Measure B in Palo Alto

palo alto 1981 headline

In the 1980s, even liberal Silicon Valley cities voted against LGBTQ+ rights.

In the mid-1970s, being openly gay often meant facing prejudices in facets of everyday life, from housing to employment. A handful of cities and counties began granting protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, in the absence of any state or federal laws. Regrettably, passage of those ordinances in places like Miami, Florida in Dade County created a backlash, leading to the rise of the Moral Majority, a conservative religious political organization, and setbacks for the emerging gay rights movement.

This is exactly what happened in Santa Clara County in June 1980, when Measure A, a countywide ordinance, and San Jose’s Measure B each failed by a three to one margin. The defeats sent a chill through the local LGBTQ+ community: Voters overwhelmingly said that LGBTQ+ residents should not have any legal protections whatsoever.

The only bright spot was Palo Alto, whose residents nearly passed the initiative—49% to 51%, compared to 30% to 70% elsewhere. Activists concluded a better approach would be to try to pass ordinances in liberal cities, thus turning the tide against the religious right.

A local group called the Palo Alto Coalition for Equal Rights (PACER) began the process in 1980 to get the city council to enact anti-discrimination policies. First, they brought it before the Palo Alto Human Rights Commission, which recommended the city council place it on the November 3, 1981 ballot. The city council agreed in a 6-3 vote.

According to a July 17, 1981 Stanford Daily article, the dissenting votes came from councilmembers Gary Fazzino, Fred Eyerly, and Anne Witherspoon.

Eyerly and Witherspoon claimed there was no compelling need for such a law in Palo Alto, the Daily later reported in October, citing that “only 100 gay individuals reported experiences of discrimination in Palo Alto, a city of 56,000 with an employment base of 100,000.”

“I think it’s a lot more widespread than the 100 who reported it,” said Rhio Hiersch, a spokesperson at the time for Stanford’s Gay People’s Union. “You have to consider gay people who don’t want to go public what the fact that they’ve had trouble because they’re gay. There are a lot of people who are undoubtedly not reporting their problems.”

The Daily also reported “Witherspoon pointed out that considerable hardship could be experienced by anyone accused of discrimination and sued for damages,” as well as shredded the proposal was “very nebulous.”

“A person could be trapped by the terms of the ordinance into an unintentional and unknowing discrimination,” she said. “Each judgement on discrimination would be very subjective. It is a very bad law that allows a person to be taken to court for discrimination when he did not intend to discriminate.”

This is what is known as a “legislative initiative.” Unlike a “voter initiative,” which gathers signatures to successfully put an ordinance on the ballot, legislative initiatives are put before the voters by the governing body. According to San Jose State University Professor Terry Christensen, this usually happens when the members don’t want to approve something outright but are willing to move the legislation along.

As gay leaders found with Measures A and B, opponents were able to organize people to attend public hearings and then to collect signatures to prevent legislation from becoming law, months before the actual campaign even began. The LGBTQ+ community had been out maneuvered and out organized.

The 1981 strategy didn’t allow opponents to take this approach, and by going straight to the ballot as opposed to a vote of adoption, Palo Alto’s measure uniquely and successfully avoided the pitfalls of previous attempts.

The November election coincided with the race for Palo Alto City Council, where 5 of 9 seats were up for election. One candidate was Doug Winslow, a gay man who served on the Palo Alto Human Rights Commission during the hearings of the proposed ordinance. At a candidates’ night before he urged support for the ordinance.

As quoted in the Lambda News, he said, in part, “I feel very strongly about this ordinance; I’m in favor of it, as well as all human rights concerns of the local government. If we don’t have legislation on the state and federal level, I think it is the responsibility of the community to protect people in something as simple as housing and employment.” He then went on to encourage other candidates to state where they stood. “I think it’s essential that we get honest answers out of people and not be too scared of controversy.”

Having helped organize the Measures A and B campaigns the previous year, many of the local bar and business owners made donations or held fundraisers. The Santa Clara Valley for Human Rights contributed $2,500 from leftover funds from the Yes on A and B campaign, and the Watergarden, a gay bathhouse in San Jose, made a substantial donation of $3,000.

Watergarden General Manager Sal Accardi said, “Palo Alto is part of our county, and the outcome of the campaign is going to affect all of us. If Palo Alto loses, the defeat will have national repercussions, especially since Palo Alto is one of the most liberal cities in the country. If Palo Alto wins, it will show that the New Right backlash is already being turned back, as the public awakes to the danger of the Moral Majority and similar groups.”

All totaled, the “Yes on B” campaign raised $20,000. Surprisingly, the opponents raised very little; The politically and religiously conservative political action committee FAMPAC and Palo Altoans Against Measure B only spent a reported $1,000.

Despite all best efforts, victory was not meant to be. On election night, Measure B went down to defeat as had so many other gay rights ordinances across the country: 58% to 42%.

Gay activists partially blame the results on low voter turnout: 36% in Nov. 1981, compared to 67% in Nov. 1980. Palo Alto held its elections in off-years, without presidential or gubernatorial contests on the ballot to drive people to the polls. Pundits speculate that the defeat was due, in part, to the low turnout of liberal-leaning voters.

Doug Winslow also lost. As a strong supporter of Measure B, he believed the turnout of more conservative voters was the explanation. Of the five contested city council seats, four were won by incumbents. To add insult to injury, the open seat was won by an opponent of the non-discrimination ordinance.

The loss in Palo Alto ended attempts to win passage of anti-discrimination ordinances at the local level. It was not yet to be, nor did it prove as a way to defeat the Moral Majority. Attention turned to states like California, where laws were passed by state legislatures but vetoed by governors. Finally in 1992, a bill was signed into law in California, thereby negating the need for municipalities to enact such protections.

The November 1981 Palo Alto election has been largely forgotten but its legacy remains: Even in liberal university cities, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is never guaranteed. Given the increasing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments that are emerging across the country, this is an important political lesson to remember: No political demographic is immune to an anti-gay backlash.

The Awakening of Santa Clara University Toward LGBTQ+ Students and Alumni

scu sv pride parade august 2019

From Rejection to Support

Being out and proud isn’t always an easy feat at any university, let alone on a Catholic Jesuit campus. Santa Clara University has slowly progressed to make that experience easier, from rejecting a gay alumni group in 1995 to founding a Rainbow Resource Center in October 2010, which offers a physical space for LGBTQ+ students to find social, academic and financial support. 

Whether providing maps of “all-gender” bathrooms and hosting “lavender graduation” ceremonies, or offering safe space trainings across campus and a Rainbow Buddies mentorship program, these efforts seek to increase cultural competency for the LGBTQ+ community through conversation and connection across campus.

The RRC proves especially vital as younger Santa Clara students can often have trouble finding acceptance at home, coming out within the broader community and building relationships with welcoming peers. 

Ryan Quakenbush, a 2017 graduate who worked as an RRC student coordinator and co-created the Rainbow Buddies mentorship program, said the comprehensive education provided by the RRC helped leaders of clubs and student organizations increase inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students across the board. 

“I can’t express enough how valuable the RRC was for me as a gay Bronco,” Ryan said. “Not only was it a safe haven for queer students, it was making the whole campus a better place.”

Located within the Benson Memorial Center, the RRC is a subset of the Office of Multicultural Learning (OML), which was formed in 1999 to support the development of more diversity in race, culture, ethnicity and other identities on campus, prompted by student protest against a lack of resources, awareness and allyship for marginalized groups. 

The RRC celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2020. Most students hear of its services through word of mouth, annual orientation fairs, and events like queer film festivals and rainbow proms. A small group of students, faculty and staff marched in the Silicon Valley Pride Parade for the first time in 2018, the same year Dr. Joanna Thompson began overseeing the RRC as director of the OML. 

“(Pride) was a moment to be able to be visible on and off campus, and show that we do have a growing queer population—faculty, staff, and students,” Joanna said. “Even though there are a lot of traditions within the Catholic Jesuit faith, there are folks who believe that you can be both gay and Catholic.”

While folks on the ground at SCU will refer others, upperclassmen tend to be more comfortable utilizing the center’s services, since simply entering the RRC can be an “outing” experience. However, offering a place for folks to hang out or do homework is important for students’ identity development outside the classroom, especially as many struggle with learning how to support their own mental health.

Joanna—a queer woman of color— arrived at SCU after spending eight years in Chicago, where she earned her masters and PhD in criminology and taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She offers expertise on identity development at the intersection of interpersonal violence, such as bullying, microaggressions and harassment – all common occurrences for people of color and LGBTQ+ folks. 

Joanna blossomed into her own queer identity after coming out in grad school and worked alongside other queer community members to address hate crimes and inequities, including two years at the Center on Halsted, the largest LGBTQ+ community center in the Midwest. 

As a Black and Latina woman, her subsequent move to SCU provided an opportunity to continue fostering broader conversations about intersectionality and social justice, this time revamping the OML and RRC offices. Joanna’s team became “fully staffed” for the first time in 2020 with 2.5 staff members—highlighting the lack of SCU resources dedicated to issues of diversity.

Joanna said the queer staff and faculty on the SCU campus help fill some of the gaps by fostering one-on-one relationships with students and keeping a pulse on what’s happening on campus. She has had students come out to her and ask questions, coming full circle from her own experiences on a college campus. 

Despite the progress, any programming from the RRC is still seen as taboo by some traditional Jesuits, who have reached out to Joanna with concerns within her first two years on campus. 

But LGBTQ+ students have been making waves since before the RRC came to be, including kicking off the school’s inaugural drag show in 2002. Despite being called a “talent show” for its early years, archives of the school’s newspaper said administration was supportive for the educational elements highlighting the campus’ diversity. 

Even through friction between queer groups and Catholic leadership, Father Michael Engh—the university president from 2009 to 2019—was vocal about his approval of the community.

That support was made clear in October 2016, when bulletin boards were vandalized with a swastika and slurs against LGBTQ+ people. Engh donned a rainbow armband and joined 70 other staff members and students in a march of solidarity.

The number of LGBTQ+ students the RRC serves remains unclear, due to a lack of data. The school does not collect information on how many queer students are on campus, nor how many have been served by the RRC, as privacy concerns have halted any data collection beyond what is provided through college applications.  

But even getting to this point wasn’t easy.

A group was founded for gay and lesbian graduate law students in 1984. However, the formation of a group dedicated to undergraduates was ultimately denied in 1987, based on beliefs that younger students are impressionable and being gay or lesbian was only a phase. 

That abruptly changed in 1988, after fellow Jesuit institution Georgetown lost a lawsuit for similar denials. This news brought along a nondiscrimination clause inclusive of sexual orientation to SCU, and years later a group for LGBTQ+ staff and faculty began. 

That change wasn’t initially extended to alumni, after requests for a gay, lesbian and bisexual alumni chapter were rejected in an 18-7 vote in 1995. School officials and faculty argued the decision was meant to avoid splintering groups within the association, despite having different chapters for geographic areas and academic achievements, as well as Asian, African-American and La Raza groups. 

While LGBTQ+ alumni were welcomed to join any existing chapter, proponents said barring the community from gathering together in its own organization not only forced some graduates to stay closeted, but also violated the school’s own non-discrimination policy. 

An LGBTQ+ alumni chapter was finally established in 2017—22 years after the first attempt. Joanna said it has been one of the most active across SCU’s alumni groups since then, even setting up an endowed scholarship for LGBTQ+ students. 

Other LGBTQ-focused groups have since faded, including Gay and Straight People for the Education of Diversity, but a student-led group called Queers and Allies (Q&A) actively collaborates with the RRC. While SCU joins Georgetown as one of the more inclusive Jesuit institutions, with its RRC and Safe Space Initiatives held up as examples to follow, there’s still a long way to go. 

The RRC continues to struggle against the students and alumni who hold traditional religious values on and off the Catholic Jesuit campus, including beliefs that homosexuality is a sin—one reason Joanna said some married queer faculty members don’t always hold hands on campus. Most recently in November 2020, a school-wide email chain about the Transgender Day of Remembrance was met with transphobic pushback, whether intentional or not.

These struggles can make recruiting prospective students and faculty difficult from the start, especially as progressive schools abound in Silicon Valley, such as San Jose State University and Stanford University—each of which were pioneers in offering support for the LGBTQ+ community. 

But as SCU continues to grapple with its identity in modern times, the successes of the RRC and LGBTQ+ alumni group mark stark, positive transformations from the 1980s and 90s.

Interview with Dr. Joanna Thompson


Meet Silicon Valley’s First-Out Lesbian Mayor: Laura Parmer-Lohan

laura parmer lohan swearing in

An historic first occurred in the City of San Carlos on December 14, 2020, when Councilwoman Laura Parmer-Lohan was sworn in as mayor. Although it was not reported anywhere, when she raised her hand to take the oath of office, she (surprisingly) became the first out lesbian mayor of any city in either San Mateo or Santa Clara counties.

laura parmer lohan swearing in

As to the significance of her position, Laura said, “It is an honor and a privilege to serve as mayor for my community. I think it is important for people of diverse backgrounds and life experiences to have a seat at the dais. I am proud to have requested that the Pride Flag be raised in San Carlos during my first year in office. Many community members expressed their gratitude and one shared that he had not felt welcome in the thirty years that he had lived here until that day. This is the power of representation.”

As mentioned in the introduction of the Elected Officials section of Queer Silicon Valley, there are a stunningly low number of open LGBTQ+ officials in Silicon Valley. Although there have been a handful of gay men serving on city councils, the only other lesbian was Jamie McLeod, who served in the City of Santa Clara from 2005 to 2012. Unlike Laura, Jamie was never able to become mayor during her eight years on the council, because Santa Clara elects its mayor.

That approach is an outlier; most cities in the South Bay do not directly elect their mayors. Instead, the position rotates among individual councilmembers.

Silicon Valley’s gay mayors are in cities with a rotating system: Evan Low in Campbell (2010, 2014); Rich Waterman in Campbell (2014, 2019), Chris Clark in Mountain View (2014), and Daniel Yost in Woodside (2019).

No LGBTQ+ mayor in neither Santa Clara nor San Mateo counties has been directly elected by voters.

This even dates back to John Laird, who was as one of the country’s first openly gay officials when he was served on the Santa Cruz city council from 1981 to 1989. He earned his place in history when, in 1983, he became (along with mayors in Laguna Beach and Key West) the first gay mayors ever to serve—also due to a rotating mayor system.

Maybe 2021 will become the year of lesbian elected officials. Santa Cruz welcomed its first lesbian mayor in December 2020, when Donna Meyer was selected as mayor by the council. So whereas before there were no lesbian mayors across in the three counties, now there are two.

Laura already has her eyes set on her next trailblazing goal. In January 2021, she announced her campaign for a seat on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

If successful, she would be the first lesbian in this role, joining three other elected gay county supervisors—Tom Nolan and Rich Gordon in San Mateo County, and Ken Yeager in Santa Clara—who have each served as chair or president of their respective boards.

Watch Ken Yeager interview the newly-elected Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan of San Carlos, California, in December 2020.

Oak Grove Trio

Oak Grove School Board members in conversation with Ken Yeager

The November 2020 election saw a historic “rainbow wave” of LGBTQ+ candidates running for office nationwide, but a Santa Clara County district school board took that one step further: a majority of its members are queer.`

Jorge Pacheco Jr., Carla Hernández and Beija Gonzalez will each openly serve as part of the five-member Oak Grove School Board, after the three millennials were either pulled out of the closet or “found out” while growing up queer in their Latinx, Afro-Latino and immigrant households.

The 30-, 27- and 24-year-olds primarily ran to better reflect the racial and cultural demographics of the district’s 10,000 students across 17 K-8 schools in South San Jose, but their successful campaigns also marked a shift in what it means—or doesn’t mean—to be a gay elected official.

Sexual orientation never came up in Beija nor Carla’s 2020 campaigns—a stark contract to the anti-gay rhetoric prevalent in 1992, when the first openly gay official was elected in the South Bay. At that time, some politicians even felt homosexuals deserved no legal or political standing in society.

The Oak Grove trio embodies a new generation of representation for LGBTQ+ youth. Instead of contending with homophobia in the form of housing, employment and social discrimination, students may still encounter internal turmoil at home while coming to terms with one’s sexuality, religion and culture.

That representation ensures LGBTQ+ perspectives will be heard during school board policy discussions about curriculum, educational disparities, mental health and physical wellness—all issues which disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ people.

This majority flip started with Jorge, a middle school ethnic studies and Spanish teacher, who ran in 2018 to fix the very system that failed him; he was years behind reading and writing by the 8th grade. In addition to competing against a four-year incumbent without earning any endorsements, he also met some pushback from voters who were concerned he would bring the “gay agenda” to schools.

The uncertainty of people’s reactions to his sexuality was one reason he never went canvassing alone, but defending his gay identity solidified his reason for running. He wanted to push for inclusivity policies, such as textbooks that teach LGBTQ+ history—the things no one besides queer people would advocate for—to increase understanding about the community.

Jorge was victorious at the ballot box, garnering more than half of the votes. He simultaneously become the inaugural gay and Latino, Indigenous and Asian Pacific Islander trustee—a shocking first, as Latino students account for half of the district’s enrollment.

After learning how to build coalitions and write resolutions, Jorge helped get ethnic studies courses approved for K-8th grade Oak Grove students within a year, in addition to recognizing Election Day as a district holiday and establishing a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee.

Jorge used the success, knowledge and connections he gained as a trustee to help open up the door for other LGBTQ+ candidates to follow his lead, including Beija and Carla.

Neither of the two women aspired to become school board members. However, they felt compelled to do so in order to provide a stronger voice at the table for their community, especially focusing on anti-racist and equitable work for future students.

Growing up poor at home with a single mother from Honduras, Carla’s love of reading propelled her to succeed in American society, eventually earning a full-ride to study science at the University of Pennsylvania. She later moved to San Jose to teach high school special education, in a conscious effort to live in a state with LGBTQ+ legal protections.

Before Carla ran for office, she was a successful campaign manager in 2018, but her otherwise outside political perspective initially made her nervous to serve the community the way it deserves. However, teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing struggles of students, teachers and staff first-hand diminished any reservations she had about not being good enough to craft policies for future students.

Voters agreed, and the 27-year-old pansexual Latina resoundingly defeated a one-term incumbent, earning nearly three-quarters of the votes.

Carla didn’t have an easy time coming out, once thinking her sexuality was a secret she would keep forever. She understood, however, that her perspective would be critical for students who may be having those difficult yet critical conversations, earning support through endorsements from BAYMEC and Stonewall Democrats along the way.

Unlike her educator colleagues, Beija works in tech as a data analyst, but had a background in grassroots organizing. After Mary Noel, a Black teacher and principal who served as an Oak Grove trustee for more than a decade, decided to step down, Beija didn’t see any representation for her Afro-Latino family in any of the other candidates.

The mother of two knew Noel’s shoes were big to fill, but decided to run for the board position to provide a voice for the priorities and concerns of the Oak Grove community, including her father who worked for the district. She fought for endorsements also embedded in South San Jose, securing key backing from the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, San Jose City Councilmember Sergio Jimenez and her future colleague, Jorge.

While being bisexual wasn’t a key facet of Beija’s campaign, being an openly queer elected official is a big step in countering the stigmas some people—including her parents—hold around being proud about sexual orientation.

That’s one goal of the new majority of queer board members serving the Oak Grove School District: dissipate homophobia and shame surrounding the LGBTQ+ community for future generations of students.

Further reading: