in San Francisco,” which is how I learned about Vicki, whose archives were still being researched by Horacio Roque at the time of his premature death in 2015. Horacio had interviewed Vicki for his dissertation, and featured her on the cover of an anthology he coedited with Nan Boyd, Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History (2012).56
As previously mentioned, shortly before his death, Horacio had begun work on a digital archive comprised of items from a suitcase that belonged to Vicki. A year after he passed I attempted to determine the status of his research on Vicki and the whereabouts of the suitcase, but none of his colleagues or close friends I contacted knew where he had left off.57 Nevertheless, my search for Vicki serendipitously led me to Roxanne. Through this affective, archival exploration, I have “longed” for these Latinas—Vicki and Roxanne. In my interpretation of their archives, their performances have become inflected with an expanded politics of desire—not only to seduce, but to educate and be understood at a moment in history when they were being negatively interpellated as Latinas, strippers, and transsexuals. Thus, my emerging queer Latina/x herstoriography has been enabled by and honors their legacies of erotic resistance.
I have yet to locate Vicki’s suitcase during this queer archival and herstoriographic endeavor, but I have often wondered what I would discover in it: a pair of platform heels, favorite intimate apparel, a vintage golden glitter lipstick case engraved with her initials, a copy of Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography, promotional flyers for clubs where she performed, newspaper clippings featuring her upcoming shows, pictures of her when she was a boy in Puerto Rico or a man in New York, pictures of her as a woman in San Francisco with her seductive smile, or perhaps a copy of the Confidential magazine featuring Roxanne. What if I found the suitcase? How would I handle the objects? Would I do so with greater care, given my alternative memorial and custodial impulses inflected by my queer Latina/x feminist scholarly and artistic sensibilities?
As a performance artist-ethnographer who has longed for Vicki’s suitcase, I have also been involved in the long love affair between the ghostly world and the theatrical world, as performance practitioners and scholars tend to be, exemplified by Rayner’s and Schneider’s examples quoted above. I would characterize my own ghostly archival encounters as performative in my recognition that objects can function as “scriptive things,” as theorized by cultural historian Robin Bernstein.58 I seek to allow the “scriptive things” I discover in the space of the archive to come alive and prompt my imagination as I have done here with my reading of the Chi Chi postcard. As a scholar, I have also longed for Vicki’s suitcase as part of my attempt to carry on the important work that Horacio began in the 1990s and continued up until his death. We never had a chance to discuss his research before he passed (which occurred before I began my research), so I can only speculate about the enormous care that went into his archival practices with respect not only to Vicki, but also to the dozens of queer Latinxs he began to interview in the 1990s and into the 2000s. I would suggest that his investments, and my own, in these “communities of desire” (to quote him) inform our queer Latinx archival practices, which depart from dominant colonialist and hetero-masculine collecting practices.
While these stated investments may appear to suggest an identity politic required in the translation of queer Latinx herstories and archives, I am not proposing that only queer Latinx scholars are capable of such alternative custodial practices. To expand on my analogy above with regard to the archival encounter as performance, I would imagine that for the archivist who is willing to take on the role of the custodian of memory as a performance practitioner, there is greater potential for an intimate translation of forgotten materials, regardless of identity. In the words of the late performance ethnographer Dwight Conquergood, the reflexive ethnographic encounter can facilitate a moment of “co-performative witnessing,” in which we speak proximately with and not to our research collaborators.59 I would extend the necessity of such intimacy and reflexivity, regardless of one’s identity, to ethical archival practices that involve accessing and translating marginalized herstories and archives. Thus, if I were to find Vicki’s suitcase, I would handle her objects as “scriptive things” with this same intimacy and reflexivity, while remaining attentive to ethical concerns as well as the objects’ performative potential in prompting my imagination.60
Despite Vicki’s missing suitcase, I was nevertheless inspired when I came across her on several occasions—oftentimes in the same space as Roxanne—whether in a letter by Harvey Lee to Jade Yoko East, a female impersonator in Hawaii, offering suggestions for venues where transsexuals performed, or on page 36 of the June 25, 1966, San Francisco Chronicle, where advertisements for both performers appear. The ad for the El Cid (where the Starr duo also performed) announces, “Mister Vicki Starr, the World’s Only Male Topless Verité,” and the Red Balloon ad announces “Roxanne: America’s Only Sex Change Dancer . . . Dancing to the People.”61 Vicki and Roxanne also appeared together in the memories of people with whom I spoke (such as Felicia Elizondo Flames and Susan Stryker) as well as in publications such as How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (2002).62 In a feature about Vicki in the first edition of Drag Queen magazine in 1971, the anonymous author uses male pronouns to describe Vicki’s striptease performance at Pierre’s—another topless club in North Beach—which supposedly ends with Vicki announcing, “I’ve got a secret. I’m a man!”63 Like Roxanne’s statements, Vicki’s spectacular declaration simultaneously does and undoes gender, creating its own “felicitous spectacle” in which Vicki outs herself and demands to be recognized.
Roxanne’s and Vicki’s efficacious performances resonate with yet another “felicitous spectacle” that Ellion shared. Asked if she recalled performing with trans women in the early days of topless entertainment, she replied:
Rori comes to mind. She was the bartender at the Chez Paree, she also performed; she was basically a guy, born a guy. . . . She was so stunning—she’d wear the wig and the high heels. You couldn’t help but stare at her. One day . . . three sailors come in and she was swapping spits with them, and she was coming on like crazy . . . just kissing and hugging them over the bar. So it got to be time for her to leave, and they were still there. She’d come out and give them a really passionate kiss, then she would rub her cheek up against theirs so that they knew she had a beard [stubble] . . . their mouths just dropped open and they looked at each other. . . . It just was amazing . . . an amazing scene to see and to witness.64
In these testimonies and documents of performance in which Rori, Vicki, and Roxanne perform their metamorphic “felicitous spectacles,” one can only imagine how their hails of seduction impacted the predominantly heterosexual male audiences of North Beach and the Tenderloin. While such discoveries about a trans person’s sex could lead to murder and violence (as is still the case today), Roxanne, Vicki, Rori, and others like them were courageous enough to take major risks in outing themselves and resisting negative interpellations. They staked a claim for their metamorphic bodies in the rich histories of the LGBT movement and San Francisco, effectively placing themselves on this map. In their doings and undoings of gender, they simultaneously constructed and deconstructed the stripper body—making it queer, brown, trans, and proud.
Recent weeks have witnessed constant reminders of the impending disappearance of memories and landmarks pertaining to San Francisco’s radical Latinx and sex worker communities. In the same week in November 2018, I received emails from Galería de la Raza and the Center for Sex and Culture announcing their dismal futures due to the rent increases that have made it nearly impossible for nonprofit organizations and art spaces to survive in the city.65 The Center for Sex and Culture closed its doors in January 2019, and Galería de la Raza has been evicted from the space they occupied for decades; as of this writing, they are currently in a temporary space while they look for a permanent one. The historic Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theatre is up for sale.66 It has been suggested that buyers will likely raze the property to make room for yet more condos, mirroring other new developments relentlessly being erected throughout the city. Such developments have drastically changed the city’s historical architectural character, but are deemed necessary to accommodate the massive influxes of workers seeking to take advantage of the tech boom. Galería de la Raza and the Center for Sex and Culture have housed archives pertaining to Latinx and queer artists, activists, and sex workers for decades, and thus the fate of these nonprofits that have functioned as custodians of memory has truly made the disappearance of urban memories a palpable and heartbreaking reality. Nevertheless, I remain committed to performing my role as a custodian of urban memories that have been ignored by official histories and archives, like those pertaining to women such as Lola Raquel, Roxanne Lorraine Alegria, and Vicki Starr. I have attempted to share some of their performance documents and ephemera with great care and intimacy, in an effort to preserve their inspiring stories in this herstoriographic project about San Francisco’s queer Latina/x queer visual and performance cultures of the 1960s and 1970s.
Lola, Roxanne, and Vicki resignified what it meant to be a stripper, an activist, and a Latina by simultaneously performing these roles, while crossing multiple borders of gender and geography during crucial moments in the history of San Francisco’s strip club industry and emerging LGBT rights movement. During the 1960s era of sexual liberation Lola made several appearances as a proto sex radical, from the streets of San Francisco to the campus of Stanford University. Vicki and Roxanne performed as out transsexuals; Roxanne specifically declared her desire to reach other trans people and replace suicidal tendencies with feelings of hope. These women, as well as the many others I have interviewed throughout the course of my fieldwork, challenged negative perceptions about women on the margins of society through their bold and performative acts of self-fashioning, erotic activism, seduction, and queer gesture—on the streets, inside the clubs, in films, and in the local and national press.
The preservation of their stories, which are imperiled by San Francisco’s incessant gentrification, also does the work of transforming the discourses of feminism and latinidad to account for the multiplicity of their identities. I have situated their erotic and activist labor practices within genealogies of both Latinx and queer performance and visual cultures—as they have been understood since the 1960s. Thus, this research contributes to an expansion of these genealogies, opening up the burgeoning field of queer Latinx feminist performance studies, the theories and methods of which comprise an arsenal of tools to resist impending cultural amnesia. These tools are needed in the ongoing and related struggle to dismantle the heteronormative and colonialist tendencies that dominate most fields of study. Such tendencies underlie the epistemic violence that undervalues scholarship about women stigmatized by racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and whorephobia, as well as alternative, queer, and anticolonial methodologies like those espoused in this article. Sadly, this epistemic violence aligns with the forced disappearance and erasure of radical urban memories and communities currently under way in San Francisco. In response to this fragile moment, I pay homage to the once-wicked San Francisco in my telling of other “tales of the city” by way of this queer Latina/x herstoriography.