Leah Rose | Longreads | August 2015 | 12 minutes (2,876 words)
On a Saturday afternoon in February, a group of 15 men stood chatting on the back patio of the Eagle, a leather-themed gay bar on 12th Street in San Francisco. The lone female of the group, 55-year-old Donna Merlino, known as Downtown Donna, untangled a heap of heavy extension cords and powered up a Crock Pot full of lamb stew. Wearing a black leather vest and sturdy black boots, Donna set up two tables of food for the guys, who sipped pints of beer surrounded by paintings of pantless Freddie Mercury lookalikes with enormous genitalia.
The lamb stew was one of the dishes served as part of a “beer bust” benefit in honor of Anastasia Walton, a homeless, transgender woman who died mysteriously on a bench in front of a Peet’s Coffee in the Castro neighborhood two months earlier. Bar patrons chipped in $15 apiece for unlimited beer and plates of food that Donna carefully arranged. It was all in an effort to raise money to provide Anastasia with a proper memorial service. Donna and other Castro LGBTQ activists didn’t know whether Anastasia had any family. So, like many in this neighborhood, they made their own.
Anastasia lived and died in front of the local coffee shop. Perhaps because she spent her final days on the street, the legend of Anastasia was just starting to take shape by the people who saw her every day but barely knew her. To some she was a landmark of a vibrant neighborhood, someone you could always count on seeing on a bench somewhere within her two-block haunts between upper Market and Sanchez and Noe Streets. Others remembered her as a deeply troubled individual who threatened the lives of local business owners and refused help up until the day she died. Many assumed she ended up homeless because she was rejected by her family for being transgender. To San Francisco city officials, Anastasia’s death was a reminder that the city needs to improve its services for the mentally ill homeless population in order to help prevent other people from dying on the street.
Hundreds of miles away in Laguna Hills, California, Nedalee Thomas hosted a different memorial service—this one remembering the life of Theodore “Ted” Walton, Nedalee’s younger brother, who at one time had a thriving career as a female impersonator in Las Vegas. Nedalee learned from the Medical Examiner that her brother was called Anastasia, and she was shocked to find out her brother identified as female in the coroner’s report, in accordance with a new California law that aims to respect the decedent’s desired gender identity in death. She never knew the gruff woman who died, without shelter, on the streets of a new city.
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Downtown Donna remembers first seeing Anastasia about a year and a half before she passed away sitting on the ground outside the laundromat where Donna washes her clothes. “Anastasia told me that she used to be a famous rock star,” Donna says. “She said her family couldn’t take her anymore so they dropped her off on the street.”
Around the corner and across Market Street from where Donna first met Anastasia sits Cafe Flore, a historic Castro safe haven where the restaurant’s new owner Stu Gerry says artists and runaways have been congregating for more than 40 years. A beautiful dark wood bench spans the entire length of the cafe’s exterior and during the six months since Stu took over ownership, the bench was one of Anastasia’s regular neighborhood perches.
On a Saturday afternoon inside the dimly lit cafe, Gerry sat at a corner table and pointed over his shoulder toward the front window. “I called the police on Anastasia multiple times because she lived on the bench right here and would urinate and defecate on it,” he said. “While we want to provide for the homeless in this neighborhood it was to the point where Anastasia would spit on me, threaten my life, and threaten the life of my employees. She’d say, ‘Fuck you, I’m gonna kill you.’”
Gerry heard stories from longtime employees of Cafe Flore that there was a time when Anastasia was a friendly “normal” customer. “They say she used to come in and drink champagne, order dinner, tip well, and not yell at anybody.” By the time he took over last August, however, Anastasia was living in a delusional state outside of the cafe. Some employees say she demanded they call her “Princess Anastasia” or “Her Majesty.” Nicholas Nelson, a server at Cafe Flore, said she had a beard, wore scarves on her head, a ratty brown fur coat and high heels. Gerry said Anastasia always walked the streets in front of his café in a pair of beat-up, too-small women’s bedroom slippers.
“The only point of remorse I have is that maybe this was the only place she had to come,” Gerry says. “Being a gay person and knowing a lot of people that were thrown out of their communities simply because they were gay, I always want Cafe Flore to be that safe spot.”
Providing safe havens has been one of the main focuses of Bevan Dufty’s political career. As the director of San Francisco’s Housing, Opportunity Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE) office, Dufty has been working on behalf of the city government to provide alternatives to people living on the street. He often gives his card to homeless people he sees and encourages them to take advantage of the city’s outreach services. Dufty and Anastasia would nod at one another when they crossed paths in the Castro, but she never asked for his help. “She was always pretty animated in discussion with herself,” he says.
“Maybe a week before she died I saw Anastasia with a cup of coffee sitting in a snazzy new coffee shop,” Dufty says. “She seemed quite content. About a week later I started getting texts that she died.”
Providing aid for the mentally ill homeless community has been a challenge for the City of San Francisco. As a result, the city’s HOPE office recently expanded its homeless outreach team with the help of Supervisor Mark Farrell and Mayor Ed Lee, who increased the city’s homelessness budget by $3 million this year, according to Bevan Dufty who also said in January, the San Francisco government added 27 new staff members to the outreach team, many who have medical and mental health training. Dufty believes this is an improvement over the past peer model of homeless outreach, whereby people who have been rehabilitated through city services hit the street to encourage others to take advantage of those same resources. For people like Anastasia, whose coroner’s report states that she suffered symptoms of grandiosity, delusions, and paranoia, she may not have been able to accept help, so peer outreach may not have been effective. That leaves involuntary psychiatric confinement by a police officer, or a 5150 hold, as her only viable option for help.
“The basic tool has always been 5150-ing so police can take someone who is a danger to themselves and others to a psychiatric unit, but the bar is understandably quite high,” Dufty says. “I don’t think that Anastasia had risen to that level.”
At 6:30 a.m. on New Year’s Eve day, a San Francisco police officer arrived at Peet’s Coffee on upper Market Street to find Anastasia seated on a bench. She complained to the officer about a pain in her leg but refused medical treatment. Three hours later, the owner of the Peet’s Coffee called the paramedics after seeing Anastasia lying unresponsive outside. Roy McKenzie, a San Francisco-based writer, also called emergency services around the same time after seeing Anastasia. “We noticed how still Anastasia was and feared the worst as she is usually up by then with coffee in hand,” McKenzie wrote in an article posted on the San Francisco neighborhood website hoodline.com on January 3. “I shook her and found her stiff. People looked on from the Peet’s window as paramedics performed chest compressions, but they could not revive her.”
Anastasia’s time of death was recorded at 10:05 a.m. “The subject, a transgender female (anatomical male) approximately 50 years of age, has no known address at the time of this investigation,” the city’s death investigator wrote in the report. “She was found deceased lying on a bench in front of 2257 Market Street.” When she died Anastasia was wearing a dark blue pea coat, black pants and a white metal Mickey Mouse watch. Nearly $68, three Peet’s gift cards, and a Visa debit card were found in the inside pocket of her coat.
Initially it was reported that Anastasia died from exposure, but Christopher Wirowek, the acting Medical Examiner Deputy Administrator, says the physician who initially performed Anastasia’s examination ordered additional analysis. Downtown Donna convinced the Medical Examiner’s office to waive all of the fees associated with transporting and cremating Anastasia’s body, and provided the Examiner’s office with everything she knew about Anastasia’s health, including her delusional physical conditions.
“The last few times I saw Anastasia she was complaining that the baby was coming out any day,” Donna says. “I said to her, ‘You know, that’s not possible because you’re biologically a man.’ And she said, ‘I know honey but there’s a baby inside me and it’s coming out.’ I told the examiner’s office that they should look into what was going on in her kidneys or her liver. Did she have some kind of pancreatic cancer? Who knows?”
On April 15, 2015 nearly four months after her death, Assistant Medical Examiner Ellen Moffatt determined Anastasia Walton died of natural causes. Both her toxicology tests for drugs and alcohol were negative, and her death was attributed to cardiomyopathy, a condition that results from an abnormality of the heart muscle.
In the months following Anastasia’s death, as homeless rights activists worked to figure out how to best memorialize someone who died with so little, Downtown Donna learned that the coroner’s office finally made contact with Anastasia’s family.
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Nedalee Thomas believes her brother, suffering from mental illness, never intended to live life as a woman. She assembled a collection of old newspaper clippings featuring interviews and pictures of her younger brother Ted, who she says liked to be called King Theodore. In one article from August 18, 1983, titled “Fearless Female Impersonator” from The Las Vegas Sun’s Showbiz Today section, Ted talks about his early days as a dancer. “I was born in Pasadena and my sister and I were raised by our grandparents. I was a very timid and serious child so when I was five years old my grandmother enrolled me in dancing school to help overcome my shyness.”
In an email Nadalee wrote, “We were raised by our grandparents because of an abusive stepfather.” Her brother “took to dancing like a duck to water. I, on the other hand, was quite the klutz. Not long after he graduated high school he took a job dancing in South Africa.”
Ted landed his first job as a female impersonator in Los Angeles, a role he needed help dressing for because, he told The Sun, “he had no idea how to make himself look like a woman.”
“I was also afraid someone I knew would be in the audience,” Ted said. “I worried constantly about what my family and friends would think if they knew what I was doing for a living.”
Regardless of his fear, Ted continued to perform in drag and eventually became known as one of Las Vegas’s premier female impersonators. In 1989 he starred in the Norbert Aleman-produced musical “An Evening at La Cage” at the Riviera Casino, where Ted earned rave reviews for his performance of “What Makes a Man a Man,” during which he removed his dress, wig, and makeup onstage to reveal himself as a man. “What I am trying to do is get the message across that we (the cast of La Cage) are actors—that none of us want to be women.”
“We all knew he was gay,” Nedalee wrote to me in an email. “My grandparents saw him perform in Vegas. He stopped performing after he hurt his back and got addicted to pain meds. He was mentally ill for the last 12-plus years.”
After living with various family members, including his other sister and grandmother who is now nearly blind, Nedalee says her brother left their grandmother’s house in 2014 without a word. “He got mad at me the last time we saw each other because I was trying to get him to take his meds. He stuck his tongue out at me like he was a little kid and told me I wasn’t his elder. Then he said, ‘Nedalee is dead.’”
“We were not notified until 28 days after his death, even though his prints are on file as he served jail time [due to] his mental illness,” Nedalee said. “Apparently when he died, he was wearing female clothes and used a female name. Now in death, my brother is a sister. The Medical Examiner has listed him as female, along with the name of a female I have never known.”
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In August of 2014, a new law was passed in California that ensured that a person’s accurate gender be reflected on their death certificate and coroner’s report. A press release by Equality California says that the Respect After Death Act, which was sponsored in part by the Transgender Law Center, states that the person responsible for completing the death certificate must “do so in a manner that reflects the person’s gender identity if the authority is presented with documentation of that gender identity.” In a brief medical history included in Anastasia’s coroner’s report it’s noted that San Francisco General Hospital, where Anastasia received care, faxed the Medical Examiner’s office records that indicated that she was a transgender “male to female.”
“I know people who have lived with a gender identity for 20 or 30 years and not everyone is able to undergo surgery or wants surgery,” says Sasha Buchert, an attorney for the Transgender Law Center who helped write the Respect After Death bill. “For some coroners it could be a very challenging situation before the law to place the appropriate and respectable gender marker on a death certificate, but now thankfully they can.”
Nedalee, for her part, has not accepted it. “My heart is broken at the abuse of a new California law. We have no medical records that my brother ever used a female name, [yet] the coroner claims that he does. All of the documents that we have show my brother is male and using a male name. We also have documentation that he was schizophrenic. So you can be certifiably crazy, but the coroner gets to decide what sex you are?”
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Back at the Eagle bar, Donna walked around the small groups of men holding an empty beer pitcher and asked for donations. Everyone she approached threw in a couple of bucks. Only a handful of people bought a plate of food, including Felicia Elizondo, a 68-year-old trans woman who donated $100 to Anastasia’s memorial fund on behalf of the Screaming Queens fundraising committee that she heads.
“I didn’t even know her but I thought it was important for me to have a presence as a transgender woman,” said Felicia between bites of lamb stew. “It’s very hard to ask for help, especially for the LGBT community seniors.”
Donna sat down next to Felicia and asked her how the stew turned out. “Nobody wants to come to a bar and talk about homeless people,” Donna said, looking out at the small crowd that included Bevan Dufty, who with Donna decided to memorialize Anastasia with a plaque at the new LGBT homeless shelter that supervisor David Campos is spearheading.
At six o’clock, the day drinkers at the Eagle gave way to the night drinkers, who may not have paid much attention to Anastasia when she was alive, but might be convinced to chip in a little now.
Nedalee, meanwhile, hosted her own memorial. She said that some of Ted’s old friends flew in for the event, including a former classmate who travelled to the service from Houston and donated money in remembrance of Ted to an anti-bullying campaign.
“All I remembered of him were the bad years and a few from when we were children,” Nedalee said. “When I contacted the friends of his that had contacted me over the years, they began to share photos and memories that blessed me and took me back to the brother that I had known. And the pictures are so cute, he was always showing his chest!”
Downtown Donna was surprised to learn that Nedalee was unaware of Anastasia’s gender identity, but the stories rarely are easy for the homeless and their families. In San Francisco, there are more than 6,000 homeless. One in four identify as LGBTQ, and two out of three reported one or multiple disabling conditions. With little access to regular health care, the life expectancy for a person without permanent housing is between 42 and 52 years old. Anastasia was 50.
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Editor: Mark Armstrong; fact-checker: Brendan O’Connor