Alysa Cisneros

alysa cisneros sunnyvale

When Alysa Cisneros won election to the Sunnyvale City Council in November 2020, at age 33, she became the first openly queer woman to serve on a city council in Santa Clara County since Jamie McLeod sat on the City of Santa Clara council from 2004 -2012. When her council colleagues voted for her as vice-mayor in 2022, she became the first queer woman in the county to ever hold that title.

Besides creating a career in politics, Cisneros is a role model for the LGBTQ+ community and students at her alma mater, De Anza College. She credits the school with instilling her with the confidence to pursue her passion.

Things might have gone differently. Cisneros had a baby girl at age 19, and is a prior recipient of food stamps, but her determination and resiliency led to her success.

Cisneros was raised in Sunnyvale. Her mother was a medical assistant at O’Connor Hospital and her father worked as a janitor and machine shop worker at Hewlett Packard. Her father rose through the ranks during his 30 years with the company, eventually becoming a global manager. With her parent’s combined incomes, Cisneros’ family was able to rent a home in the Bay Area, something that feels out of reach for many today.

Cisneros said affordable housing is desperately needed as people are commuting 2 1/2 hours a day, each way from areas like the Central Valley where they can own a home. In addition to creating affordable housing, her policy goals include completing the redevelopment of downtown Sunnyvale, improving public transportation, and supporting small businesses.

A reckoning

In 2006, Cisneros’ life changed with the birth of her daughter and the realization that working class people have the odds stacked against them. Reading “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich brought home to her how difficult the lives are of working-class people, who even while holding several minimum wage jobs, struggle to get ahead. This revelation galvanized her to reassess the challenges she faced and work to make a difference for others.

“It occurred to me that the reasons why my life was hard was not because of me, or anything that I’m doing wrong,” she said, “but because of how society is structured to benefit some people. It’s a lot easier to achieve the same things based on privilege.”

Experiencing severe ADHD lends her a unique lens and makes her extremely focused on certain issues. She’s learned to appreciate it, turning a difficulty into an asset. Being a young, bisexual city councilmember also sets her apart.

Cisneros believes diverse representation across demographics is essential for ensuring policies are insightful and effective. For example, being a renter brings a deeper understanding of the value of rent control.

“Ideally, you’d want to have all of those voices coming from those different experiences,” she said. “The council’s the most diverse it’s ever been, and it enriches us because we have different career backgrounds, different ages, and different life experiences.”

But it wasn’t always this way. When Cisneros joined the Sunnyvale City Council, she was the only woman of color and the only queer person until Richard Mehlinger, a bisexual man, joined the council in 2023.

Cisneros made it her personal mission to make access, equity, and inclusion part of city policy but was met with resistance from other councilmembers, she said.

In addition, she championed a human relations commission, made up of residents, which addresses equity.

“It was a big ask to get it,” she said, adding she won the other councilmembers over by repeatedly speaking about its importance and gaining their empathy.

While campaigning for office, Cisneros faced disagreement with one of her consultants about revealing she’s bisexual. He told her lesbians who didn’t consider it a thing would be intolerant and advised her not to mention it.

“I was not expecting it,” she said, “I just hadn’t come across any pushback on my identity. That was not an acceptable answer to me.”

Otherwise, her sexuality came up in positive ways, she said, with people saying she’d increase that representation as an openly queer person serving on the city council.

“That was not always a safe thing to do,” she said. “I feel very lucky to live in a time where it was.”

In fact, running against two opponents, Cisneros captured almost 54% of the votes. She said the city moving to district elections encouraged her to run, as citywide elections can cost $60,000 to $100,000.

School years

Although Cisneros struggled academically in high school because of not being diagnosed with ADHD, she resolved to attend college and pursue a career in politics. She worked in politics following high school, advocating for tenants’ rights and increasing the minimum wage. Without a college degree and a baby, she felt limited and decided to enroll at De Anza College, following in her father’s footsteps. It helped that professors and staff were supportive. Empowered by
knowledge and opportunities, she excelled in political science and government.

Cisneros credits a De Anza professor with encouraging her to pursue graduate school. The professor wrote in one of her papers, “Have you considered going to grad school? I think that you’d do really well.” Cisneros hadn’t even considered the possibility until that moment. As a person of color, she also knew she needed twice as much credibility to be hired for a job as someone who was white or male, she said.

“So, I went for it,” she said. “I might not have if my professor hadn’t done that. De Anza offers those experiences and accessibility to college to people who would not have it otherwise.”

Cisneros transferred to Mills College, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in political, legal, and economic analysis and received a master’s degree in public policy. Following college, she worked as a community organizer and public policy analyst. She is proud of helping to pass state legislation that allowed foster youth and homeless students to access financial aid until they were 26 years old.

De Anza reached out to Cisneros following college to offer her a job teaching American Government and Grassroots Democracy. She was also invited to be the keynote speaker at the school’s Lavender Graduation ceremony honoring the resilience and the accomplishments of its LGBTQ+ graduates.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to give some of what I received to students,” she said, “and hopefully propel them forward.”

Bryan Franzen

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The Reverend Dr. Bryan Franzen has been the senior pastor of San Jose’s Westminster Presbyterian Church since January 1, 2012. He is one of the few openly LGBTQ+ head ministers in San Jose and is well known for his community and political involvement.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1974, he was the third of three boys to a father who was in middle management for Sears Roebuck & Co. and was also a reserve officer in the US Army. His mother, a teacher, was a stay-at-home mom during most of his upbringing, but was very active in philanthropic work, often bringing him along.

Bryan remembers one of the most impactful groups his mother worked with was a church group that gave microloans to small businesses in a community that had roots in the Underground Railroad. Those neighborhoods and descendants still lived in poor conditions; many of the homes didn’t have indoor plumbing. This gave him his first introduction to helping people who are in need.

In addition, when his young mother’s best friend was restricted to a wheelchair due to spinal bifida, Franzen recalls he and his brothers using the wheelchair as a jungle gym of sorts, which she loved. Although his parents were fairly conservative, it was normal for him to be surrounded by people of different ethnicities and abilities.

Franzen remembers when he was about nine that he wasn’t attracted to girls like his brothers and friends were, but it would take a few more years for him to realize he was gay. He knew homosexuality wasn’t something supported by society, so he worked hard not to have mannerisms that were stereotypically gay. As was expected, he dated a girl in high school but was relieved early in the relationship when they agreed that “good Christians” did not have sex before marriage.

Franzen went to Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, a private college that is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA). Both of his brothers had gone there, so his father was able to negotiate a reduction in tuition. “My dad gave me a choice. I could go to Millikin or Eastern Illinois University, which I really didn’t want to attend. I have some learning disabilities, so I worried that I may not get the extra help and services in a larger college,” Franzen said.

As a freshman, Franzen was put into a senior seminar on world religions, specifically Hinduism and Buddhism. “The class really challenged me and brought me out of my cocoon and everything that I had been growing up with. I just fell in love with studying religion and why people believe what they do.”

By the end of the class, Franzen knew that his trajectory was either ministry or being a college professor.

At the end of his first year of college, Franzen began volunteering at the local Presbyterian church in Decatur, Il. The associate pastor suggested he get a job at a church to gain experience. This led him to become the youth director at a Presbyterian church in Monticello, Illinois, working with Sid Hormel, who was the pastor at the time. “Sid got me excited about a future career in ministry and really helped me to develop my call.”

After graduating with a major in world religions, he applied to numerous seminaries. He was coming to the point of choosing one back east when he got a call from a recruiter from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. He flew out for the Inquirer’s Weekend the next day and fell in love with the campus and the program. He studied at the seminary from 1997 to 2000, where he had a great deal of exposure to non-Christian religions and cultures he’d never known before.

During seminary, Franzen did a pastor shadowing at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Marin City, the bicultural church author Anne Lamott attends, and interned at the Chinese Presbyterian Church in Oakland.

Throughout his bachelor’s and master’s programs, Franzen threw himself into academics to avoid thinking about his sexual identity. “I think a lot of gay folks in conservative areas and professions overcompensate in other ways not to have to deal with things.”

He was afraid of coming out because he’d heard stories of people who faced great difficulties, and at the time the PCUSA was still debating the ordination of LGBTQ+ individuals. Because he did not have a partner at the time, he didn’t see any reason to take on that fight. “I knew life would be easier if I were straight and because of that there were times that I didn’t want to be gay,” he admitted. “But, you know, it was never not part of who I understood myself to be.”

Franzen was ordained on July 15, 2001, and had his first call at the First Presbyterian Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The conservative congregation there had grown in its relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. An elder in the church had died from AIDS, and some in the leadership began to question their views. “They looked inward and asked themselves if we had been accepting of him, would he have been able to have healthier relationships? Would he have been able to be out? Would he have gotten more medical attention quicker?”

The average age of the members of the congregation was in their early eighties, so 27-year-old Franzen was leading a funeral practically every other week. Being surrounded by death took its toll, and soon he was reflecting on his own life and consequently, his sexuality.

He sought counsel at the Metropolitan Community Church in Omaha, which was just across the river from Council Bluffs. The pastor there gave him powerful advice and helped him find the counseling he needed. “At this point, I really needed to deal with my sexuality and have that life opened up to me so that I could be a healthier pastor.”

Although he never officially came out to his elderly congregation, Franzen found his place in the gay community in Omaha. “Omaha was a great place for me to come out. They had one of the better gay scenes of anywhere I’ve ever lived,” he said with a laugh.

From there, Franzen transferred to Hightstown, New Jersey, to lead another struggling congregation. While in New Jersey, he worked on the campaign to allow for civil unions and then gay marriage to the state. He stayed there for nearly eight years and was able to bring stability and growing programs to the congregation. But towards the end realized that it did not challenge him as it once had, so sought out a new congregation.

Even from across the country, he was drawn to Westminster in San Jose and its troubled past. The once very conservative congregation had a dozen splits since the mid-eighties. To make things even more difficult, the pastor before him had given a sermon that was anti-women and anti-gay before announcing his departure for another congregation in San Jose.

“With many of the conservative members gone and the congregation a shell of what it once was, many looked at the congregation and saw the problems. I saw a church in a thriving community with diverse neighbors and the Billy DeFrank Center close by, and

I thought this is a place where I can be out where I can really do some great things and connect the community with the church and the church with the community.”

While Franzen never sought out a “gay” congregation, he knew that the success of the congregation and its future was to be a place of welcome. “I wanted to go to a church that I considered to be the body of Christ, which was welcoming and inclusive of everybody.”

Since arriving in 2012, he has worked with the Billy DeFrank Center and other LGBTQ+ organizations in town as a representative from the church. Many community groups hold their meetings there. He is frequently invited to give the opening invocations at government meetings. In addition, he serves on the San Jose police chief’s LGBTQ+ community task force, he has been the chairperson for the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, a founding member of the Silicon Valley Faith Collaborative, a PACT Leader, and is currently collaborating with the Bill Wilson center on a new facility focused on families in need utilizing the old education building from Westminster.

Franzen recognizes the abusive history and oppressive power of the church institution but finds the Presbyterian church to be a healthier environment where people aren’t fearful of their sexuality or forced into the closet. “We welcome the LGBTQ+ people as our brothers and sisters and non-binary friends because they are us and we are them, and we are all broken people together.”

Still, there is much work to be done. “We’ve got to get to a place where people are comfortable to be able to come out and experience the love that people have for them.”

Franzen recalls a time early on in his ministry when he recognized a member of his congregation at a gay bar. The young man had come into his office two weeks earlier for a counseling session about some problems with his family.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Now I understand what we were talking about.’ And he looked at me like I was crazy. I said, ‘You’re having a hard time coming out to your family, and you’re afraid they’re going to reject you if you tell them that you’re gay.’”

“And he looked at me and he had a little tear in his eye, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I know your grandma. It’s okay to tell her because I came out to her myself. You know, there are people that will accept you because they love you for who you are.’”

Franzen understands that many LGBTQ+ people are struggling between their faith and sexuality. “Too often churches make you choose, but in my tradition, we don’t see LGBTQ+ people as sinful, wrong, or bad in any particular way because they are like everybody else. What really matters at the end of the day is that you’re able to connect with God and with the rest of the community. Reconciliation happens when people realize they don’t have to hold on to the expectations of others.”

It was not by happenstance that Franzen was drawn to the ministry. Having followed his mother around while very young and always seeming to be at church, the church had become a safe space for him. “Growing up, the one place where I could let my guard down, where I could be as flamboyant as I wanted to be, where I could just be relaxed, was at the church. It is my hope that I can help create that reality for others in my ministry.”

Rev. Lindi Ramsden

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The Reverend Lindi Ramsden, the former senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of San José, was raised in Orinda in the 1950s at a time when it was still considered “cow country” by her grandmother. There were acres of cow pastures to run around in, slopes of grass to slide down on cardboard sleds, and quiet streets to play catch or go skateboarding. She remembers it as a relaxed and outdoors-oriented childhood.

By the time she got to junior high, there was pressure to conform to more traditional feminine activities, which she admits she bought into that at the time. However, she was always “an outdoors kid and a tomboy at heart.”

She began her faith journey in the ninth grade at the Orinda Community Church (UCC). “I had a sense of wanting to be part of something that was larger than oneself, part of a community, part of a larger value system.”

Lindi remembers in high school, during the early 1970s, a controversy surrounding whether Bill Johnson, a young gay seminarian, could be ordained by the United Church of Christ. She recalls being supportive of him, even writing a paper for a high school social issues class. While not considering herself a lesbian at the time, she felt “it was crazy that the church wouldn’t just automatically include him.”

Lindi’s high school church experience led her to the religious studies program at Stanford in 1972. However, she soon realized her own beliefs and identity were out of alignment with the theology she was studying. She just didn’t view Jesus in the same way Protestantism asked her to. “I didn’t actually understand the role of Jesus as one of a divinity, as a Trinitarian. I didn’t understand his life as redemptive for sin. I understood him as a really profound teacher.” To add to her hesitation, she started to figure out she was a lesbian and didn’t think any ministry would accept her, so she switched her major to human biology.

It wasn’t until after graduating from college in 1976 that she started to meet Unitarian Universalists and realized, “Oh, there’s a theological space here for me that is a little bit wider.” With a renewed interest, she enrolled in the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley in 1980, where it was “a very safe place to be an openly lesbian person.”

While openly lesbian ministers were not yet being called to serve in UU congregations, in 1983, she began a ministerial internship under the Reverend Rob Eller-Isaacs at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. Shortly after completing her internship, Lindi and her partner at the time, were invited to adopt a baby boy. Though it was early on in their relationship, the two couldn’t pass up what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The congregation in Oakland was supportive, even throwing them a baby shower.

After graduating from seminary in 1984, Lindi applied for several congregational ministry positions. “At that time, you would create a packet of written material as well as photos of yourself, your family, etc. However, as soon as the packets got exchanged the doors would close, and I wouldn’t be able to continue on in that ministerial search,” she said.

A year later, the Unitarian Universalist Association recommended her to serve as the Extension Minister (a temporary position) to grow the dwindling congregation at the First Unitarian Church of San José, which didn’t have enough money or members to call a full time minister through the regular ministerial search. At the time, the church had only 30 to 40 active members, none of whom were openly LGBTQ+.

At first, Lindi was anxious about moving to San José because of concern that the city would have a strong conservative bent. In addition, the San Jose Mercury News had recently outed a lesbian Girl Scout official, implying that lesbians were a danger to children. Thankfully, those fears dissolved soon after her arrival. After two years of solid growth, the church asked her to stay on to become their settled Senior Minister, which she was glad to accept.

In January 1989, as a result of the church winning a national UU award for congregational growth, the Mercury News published an article about the church and its lesbian minister. The community response was overwhelmingly positive. The Sunday after the article appeared a hundred new people showed up. Laughingly, they are known as “the people of the article.”

Between 1985 and 2003, the church grew to 320 adult members, 140 children, and another 150 “friends of the congregation,” and developed a small Spanish-speaking ministry, several of whose members were connected to the LGBTQ+ community.

Lindi estimates that at some point in time as much as 15-20% of the congregation were members of the LGBTQ+ community. “For the children growing up in this particular congregation, it was just normal for them to have a woman minister, to have a lesbian minister.”

Lindi’s presence as an “out” minister helped create a culture of allyship and acceptance in the congregation. “The fact that the congregation was not an exclusively LGBTQ+ place also was important for LGBTQ+ families and their kids to feel like they were part of a larger community that valued them, that supported them, that cared about them,” she said. “There was a sense of camaraderie and acceptance in the congregation that was quite wonderful.”

During Rev. Ramsden’s tenure as Senior Minister, the First Unitarian Church of San José was heavily involved in social justice ministries. The congregation took part in providing sanctuary for refugees from Central America, participating in clergy fact-finding delegations in El Salvador and Honduras, and defeating the anti-immigrant Prop 187. Additionally, Rev. Ramsden and the congregation helped to organize a community coalition (CARES) which saved funding for 14 after-school program sites in the San Jose Unified School District. To further serve the local community, they formed the Third Street Community Center in the lower level of the church and partnered with City Year to provide after school support to immigrant children in the neighborhood.

Most personal to Lindi was the church’s help in the fight against the Knight Initiative, or Proposition 22, in 2000. If passed, it would amend the California family code to prohibit same-sex couples from being recognized as being married. When Lindi and her wife Mary Helen volunteered as the co-chairs of the local fundraising effort to defeat Proposition 22, members of the congregation stepped up too. They helped to educate their family and friends, made phone calls, and stood up for the LGBTQ+ people in the congregation. “I was so happy to see in San José how much the community rallied around us, both within the congregation and beyond.”

Lindi remembers asking Amy Dean of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council if they could use their phone bank to call voters. Amy said yes, which Lindi considered a bold step. She believes that the South Bay Labor Council was the first labor organization to come out against the proposition. Unfortunately, Proposition 22 passed but won by smaller numbers in Santa Clara County than statewide.

Lindi and Mary Helen had first gotten married in a religious ceremony in 1992. “It was a strange experience as a clergyperson to be able to marry straight couples and sign marriage licenses but not be respected enough by the state to have a marriage license for my marriage,” she said, shaking her head.

Lindi and Mary Helen got married a second time when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began allowing same-sex partners to marry—Valentine’s Day, 2004. ”We decided to go up to San Francisco and be part of what I affectionately call the most jovial and longest line for government services I have ever seen.”

Their marriage—along with all the others—was voided by the California Supreme Court in August. They were finally able to legally marry on June 17, 2008, the first day they could after the state Supreme Court struck down Proposition 22. Officiating was California Secretary of State Debra Bowen on the balcony of her office overlooking the state capitol. Joining them were their son Ben and Lindi’s mother.

After leaving her position at the First Unitarian Church in 2003, Rev. Ramsden served as Executive Director and Senior Minister of the UU Legislative Ministry of CA*, coordinating UU congregations’ statewide justice ministries across California. In addition to helping to pass historic human right to water legislation and health care reform, UULMCA and its Action Network educated and organized faith leaders and congregations to oppose Proposition 8 and secure marriage equality for same sex couples through the courts. In 2010, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Starr King School for the Ministry.

In 2013, Lindi left the UU Legislative Ministry to care for her mother and to finish a documentary on the human right to water. She was later asked to serve as the acting Dean of Students and Visiting Assistant Professor of Faith and Public Life at Starr King School for the Ministry, where she served until 2020.

Lindi, now retired, reflects on how she has seen the religious community progress. “There’s still work to be done to allow everyone to live their lives in dignity and with respect, to not be used as a political pawn,” she acknowledged. “The religious community has come a long way. But there are still parts that don’t accept LGBTQ+ folks. I hope over time that will change. In the meantime, it is the job of those of us who are fortunate enough to have found a home in a religious faith that is respectful and inclusive to cast a bigger web, to make a larger embrace so that everybody can live their full human selves and love whom they want to love.”

As to their son, Ben, he and is wife are blessed to be the parents of a wonderful daughter who is well loved by her doting grandmas.

*The UU Legislative Ministry, CA was later renamed the UU Justice Ministry of CA.

Queers of a Feather

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Are you an LGBTQ+ person who likes bird watching but normally does it close to home in an urban setting? Or maybe you are an LGBTQ+ person who goes hiking and exploring in beautiful open spaces and regional parks but has never been birding but wanted to?

Then there is a group for you: Queers of a Feather.

Whether you are experienced or completely new to birding, Queers of a Feather, or QoaF, will provide a fun opportunity to get out in nature, gain a bird’s eye view of species found locally, and find your flock.

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Queers of a Feather Facilitators on a bird-watching trek

QoaF is co-hosted by the Peninsula Open Space Trust, or POST, and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. Thanks to their knowledgeable facilitators, their events are the opposite of a wild goose chase. They’ll guide you on a leisurely stroll with many stops to get a gander at local birds. And if you get peckish along the way, never fear! They’ll provide snacks! (Please don’t feed the birds, though).

These will be LGBTQ-centered events led by LGBTQ-identifying facilitators with the purpose of creating a welcoming and inclusive space for queer community members to gather and develop a sense of belonging in the outdoors. While allies are welcome to attend, please be mindful that space is limited.

Scheduled outings usually run from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and are planned for Aug. 19, Nov. 18, and Feb 3. All will take place in the San Francisco Peninsula or in the South Bay. The August 19 birding is scheduled at the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve in Portola Valley. To learn more, visit the event page or subscribe to POST’s monthly newsletter via the form on their homepage.

About POST and Audubon Society:

POST protects and cares for open space, farms, and parkland on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. POST has protected over 86,000 acres in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz Counties.

The Audubon Society promotes the enjoyment, understanding, and protection of birds and other wildlife by engaging people of all ages in birding, education, and conservation. Visit to learn more.

JR Fruen

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Cupertino elected its first LGBTQ+ councilmember in 2022, but it wasn’t easy. Winning took a lot of thick skin to withstand the high level of homophobia prevalent in the campaign.

 J.R. Fruen, 43, an attorney, and third generation Cupertino resident, ran for a seat on the city council to evoke policy change in the city he loves and pave the way for future LGBTQ+ candidates.

“It’s always difficult to be the first,” he said. “The campaign was fundamentally about progress.”

Fruen said it would’ve been even harder to be elected if State Assemblymember Evan Low or prior Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager hadn’t been. He is proud of the Cupertino City Council passing a resolution supporting Low’s amendment to repeal Proposition 8, which added language to the state’s Constitution stating that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

“We managed to pass it unanimously,” he said, “which I don’t think would’ve been so easily achieved if I hadn’t been there.”

Fruen also ran for city council in 2020, despite his concern Cupertino wasn’t ready for an openly gay councilmember.

“We never really had an open and honest conversation about same-sex couples in the community,” he said. “There are a lot of people who exhibit significant hostility toward the gay community. Even if they don’t say it openly, it’s under the surface. You see it in a number of positions that they take on other social issues.”

Fruen started his involvement in politics in 2016, with a campaign to defeat Measure C, Cupertino Citizens’ Sensible Growth Initiative. The measure aimed to amend Cupertino’s General Plan to limit redevelopment of the Vallco Shopping District and restrict lots for large projects.

“Measure C threatened Cupertino’s housing element and would have required a public vote anytime there was a General Plan amendment,” Fruen said, “which seemed a recipe for never updating it.”

Working successfully against the measure, Fruen found he was an effective advocate. In 2019, he formed Cupertino for All, a nonprofit policy advocacy supporting housing for all income levels and racially integrated communities. It also advocated in support of the LGBTQ+ community, resulting in the city council approving a rainbow crosswalk.

Unfortunately, while campaigning and in office, Fruen faced challenges regarding his sexual orientation along with his position on policy issues.

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Clifton “Kal” Der Bing and JR Fruen

He was disheartened to be told not to prominently display intimacy with his husband, Clifton “Kal” Der Bing, in a promo ad for his 2020 campaign in which Der Bing kissed him goodbye on the forehead.

During the 2020 Cupertino City Council race, Mayor Steven Scharf, who was running for re-election, made a rainbow-colored lawn sign for his campaign. Fruen felt Scharf did that in response to Fruen helping high school students install an affirming rainbow crosswalk near Cupertino High School across Stevens Creek Boulevard.

“I think Scharf perceived my involvement in trying to make that happen as a purely political stunt in support of a run for council, and not a genuine attempt to try to make something better for the kids and the rest of the community,” Fruen said.  

When Fruen ran in 2022, he was attacked on social media for having students distribute campaign literature, implying he was a pedophile. City Councilmember Kitty Moore said he shouldn’t contribute to conversations on school closures as he didn’t have children. Fruen said this jab was painful as he would like to have children and having grown up going to Cupertino schools, they matter deeply to him.

“It made me like feel my concerns in 2020 were correct,” he said. “That maybe the city wasn’t ready for a gay councilmember and that people really aren’t as open as they think or claim to be.”

Then, the weekend before the 2022 election, the Pride flag and American flag at St. Jude’s Episcopal church were pulled down and buried with sticks and stones. Nearby, Fruen’s campaign signs were uprooted and thrown askew.

“I have a really hard time believing that those two things were unrelated,” he said, “because it was only my signs that were being tossed.”

The vandalism hit home especially hard for both Fruen and Der Bing—who have been together since 2011—since they attend St. Jude’s. It is also where they had their wedding ceremony in 2021.

But despite these challenges, Fruen persevered. In the November 2022 election, Cupertino, where council candidates run citywide, had three seats on the ballot. Eight candidates ran. Fruen received the third most votes, securing his victory.

“It takes a certain degree of fire inside to be willing to put up with it,” he said, reflecting on his hard-fought campaign. “It has to really matter to you.”

Housing policy was a major focus of his campaign. Fruen is in favor of densifying more transit-oriented parts of town, making them more bikeable and walkable, with retail close to where people live. He is proud of stabilizing the relationship between staff and council, which he said has been toxic for years.

His future goals include ambitious housing elements and updating the city’s General Plan to make Cupertino an affordable and enjoyable place to live.

“If we plan well, we can get interesting spaces that make us like where we live even more,” he said, “That makes us feel more connected to them and to each other.”

Fruen plans to run for re-election after his term ends in December 2026. He is fulfilled with his work on the city council, making policy decisions that impact the city and aid in providing services to its residents. In addition, he is proud of the strides he’s made for the LGBTQ+ community.

“It certainly makes it easier for the people who come after me,” he said. “It says you can do it, too. Representation matters.”

As to where the initials J.R. come from, his given name is Joseph Ryan. As he tells it, there are two parts to the story. When he was going up, his family—like most of America—watched the television show Dallas. A family friend adored it and started calling him J.R., after the chief protagonist, J.R. Ewing. It used to drive Fruen “bonkers.” When he heard the theme song at 8 pm, he knew it was time to go to bed.

Years later when he was working in a law office there were three attorneys all named Joseph. Clients would call asking for “Joseph,” and they had to go around asking each one if the call was for them. Resigned, Fruen said, “ok, that’s it. I’m fine. I’m J.R. from now on.”

As to including periods, Fruen prefers them, lest people think the letters are short for “Junior.”

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Der Bing, Fruen, Neil Park-McClintick, and California State Assemblymember Evan Low in celebration of Fruen’s 2022 electoral victory

Richard Mehlinger

richard mehlinger profile

Only a handful of cities in the Bay Area have managed to elect one LGBTQ+ representative to their city councils. Even fewer cities have elected two. Sunnyvale joined the first group in 2019 when openly bisexual Alysa Cisneros won election. But it reached the second group when openly bisexual Richard Mehlinger won his race in 2022, thereby giving the seven-member council two queer councilmembers.

Richard moved to Sunnyvale in 2011 for a software engineering job. Born in Long Beach, he did his undergraduate studies at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, double majoring in computer science and history. For his graduate work, he received his Master’s in European History at U.C. Riverside. “History has always been a passion of mine. It really informs the way I think about the world,” he said.

His first interaction with the local government occurred in 2014. A bridge he drove over each day on his commute to Moffett Park ran along a hillside that was riddled with trash. Wanting to get the debris removed, he emailed Sunnyvale Councilmember Jim Griffith, who then coordinated with Caltrans to get the area cleaned up. Seeing the city take action first-hand inspired him. “I just emailed my council member, and he actually answered my question and made a meaningful effort to fix the problem.”

But he wasn’t yet inspired to get involved with city government.

Fast forward to election night 2016, which he describes as one of the worst nights of his life. Following Hilary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s victory, Richard took a few sick days off from work to contemplate what role he could play in making a difference. He knew sitting around and watching was no longer an option for him. “I thought, there is nothing meaningful I can do at the federal or state level,” he surmised. “But I could actually get some things done at the local level.”

He aimed to tackle Silicon Valley’s top hot-button issue: the cost of living. He realized Trump’s election meant large numbers of queer individuals and people of color would be moving to California seeking a safer place to live. “We’ve got all these great civil rights protections, but who can afford to live here? Civil rights protections shouldn’t be a luxury.”

He noted the city’s empty promises of inclusion in an online op-ed he wrote. “You see signs like ‘Immigrants welcome here,’ ‘Love is love,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ etc. Yes, everyone is welcome if they have enough money. But if we’re actually serious about inclusion and civil rights, then we have to build enough affordable housing for working people to be able to live here.”

Then, a bicycle accident in May 2017 further prompted him to get involved with the city. On his commute home from work, he hit a crack in the pavement and was launched over the handlebars, breaking his arm in the fall. It got him thinking about how the smallest details, like safe biking infrastructure, make an enormous difference.

That year, Richard joined Livable Sunnyvale, a spinoff of the Sunnyvale Democratic Club. The group advocates for housing, green transportation, and sustainability. He was elected to the board in 2018. At that same time, he also joined the Charter Review Commission. In 2019, he decided to apply to Sunnyvale’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. “Commissions are the training wheels and the pipeline for city council candidates,” he said. “It’s a way for people to get experience in city government.”

In late 2019, he met Alysa Cisneros at a BAYMEC brunch, and they became friends. Alysa run for and won a seat on the Sunnyvale City Council in 2020, giving Richard the opportunity to gain campaign experience as her assistant campaign manager. Then and only then did he decide he was ready for a campaign of his own. By that time, Sunnyvale had switched over to district elections, making the campaign more manageable.

Richard spent all of 2021 preparing to run for council by talking to the neighborhood leaders and current and former elected officials. But the conversation that impacted him most was the one he had with his 97-year-old grandmother shortly before she died. “One of the last conversations I had with her will remain with me forever. She told me to ‘keep on politickin’.’ That was really meaningful. She was a remarkable woman.”

By the time he launched his campaign on his 35th birthday in 2022, he had an endorsement list “as long as his arm.” The five years he spent building relationships, learning how the city works, and understanding the issues in his district had paid off. It also turned out that he was a prolific fundraiser. He raised a total of $40,000, all without accepting any corporate or developer contributions. From family and friends alone, he raised $25,000 Organized labor came through in a big way, contributing around $12,000.

In his campaign, Richard focused on addressing the needs of the residents in his district, running on pro-housing and traffic safety, which he calls “basic quality of life issues.”

mehlinger campaign ad
“Richard for Sunnyvale” Campaign Mailer

Richard’s identity as a proud bisexual man was a “non-issue” in his campaign. He received support from organizations like BAYMEC and The Victory Fund that work to elect queer people to office. Though it seemed irrelevant to the issues he ran on, he made a point of speaking about being bisexual for the sake of visibility. “There’s erasure, especially for men. Hell, The New York Times ran an article about ten years ago, asking ‘Do bi men exist?’ I was just like, ‘Well, I’m right here!’”

There was only one other candidate in the race, who turned out not to run much of a campaign. Richard won handily, with 71% of the vote.

In his swearing-in speech, Richard noted the historic nature of his victory: “Tonight I stand here as the second openly queer Sunnyvale City Councilmember ever, part of the most diverse council in terms of background, geography, ethnicity, religion, in our city’s history. That diversity is a strength because it allows us to see and address issues from many different angles. The switch to districts, drawn with extensive community input and confirmed overwhelmingly by the voters, made this possible.”

“Serving on the city council is a tremendous honor, and it’s actually fun,” he said. “I am having the time of my life. We have an excellent council. I have great colleagues. We have a great city staff. And even when we disagree, it’s respectful. I think we’re doing some really cool stuff.”

Richard wants to encourage other people to run for local office. “It can be a tremendously rewarding experience. It gives you the opportunity to help shape your community for the better, which is a wonderful thing. I’m really grateful to be here,” he concluded.

Richard Mehlinger’s speech at 2023 Sunnyvale Pride


Jaria Jaug

jaria jaug profile

At 23, San Jose State University alumna Jaria (rhymes with Mariah) Jaug (pronounced “Haug”) is the youngest person on the Berryessa school board. She is also the first openly bisexual board member.

For the newly elected official, things still feel “surreal.” “I never thought I’d do politics this early in my life.”

With her election, she became only the fifth out LGBTQ person currently serving on a K – 8 or K – 12 school board in Santa Clara County.

The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Jaria grew up going to schools in the district she now represents. Equity is her top priority. 

Jaria aims to ensure student success across all income levels with after-school programs and additional resources. She is also looking to expand mental health services, an issue that is close to her heart.

As a child in the Berryessa school district, Jaria relied on resources like on-campus social workers for support for her anxiety. “My parents grew up in the Phillippines and mental health wasn’t a thing,” she explained. “I know other children of immigrants might have similar experiences.”

After coming out as bisexual at age 15, Jaria got her start in community by involvement volunteering for the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ Community Center. “My identity led me to this work and showed me that queer people can do great things for the community.”

At SJSU, Jaria majored in business with the intent to go into marketing, but her first marketing class changed her mind. “I knew I wanted to help my community, not market products for the rest of my life.”

It was Dr. Ken Yeager’s local government class that first sparked her interest in politics. “[His] class changed my world and opened so many doors,” she said. “I realized politics was the way I could create the most change.”

Friends, family, and colleagues encouraged Jaria to run for the school board. “It was my sister that really put the nail in the coffin,” she said. “She convinced me. She said ‘If you want to run you should, because all of these people think you would do a good job.’”

Three of the five seats on the Berryessa board were up for election in November. Incumbents were running for two of those seats. The third seat was vacant due to one of the trustees resigning earlier. This presented a great opportunity for Jaria to be one of the three top vote-getters.

When she did decide to file, it was a bit last minute, but as soon as she did, Jaria was met with overwhelming support from the Filipino community and candidates in other local elections. 

Fortunately, campaigning was nothing new for her. Before she was elected to the board, Jaria worked as a field representative for Assembly District 25 and campaign coordinator for Alex Lee’s re-election campaign.

She raised a total of $10,000 for her campaign through events, call time, and joint walks with political clubs and other candidates. The funds allowed her to print lawn signs, publish a website, and pay the exorbitant candidate statement fee. Her weekends were spent door-knocking with members of the Young Democrats and other candidates, such as Aisha Wahab who was running for state senate and whose district overlapped with Jaria’s.

As an openly queer board member, Jaria has been dedicated to centering the needs of the LGBTQ+ community since day one. She has done this by bringing questions to the superintendent such as, “How are we teaching kids about what’s going on in the LGBTQ+ community?” “How are we supporting trans children?” and “How are we creating inclusive classrooms?”

She has been warmly received by her board colleagues, especially Thelma Boac, who is Filipina as well.

In addition to serving on the school board, Jaria is the policy/legislative director for San Jose City Council member David Cohen.

Jaria hopes her presence on the school board encourages other young, queer people of color to run. “I know young people might not think they look like a typical board member, but they’re part of the community, so why not?”

On June 14, Juria proposed a resolution to the Berryessa Union School Board to have all the district’s 10 elementary and three middle schools raise the Progress Pride flag during the first week of June to celebrate Pride month. It also stated that all schools will include LGBTQ+ literature in their libraries and will have at least one all-gender bathroom for students. Her resolution passed on a 4-0 with one abstention.


Judge Jonathan Karesh

jek profile

In January 2019, Jonathan Karesh became the second LGBTQ judge ever elected to be the presiding judge of the San Mateo County Superior Court. At the time, he was the only out LGBTQ presiding judge of a county Superior Court in California.

He is one of three LGBTQ judges on the San Mateo County bench, having been appointed by Governor Gray Davis in 2001.

It would seem that Karesh’s career as a judge was decided long before he started law school at Berkeley. After all, his father Joseph Karesh was elected a San Francisco Superior Court judge the year he was born, and his earliest memories are of father-son bonding time spent going to watch his father’s trials. “We would also go to the courthouse on the weekends and then go to lunch after and just have a really nice time,” he recalled.

When Karesh was just 10 years old, he volunteered for his father’s friends’ campaigns for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. At that time, he thought he might want to be a congressman.

It was a mock trial he was a part of in an eighth-grade social studies class that steered him towards a law career. Karesh loved playing the role of an attorney. That same year, he placed second in a speech competition, which further cemented his confidence. “I was terrible at sports, but I could speak and speak persuasively.”

After law school, Karesh spent his twenties and thirties as a deputy district attorney. At the time, he was heavily involved in the Democratic Central Committee and Democratic candidate campaigns. Those connections served him well when he applied to be a judge at age 38 and was able to have prominent community leaders write letters of recommendation to Governor Davis.

Now that Karesh has served as a judge since 2001, he has no desire to run for office. “I love my job too much, and besides, politicians have to fundraise and campaign, which I don’t want to do.”

These days, Karesh presides over criminal trials. He tries serious felony cases, which include trials for attempted murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.

For the last ten years, Karesh has also mentored LGBTQ law students through the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom (BALIF). His most recent mentee was a young man who recovered from substance abuse to go on to work with criminal defendants with similar histories. In 2018, he received BALIF’s Mentor of the Year award. That same year, the San Mateo
County Trial Lawyers Association presented him with their Judge of the Year award.

In 2011, Karesh filmed an It Gets Better video with the BALIF team. “It’s important for young people to know you can be in this profession and being gay is not a hindrance at all.”

Karesh came out at work in 2006 because he did not want to put up a wall between his personal and work life. He did so thanks to some advice from California’s first out lesbian judge, Rosemary Pfeiffer, who was outed by the press in the early 90s after attending a gay rights event.

“It was exhausting to maintain that wall, to keep things from my friends on the bench,” he explained. “I think it’s very important to be out at work.”

Karesh has never had an issue as a gay man at work. In fact, the day he came out by sending an email to a dozen people connected with court system, colleagues flooded his inbox with congratulatory emails.

Rich Gordon was serving on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors at the time. The Board Chambers and the Court Rooms were in the same building, and Gordon remembers there was an immediate buzz in the hallways and the elevators when Karesh made his announcement. “The buzz was positive and supportive,” said Gordon. “I had known Jon prior to his appointment as a judge due to his political work in our county. His coming out filled me with pride.”

“Jon is an outstanding human being and an outstanding judge,” reflected Gordon. “His integrity, his dedication, and his commitment to the rule of law make him an outstanding role model for those LGBTQ attorneys who stand on his shoulders.”

Around five years ago Karesh had a full-circle moment of getting then giving advice when a young district attorney came to him with questions about coming out.

Karesh himself did not come out until later in life. With a lesbian older sister, who came out in 1977, he felt pressure to be straight. He spent years in denial, only starting to date men in his early thirties and coming out to himself fully in his late thirties. Karesh came out to his mother shortly thereafter, at age 41. He never got the chance to come out to his father Joseph, who passed in 1996.

jek family wedding
Judge Karesh officiating the marriage of his sister Barbara Karesh (right) and sister-in-law Joy Accosta (left).

In 2008, his personal and work lives collided when Karesh had the immense privilege of officiating his sister Barbara’s wedding. “It was the most moving experience of my life.”

Barbara’s real wedding took place many years before on a beach in Pacifica with a Unitarian minister when she and her partner first got together in 1979. It was the small 2008 ceremony that married the two in the eyes of the law.

As for his own love life, Karesh got engaged back in September while on a cruise to Canada. His partner Steven is retired from the semiconductor industry, and in two and a half years, Jon will be eligible to join him in retirement so that the two can spend the rest of their lives together.
Jon, Barbara, his sister-in-law, and his fiance are all very close friends

Karesh is “pretty sure” he will retire in 2025, but if he’s anything like his father, he’ll change his mind. Joseph Karesh worked until he was eighty-seven years old, becoming the oldest working judge in the state at the time.

Outside the courtroom, Karesh has two passions when it comes to musical groups. He loves folk music, particularly the Kingston Trio. For the past 16 summers, he has gone to Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp, where twice he won the Camper of the Year award. He plays music with his colleagues in a band called The Folking Judges.

His other favorite band is Phish, whom he has seen perform 57 times in nine different states. He flew to New York this past New Year to see them play at Madison Square Garden.

Karesh is also active in his Episcopal church, which has welcomed him and Steven with open arms.