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Donna Personna: a journey to keeping LGBTQ+ history alive and self-acceptance

Donna Personna: a journey to keeping LGBTQ+ history alive and self-acceptance

In recognition of International Women’s Month, we interviewed Donna Personna, a 74-year-old activist, performer and playwright currently living in San Francisco. Originally from San Jose, Personna worked as a hairdresser in San Jose and Alameda until she began her performing career in San Francisco in her 50s. Now, she still performs but has also written a play about the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, one of the earliest recorded LGBTQ+ uprisings. Her activism work is largely centered around transgender and queer advocacy and telling the untold LGBTQ+ history of the Tenderloin. 

What is your relationship with San Francisco and can you describe your personal history in the city? 

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I was 10-years-old when I first visited San Francisco with my family and it fascinated me. I do remember as a child I once saw a man crossing the street and his eyebrows were plucked. And that was a lightbulb moment because somehow I attached it to who I would become in the future. I told myself I want to come back here. I want to know more about this kind of person. Fast forward and I’m a teenager and I had these feelings inside me that I was attracted to guys, and I connected the dots and decided San Francisco is where I need to be. I will say that from a very young age I never felt that I was gay. I had always felt that I was a woman. But like I said before, my father was a Baptist Minister and I never wanted to bring any shame to my family. So I was going to get away from them and keep my own self discovery separate from them. Around 18-years-old, I would take the greyhound bus to San Francisco and I would just walk the streets because I wanted to explore. I thought it was wonderful because I was discovering life in San Francisco. Before I was 21, I encountered the Tenderloin and Compton’s Cafeteria. I went in there late at night once and a group of transgender women who turned out to be sex workers were gathered. I was fascinated by them. I became friends with them and they were so good to me. They took me on like a little brother and protected me. I had two families, my biological family and them. Eventually I left that group of women to become a hippie, and San Francisco during that time was the place to be for that scene. 

Donna Personna, a 74-year-old activist, performer and playwright, poses for a portrait in San Francisco. Photo: Maximo Vazquez

What has been your role and experience as an activist? 

When I went to San Jose State I was involved in the activism of the California Farm Workers’ Movement at the time. Sometime after college, I eventually ended up moving to San Francisco with Bill Bowers, a member of the Cockette’s, after selling my house and beauty salon in San Jose. This is when I was introduced to Openhouse which is an organization that assists older LGBTQ+ people to find housing. I started volunteering with them and they began asking me to perform at events. We would go twice a year to Laguna Honda Hospital and perform drag shows for the LGBTQ+ patients there. They actually helped me curate and create a funeral send off for the late great San Francisco drag queen Nikki Starr. That was one of the most wonderful moments of my life. Also, while dancing at Aunt Charlie’s there were shows that would raise money for different Tenderloin community organizations. I would do those every Sunday for a couple of years. Being involved in the Tenderloin community eventually led me to be a member of various city boards. I was on the Trans March and Transgender Day of Remembrance Board, which helped deem a section of the Tenderloin the world’s first Transgender Cultural District here in San Francisco where Compton’s Cafeteria was. Most of my activism leans towards helping people on the margins of society which have been trans people and people of color. I settle on those that need it the most. I’m always on the verge of tears because the world isn’t the way I want it to be. 

Describe your journey to getting on the stage and performing for the first time at the age of 59? 

I was always dramatic and out there as a child. I loved the attention and being theatrical. In my early 20’s, I had friends that were involved in theatre but I had stage fright. I wanted to do it but in my 20s to my 40s I was scared of the stage and that’s what kept me off the stage all that time. 

Donna Personna, a 74-year-old activist, performer and playwright, poses for a portrait in San Francisco. Photo: Maximo Vazquez

But around 2001, I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle and read that a documentary was being made about The Cockettes. I had met them in the 60’s while hanging around at Haight-Ashbury, and thanks to the internet I found the remaining Cockette’s that were living in San Francisco. I eventually moved in with Billy Bowers who was a member of the group. For two years, I hung out with them and they would always ask me if I had ever thought about performing and wearing dresses. I was way too scared but one day I decided to reach into one of their trash bags of clothes and for the first time ever I dressed up like a woman. I was scared out of my mind to walk out of the house dressed like this. I made several attempts to get on the stage with them and perform. It took time though because I was still scared, but one night I remember one woman looked at me and smiled. Throughout my first performance with The Cockettes I just looked at her and that’s what got me through it. I was a mess I didn’t know anything about makeup, but I inched my way into performance. 

In 2005, The Cockettes and I were performing at an event in San Francisco, and the Hot Box Girls from Aunt Charlie’s were also performing. I went up to one of them and she invited me to Aunt Charlie’s to do a number. I was 59 years old then. This was the creme de la creme. Aunt Charlie’s was where you wanted to be and if you danced there that meant that you had made it. 

Why did you decide to write a play about what happened in 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria? 

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I eventually got involved with the Tenderloin Museum and at one point I met Mark Nassar. He was a playwright and he wanted to write a play about the riot that had happened at Compton’s. He reached out to me because of my personal connection to that place and that event. I met with him every week for a year and we began writing this play. 

This story was lost for 45 years. Many people in the city wanted these events to be forgotten. It wasn’t until Susan Stryker’s documentary Screaming Queens that this story was given a platform. What tortures me is what if no one had ever opened that drawer where the files had

been for 45 years? So I’m going to make it my life’s mission until it is never forgotten. I’m going to keep going until they teach this story in schools and until these women are seen as goddesses. This story will always be relevant and will always resonate with people. It is about the people trying to come up in life. Those women never got what they wanted. I don’t want their lives to be lived in vain. 

Donna Personna, a 74-year-old activist, performer and playwright, poses for a portrait in San Francisco. Photo: Maximo Vazquez

What motivates you to keep going and advocating? 

Everyday I ask LGBTQ+ people if they know what Compton’s Cafeteria Riot was? My work is not done until it is common knowledge about what happened. Even older LGBTQ+ people still don’t know about it. So I have to do this you see? I’m in good health and I still have a lot of energy luckily. My activism and performing career both helped me to eventually become the Grand Marshall at San Francisco’s 2019 Pride Parade. I came from the rears and made it to the very top. I want to be an inspiration and show people that you are never too old to achieve things. You can call me old and you can call me a mess. All I have to say is get out of my way because I still have work to do.