Today’s world has changed how we live, communicate and socialize with each other. It has become a very scary place with the coronavirus taking over the entire world. One good thing that has come from the disease is the amount of compassion that people everywhere are sharing with their fellow man. It is a true testimony of how we, as human beings, will reach out to help each other during desperate times. There have always been people who have shown their compassion in giving back way before this epidemic even started, and in fact, that is why I chose to write this issue’s column about my dear friend Tonja Alvis, known by so many of her friends as TJ.
I had seen Tonja at several community events either as a volunteer or someone who showed up just to support the event. As we all know, both are so important to make an event successful. It was at one of those community events that Tonja reached out to me, asking for some guidance to put together her own event to help raise money for a worthy charity. One thing I really love about Tonja is her excitement and high energy she has for life, especially when she is able to get involved and help others. Even during these crazy scary times, she has reached out to so many who need her help or can’t get out to do simple chores, and has gotten people groceries or even walked their pets (just to name a couple of things), while being safe and protecting her own health.
Tonja moved to San Diego during her senior year of high school in 1987 and stayed with who she thought was her real father, Ted, and his wife, Suzanne. With their help, she was able to graduate from Crawford High School in 1988 at the top of her class, 11th out of 383 seniors. Even in her last year, she took time to play basketball and softball on the school teams. After graduating, Tonja went on to do a semester and a half at San Diego State University studying anthropology. Tonja enjoyed school so much that she attended seven different colleges. She has an associate degree in Arts from Mesa Community College from Mesa, Arizona and holds an associate in applied science degree in System and Networking Administration from Hudson Valley College in Troy, New York. But wait, this girl is smart — do not underestimate her intelligent mind that still wanted to inhale even more knowledge. Tonja also graduated from Albany State University of New York in 2016 while making university history by being 1 out of 7 people to graduate with the new Bachelor of Science degree in Digital Forensics from their business department.
Tonja’s childhood had its challenges and she really doesn’t like to talk about it, but she was willing to share a few things. She was born in Tacoma, Washington and grew up in the Tri-Cities with her mom and two sisters, Tami and Tina, making them the three “T” sisters. Tonja was the middle child and the black sheep of the family. She really enjoyed spending most of her time with her grandparents, Lyle and Louise, who made her feel loved. Her stepfather, Dick, died when she was 16 years old. As she got older, she couldn’t watch her mother be violently attacked by her much younger alcoholic boyfriend, and it resulted in her leaving Kennewick, Washington in search for her real dad. She moved back to San Diego in November 2016 from Phoenix, Arizona, where she lived for six months after driving cross-country from Albany, New York right after graduation with her friend Lee. He attended Tonja’s college graduation and was her co-pilot for the long road trip and journey across the country. Sadly, Lee committed suicide in June 2019.
At the young age of 18 years old, Tonja somehow ventured out early one afternoon and got into The Flame, the ladies bar on Park Boulevard. She wasn’t asked for her ID until later in the night, and was kicked out by Bear, who worked there for years. She kept Tonja’s ID. It just so happens the story goes that she had to go back the next day and get her ID back from Bear and as Tonja tells it, “I got picked up and taken home with my first woman.” This led her to enjoy meeting new ladies and people in the LGBTQ community. Tonja has always loved getting involved with her LGBTQ family and community.
The list of community organizations that you would find Tonja volunteering at every year is very impressive, starting with the San Diego LGBTQ Center that so many people count on; it warms her heart to be able to help others there. Every year, you will find Tonja marching with the group for San Diego Pride in the parade. Then, after marching, she goes straight over to the San Diego Pride Festival, where she is one of three golf cart delivery drivers who bring entertainment to the different stages. Tonja says she always looks forward to Pride just so she can volunteer with “Volunteering with Cheli.” Her energy and big heart never seem to stop — this past Thanksgiving, she was found volunteering with the Imperial Court de San Diego for the annual Scott Carlson & Dan Ferbal Thanksgiving Community Dinner. To top it all off, she volunteers for ACLU NextGen doing photography and helping with planning fundraisers. Tonja loves her community and shows her desire to be a part of the solution that will benefit the LGBTQ family she has embraced. Whatever she can do to give back, she will try her best to be there.
While in Albany, New York, Tonja was 1 of the 13 couples who fought against the state of New York to get the Same Sex Marriage Act on the ballot and with their hard work, was able to get the voters of New York to pass it. Tonja and her partner Kathy, who were together for nine years, were in the actual chamber where the New York Legislation was voting on it when it passed! Kathy is the mother of Tonja’s two sons, Sean (who is now 25) and Ryan (who is 10 years older). Tonja also likes to brag about the love of her life, her 7-year-old granddaughter, Adelyn. They live in Albany.
Tonja is one of those adventurers in life who can’t stay still, which has led to her living in five different states (New York, Arizona, California, Texas and Washington). In 1991, while living in San Diego, the Imperial Court was trying to get women more involved in the court so Tonja decided to run for Ms. Huggy Bear and won. In 1991, San Diego Pride was her first-ever Pride Parade that she excitedly marched in. In those early days of Tonja getting involved, she found herself raising money by producing drag show fundraisers at Bee Jay’s on Home Avenue. She even did male drag herself, performing such artists as George Michael, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. She even went as far as giving lip-syncing a try and performed in a sparkling sequin dress, heels, and lipstick duets. Tonja has tried it all, even singing live, all to raise much-needed money for this community.
Tonja came out of the closet at the age of 18, the same age I came out to the world. She is so excited about turning 50 in January, knowing it is a milestone in her life. While reflecting on so many memories that have shaped her life and given her a sense of accomplishment knowing she’s been there for her LGBTQ family and community, Tonja shared a few more things with me that she’s proud of. When she lived in Phoenix, she won the title of Ms. Arizona Gay Rodeo Association 1997 and Ms. International Gay Rodeo Association second runner-up 1998. She was able to raise more than $10,000 for Sojourner Center, a battered women and children’s shelter in Phoenix by doing several fundraisers throughout the year. Tonja even won the award raising the most money among the entire nine-member team she was working with. With the donations she had secured, the center was able to obtain land from the city to build a brand-new facility and even helped them bring in new mattresses before its grand opening. Tonja loves feeling connected to Gay Pride events no matter where they are being held, she told me, “Marching in these parades lets those young, old and confused LGBTQ people on the sidelines know I’m marching for them, and I try to live that motto every day of my life.”
She has marched in the San Diego Pride, Phoenix Pride, New York City Pride, Albany Pride and the Dyke March in New York City many times. One of Tonja’s goals is to create a charity organization or foundation that educates people about domestic violence and abuse and gives people a safe space to go. Also, she would love to help educate people about computers and technology. Tonja said to me: “Big Mike, I want to inspire people to reach their potential. Knowledge is power! Giving and sharing that power to the people!” What I love about Tonja is how proud she is to be an out lesbian and you can find her always wearing rainbow attire. I like to call her our “Ambassador to Hillcrest.” You can always see how much pride she takes in helping people.
Tonja operates her own business called Rainbow Sitters SD (www.facebook.com/rainbowsitterssd), where she takes care of your home and loves up your pets while you are away. She also dog walks and day/night/overnight-sits your pets. You can call her on her cell at 619-865-3714 or email her at [email protected]. She is also on Yelp. Tonja loves to teach English to people in Bucaramanga, Colombia, working with AppBlah (www.appblah.com). She is their No. 1 teacher with the most teaching sessions. She can also be found working for City Council President Georgette Gomez advocating her run for Congress. She hopes to be working for her again in August. Right now, she is currently waiting for a background check to come through to work with the 2020 U.S. census. (As I was writing this, Tonja texted me to say she had passed the background check and will start going to orientation. Congratulations, you deserve this good news!) Tonja is not afraid to work hard and has challenged herself to so many different types of employment, including roofing, delivery, computers, phones, residential counselor, caring for people in wheelchairs, cashier, loss prevention, security — the list goes on and on; anything to learn a new skill and make money to survive.
I asked Tonja to give me a thought or quote she would like to share, and she said; “See one, do one, teach one, lead one. I have done the ‘see one’ and the ‘do one’ as a young person. Now I want to ‘teach one’ and ‘lead one.’ Share the love and never surrender. Shine your rainbow and always be you! I am a cowgirl in the city and honored to be accepted and [able to] share my wisdom and skills to help make a better place for all of us. My gift to myself is that I’m still learning every day.”
Watch out world, knowing Tonja by witnessing her excitement and positive energy is a blessing to me. We are dear friends and I personally learn from this woman. Anyone that has ever crossed her path knows what I’m talking about. All the cities and communities that have been blessed by her willingness to do the hard work, helping make life easier for others and sharing her love with the world are better off. I’m just glad we have her in San Diego so we all can watch her conquer the world and make our community even better! I love you, Tonja. Never give up on your dreams.