As a new documentary about her life is released, Donna Personna talks to Miss Rosen about her fascinating journey
“Knowing comes from revealing yourself,” says trans activist, artist and performer Donna Personna in the extraordinary new documentary film, Donna. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Jay Bedwani (My Mother), the film is an intimate portrait of Personna’s life, chronicling her singular journey over the past 75 years. Weaving together past and present into a kaleidoscopic tapestry of identity, family, history, rebellion and art, Donna is a love letter from a woman who has survived to tell the tale.
Hailing from San Jose, California, Personna was the youngest of 13 children born to a Mexican-American minister and his wife, but she never quite fit into the heteronormative confines of traditional Christian life. Understanding the truth of her identity could destroy her family’s life and livelihood, she left home at 19 and took a Greyhound bus to San Francisco.
Personna settled into the city’s famed Tenderloin district, where she happened upon Compton’s Cafeteria, one of the few places in the city trans and gender non-conforming people could openly congregate. Although Personna did not identify as trans at the time, she immediately felt at home in the community. After getting her start performing with the fabled SF theatrical troupe the Cockettes, Personna became a fixture on the scene – but it wasn’t until age 59 that she stepped onto the stage at Aunt Charlie’s in drag for the first time.
In Donna, Bedwani crafts a multifaceted portrait of Personna’s life while co-writing a play about Compton’s Cafeteria riot. After long nights of hustling, trans people and drag queens came to Compton’s to kick off their heels and let their hair down – only to encounter police harassment, brutality, and arrest for the crime of “female impersonation”. One night in August 1966, they had enough. After an officer grabbed a trans woman to place her under arrest, she threw a cup of coffee in his face. The cafeteria erupted as patrons flipped tables, threw tableware and brandished heels, driving police out to the street where the fighting continued and arrests were made.
The trans community laid the groundwork for a larger liberation movement that would ignite three years later at the Stonewall Inn in New York. Although Personna did not participate in the uprising, she knew many who did – and paid tribute to their courage and heroism in the play and the film. We watch as Personna works with a new generation of trans people to bring the play to life, sharing a wealth of wit, wisdom, and warmth that comes from knowing the key to survival is to never give up. “My favorite word is persistence – you don’t have to be good, just keep at it,” Personna says in the film.
Reflecting on the power of persistence, Personna tells AnOther, “You know, 65 years ago we lived in a very different world. I knew that I was in my own universe in a way. I was with my family but I had feelings I didn’t want to share with them because it was so foreign – and all the messages I got from the world were that what I was feeling was just wrong. So that’s where my persistence began. I was dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and to get through my day, I had to get up and move away from that instead of folding.”
Blessed with the strength of self-love and the courage to see herself through, Personna refused to accept the judgments of the outside world. “At home I got the message that I was a wonderful human being and that there was nothing wrong with me so when I left the house,” she says. “The horrible things people said to me, I would say to myself, ‘They’re wrong. They don’t know.’ It hurt me, but it made me fighting mad.”
Personna’s exquisite candor, irrepressible spirit, and distinctive style are equally evident on film and in life. Bedwani recounts their first meeting a decade ago at a Gay Pride pool party in San Francisco. “I saw Donna standing by the pool, wearing this beautiful red sequined dress, looking very thoughtful and quiet,” he says. “A friend introduced me to her and we had a lovely conversation about Marilyn Monroe, family and books. I was a photographer at the time and asked if I could take some photos of her. We spent time walking around the neighborhoods of San Francisco, taking photos and chatting, and that’s when I switched my camera to film her.”
From this fateful encounter, things grew organically. A natural, Donna shines whether on film or chatting on speakerphone for this interview. “I believe in magic,” she says, and watching her journey you will too. “I waited until I was 59 to live as a woman because I was too nervous to show anybody. It was a challenge for me but I finally felt the freedom to do that. My family is strongly Christian and I was nervous about having them see me as a woman but my nieces and nephews all call me ‘tia’ (aunt).”
As an LGBTQ+ elder, Personna cares for the new generation coming of age today. While standing on the shoulders of those who paved the way, the trans community stands at the frontlines of the battle for human rights in the United States. “Now more than ever, I am asked to speak at colleges. I say to the young people, I know you want validity for your life, as I do, and the one thing that shows you really belong here is that you have a past. You come from a tradition,” she says.
“If you are kicked out from your own family or from society, make a family among yourselves. You can do something today to make your life better and to show the world that you have a right to be here. When we’re talking about acceptance and approval, that gets my shoulders tight. I come pre-approved. You know it. I know it. I’m fabulous. Give me my rights!”