It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when a majority of voters in San Jose and Santa Clara Counties rejected the option of outlawing discrimination against LGBTQ people among them.
‘Gays are so gross they don’t deserve rights, and we don’t even want them in town.’ That was the prevailing mindset of the people in South Bay, ”said former Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who was the first openly gay city and county legislature.
The battle for those rights and a seat at the table kicked off Yeager’s career and led to the creation of a life changing center, the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ + Community Center, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this month.
In 1979, the Santa Clara County Regulatory Board and San Jose City Council decided to introduce measures to voters that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination and extend housing and employment protection to gays and lesbians. The measures were known as A and B.
The campaign was brutal. Religious law had denounced the ordinances and taken positions in which gays and lesbians were portrayed as sexual predators. In the 1980 elections, voters rejected both measures, essentially supporting discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
Yeager said the lack of local support for Measures A and B and gay rights is a catalyst for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities in Silicon Valley.
“Everything that has happened in the past 40 years can be traced back to Measures A and B,” he said.
The year after voters rejected the double measures, the DeFrank Center opened its doors. It would take another 12 years for workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation to become illegal. But in March 1981, a safe place for the LGBTQ + community became real – it became a starting point for a political movement, parade, and hangout.
“They were so disappointed with the Actions A and B campaign,” said Yeager. “They wanted to have a sense of community to show that they are responsible, productive members of society – not what religious law is.”
The DeFrank Center, named after activist William Price, whose drag queen name was Billy DeFrank, now serves more than a thousand people a month at its current location in The Alameda.
“We’re trying to find ways to make it a home for everyone,” said Gabrielle Antolovich, CEO of the DeFrank Center.
Just founding the room did not solve the problems. The people inside had to organize to change the community.
Bill DeFrank in a lounger. Image courtesy of the San Jose State University Special Collections and Archives Division from the Ted Sahl Collection
In 1984, former congregation member Alister McAlister wrote a comment on the Mercury News arguing that men who love other men should not have any legal, social, or political position in society. McAlister advocated Governor George Deukmejian vetoing yet another way of outlawing sexual orientation discrimination.
“McAlister said gays are so undesirable and so sinful in our society that they don’t deserve recognition as a non-discriminatory class,” Yeager said.
Yeager said he realized that no one else would fight for their own rights. A week later, Yeager came out publicly with his own comment denouncing McAlister and pushing for gay and lesbian acceptance.
Together with longtime political activist Aimee Devereaux Sivertsen – known as Wiggsy – he founded the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC), a political action committee that supports candidates, holds elected officials accountable and promotes LGBTQ rights.
“It was our only way to fight back and at least have a voice,” said Yeager. “We were totally trampled.”
Their efforts laid the foundation for what was to come.
silicon Valley pride
Every summer, a parade of rainbow glitter pours down Market Street in downtown San Jose. Local sports team mascots pass tchotchkes on to children. Politicians from almost all backgrounds are also marching. It seems easy. But that’s what activists fought for.
San Jose City Council planned to first issue a proclamation for Gay Pride Week in 1978, two years after the city’s pride parade began. Backlash killed the idea. Members of the Christian right faced a rally by the gay community.
In June 1993, the officers tried again. County Supervisor Ron Gonzales introduced a resolution declaring Santa Clara County’s Lesbian and Gay Pride Week. San Jose didn’t come on board until 2001 when then Councilor Yeager suggested it.
Now Silicon Valley Pride and the DeFrank Center are working hand in hand on events and aspirations.
“Without the Billy DeFrank Center and the progress it has made in that community, Silicon Valley Pride would not be where it is today,” said Nicole Altamirano, executive director of Silicon Valley Pride. “We work together all the time and we stop each other.”
And the celebration, like all things, remains in the works.
Saldy Suriben, chief marketing officer for Silicon Valley Pride, said the group recently changed its logo to be more inclusive and represent black, brown, indigenous, colored (BIPOC) and transgender people.
“That is what we have to focus on,” said Altamirano, “bringing these marginalized groups together in our community and affirming that we all belong to this community and that we are creating this beautiful rainbow of colors.”
Streets with rainbow
By 2016 the tone had changed dramatically. Antolovich worked with Mayor Sam Liccardo to create a rainbow zebra crossing on the Alameda. More than 400 people came to celebrate when it was unveiled, including Yeager, congregation member Ash Kalra and then councilor Johnny Khamis.
“In a city where we don’t have a lot of symbols to show the LBGTQ story, it’s wonderful to have,” said Yeager. “It brings me a big smile, like the rainbow flag that flies in the district building every day. Whether it is a flag or a zebra crossing … it is a sign of everyone’s welcome and acceptance. They say whoever you are, we accept you. “
Although things have come a long way since voters rejected protection of LGBTQ rights, leaders say that is not enough. It’s also easy to forget that California voters turned down the option of making same-sex marriages legal in 2008. Seven years later, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of freedom to marry and allowed same-sex marriages in all 50 states.
Ken Yeager (fourth from left) runs with supporters in 1995 at his campaign headquarters behind the Billy DeFrank Center. Image courtesy of San Jose State University’s Special Collections and Archives Division, Ted Sahl Archives.
Today, the LGBTQ + community is fighting for the Gender Equality Act, a law that prohibits discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity in public housing and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit and the court system. It happened to the US House of Representatives in February and is now in the Senate.
That is not all that is needed, said Yaeger. LGBTQ + youth still face discrimination and rejection. Schools, counselors and parents need to ensure that these children receive support.
“I can’t tell you how terrible it is for LGBTQ + teenagers to be kicked out of their home when they tell their parents or parents they are gay,” Yeager said in incredible trouble. ”
Antolovich agreed, saying that that’s why the DeFrank Center is still important after 40 years.
“We are the only minority that is thrown out of the family because they are who we are,” said Antolovich. “Other minorities hold together against the world. We’re the only ones getting kicked out. To have a center where you can be who you are and develop who you are … that is the service … the space itself where it is safe to be who you are. “
To learn more about local LGBTQ history, please visit Queer Silicon Valley.
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]