Fred Ferrer

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Fred Ferrer – former CEO of The Health Trust and now CEO of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley – talks about how he dealt with homophobia with his family, Santa Clara University and his career.

Frederick Ferrer grew up in Marin County, just twenty minutes outside of San Francisco, but to him the gay world felt “millions of miles away.” He knew he was gay as early as kindergarten, but it was the era of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t even think about it.’

Although Ferrer was unable to fully be himself growing up, he felt surrounded by love. “I learned to love from my family, from my church and from my government, but I also learned how to hate from those three places as well. I experienced this notion that it wasn’t even okay to think you were going to be gay.”

In 1976, Ferrer left his Catholic Mexican family home life for a Catholic institution to pursue an undergraduate degree at Santa Clara University. He partied hard and studied harder to fit in, but noticed other queer men were missing from the social gatherings he frequented. They spent their days off making secret trips to San Francisco; their classmates oblivious as to what they were doing. Ferrer remained in the closet.

He went on to grad school at San Jose State to study to be a therapist. There, he worked with students who were coming out. But Ferrer felt emotionally unequipped to guide others on the journey he himself had not yet taken, and ultimately switched career paths. “I didn’t stay as a therapist because there was just too much internal pain, and I really wasn’t going to be a good therapist to somebody else if I couldn’t deal with this stuff myself.”

Instead, he entered the nonprofit world and began working with low-income Latino families in the early childhood care system, drawing on his education in child development.  Though he was still not out at the time, colleagues often assumed Ferrer was gay, but he did not confirm it. Still, the support from those around him, which included out gay executives, made him feel welcome in the valley as an advocate and leader who served on nonprofit boards. 

While he was growing more comfortable with this identity in his professional life, it wasn’t until tragedy struck in his early thirties that Ferrer began to reckon with his struggle to come out to his family. When his mother died of cancer at age 54, he knew it was time to come out, and he entered therapy to help him do so. “It really helped me come to grips with who I was, what I wanted to do, and what I was doing that wasn’t helpful to my personal and spiritual growth as a gay man.” 

Ferrer’s father’s reaction to his being gay was as he always expected: He immediately began seeing his son through the lens of demonizing stereotypes.  With his family situation rocky, Ferrer missed a few years of family events and tried to make up for lost time by socializing in the bars of San Francisco and San Jose. “It was like I was celebrating my twenties all over again.”

Coming out in the nineties brought its own challenge. Ferrer lost many high school and college friends to HIV. “I was going through all kinds of turmoil with dealing with the death of my mom, the aftermath of dealing with my father, and then dealing with this incredibly sad pain of losing high school and college gay friends to HIV and not having anyone to share that with.”

Despite that trauma and isolation, after he came out, he began advocating for LGBTQ-inclusion in early childhood settings. He taught a curriculum called: Makng Room in the Circle to help involve LGBTQ+ parents.  Ferrer pushed on with his LGBTQ advocacy. As vice chair of the Santa Clara County United Way board in 1992, he led efforts to defund the Boy Scouts because the local chapter would not sign a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation. This debate led to conducting a needs assessment of the LGBTQ community and the ultimate funding of programs like the Billy DeFrank Center.

His work with the United Way showed him the power of putting money where your mouth is and walking the talk when it comes to fighting discrimination.

When Ferrer entered his new role of CEO of The Health Trust 1987, he was upfront about being gay from the start.  He ensured HIV services were a top priority, and transformed and expanded the programs based on the best practices and highest standards of care. He upgraded the food baskets that HIV-positive clients were given, allowing them to choose products themselves from stores like they would if they ahopped at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. “I was able to have Michelin star chefs come in and do cooking projects with us. It was great.”  Later he would co-chair a county-wide LGBTQ+ Health Assessment that would also lead to funding LGBTQ programs. 

Ferrer’s identity remains deeply intertwined with his work in the nonprofit sector, being it was the first safe community he found after experiencing a homophobic culture in college.

In 1995, Santa Clara University graduates wanted to form an LGBTQ alumni group, but the school prohibited it, thinking it would somehow be approving of homosexuality. It brought back memories of the pit Ferrer had in his stomach during his four years of undergraduate enrollment. “It brought back all of the homophobia that existed when I was a student and why it wouldn’t have made sense for me to come out. It also inspired me to make a difference and to work in the world of nonprofits.”

In 2014, then president Father Michael Engh invited Ferrer to chair a Presidential Blue Ribbon Task force on Diversity and Inclusion at the school.  “To have a gay latino man come back as the chair of the presidential commission, I think it showed how far the university has come.”

In 2010, the university established the Rainbow Resource Center. Ferrer now serves as a mentor at the Rainbow Center, working with young gay undergrads who share similar backgrounds. “I see the power of mentorship and the power of having the university recognizing you, and giving you a place to fit in and find like-minded people so that you can continue to develop in ways that may not be normative but in ways that you become more authentic.”

Today, in his role as CEO of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, Ferrer advocates for the LGBTQ+ children in the foster care system, who make up a disproportionate part of the population. He is grateful for the opportunities he has had to work with children, given that one of the biggest arguments against gay marriage concerned children and their development.

Over his lifetime, Ferrer has seen Santa Clara University grow from a place where he had to remain closeted to an institution that seeks out his queer leadership. In 2014, Ferrer was granted an honorary degree from Santa Clara University for Public Service, the first gay man to ever receive this prestigous award.  He saw HIV begin as a death sentence that ostracized the gay community further, and later become a chronic health condition that has lost much of the heavy stigma it used to carry.

“I keep thinking what are the ways that we, as a community, can come together to end the kind of discrimination, homophobia, and now transphobia that exists and then work to change it. I know we will have a better community when those things no longer exist it.”

Judge Jessica Delgado

Delgado 2022 profile

In the third of a series, read about Santa Clara County’s newest LGBTQ member of the bench, Judge Jessica Delgado.

One of six LGBTQ+ judges in Santa Clara County, Jessica Delgado draws from her experience of being on her own at a young age and her intersectional identity as a queer Latina to handle cases with a nuanced and empathetic perspective.

Outed in high school in central Texas in the mid-eighties and rendered homeless, Delgado said she came into her queerness the only way that existed back then: through bars and soccer teams. In 1991, she and her girlfriend at the time decided they wanted to move to a place where they could be safe and out. They chose Santa Cruz.

With the encouragement of teacher and mentor Sam Marian, Delgado eventually went to Berkeley to study law after completing her bachelor’s degree through Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz.
Although Delgado swore she would never be in criminal defense, she became a public defender in Monterey County. In 2001, she joined Santa Clara County, where she worked as a deputy public defender for twenty years.

Former Santa Clara County Public Defender and now State Appellate Court Justice Mary Greenwood had told her that it is always important to re-examine your career, so in 2019 she thought it was time to think about a new thing. “I was deeply invested in public service, so being a judge seemed like another way in which I could continue to serve the community,” Delgado said.

As fate would have it, it was Governor Gavin Newsom who appointed her a judge in April 2021. Though they have never met, Delgado and Newsom have a connection that made his appointment of her that much more meaningful. When Newsom was mayor of San Francisco, he defiantly allowed gay marriages on February 12, 2004. It happened to be a court holiday, so she and her partner, along with other lesbian couples, rushed around and drove up to San Francisco to get married.

“Newsom’s action had a tremendous impact on us personally,” she said, “because we felt a sense of hope that our family finally might be recognized.”

Delgado’s marriage, along with all the others, was ruled invalid by the California Supreme Court, but Newsom’s bold move had given her hope. She and Diana, a public defender, have remained domestic partners and have a 16-year-old son.

Delgado felt it was very rewarding to have Newsom evaluate her as a judicial candidate. “To be fully out from the very beginning of the application process all the way through the interview—I felt like a whole person in the process,” she said. “I felt like all of the parts of me and all of the work that I had done over the years was all valued in a way I don’t think any official process had ever felt before. It was special for me to have someone appoint me who had given my family dignity.”
In her work as an out Latina judge, Delgado witnesses the impact of representation on a daily basis. “Just my being up there and who I am means something to the people who are in front of me. I see it all of the time. I see it in the Latinx community when I pronounce someone’s name correctly.”

Despite the neutrality required of judges, joining the bench has been an extremely personal process for Delgado.

“It’s a sacred relationship you have with the public. You should really be asked challenging questions about who you are and who you will be in that position. It’s like an autopsy of the soul, while you’re still awake and alive.”
The experiences of her youth-built resilience and a strong work ethic, and at the same time, gave her high expectations for herself and everyone around her. Delgado has had to learn to manage those expectations when sentencing young people in her courtroom.

“I remember what it was like to be that age and be completely on your own, and there’s a way in which bringing that perspective and that empathy is very powerful from now sitting in this position of deciding what is your sentence going to be, what discretion might I exercise? How can I include this context?”
Delgado brings that same understanding when it comes to racial equity and LGBTQ issues in the system, but she wasn’t always out at work. During her first ten years as a public defender, she worried her identity might harm a client’s case.

Although it has been over a decade since then, the landscape is still far from ideal. “It’s still a very heteronormative criminal justice system and justice system at large.”
Delgado also said she sees students of color struggle with the same challenges she faced as a law student almost thirty years ago.

Delgado works to foster inclusivity by using her intersectional identity to bridge worlds. “I like to bring a little queerness to the table when I’m in the Latinx world. And I like to bring a little bit of a discussion of race and equity when I’m in the LGBTQ world. I try to remind both of those groups that trans women of color should be our priority. They are the most vulnerable in our community and I believe that to be true in Santa Clara County as well.”

In the courtroom, Delgado announces her pronouns and uses gender-neutral phrasing in standard scripts. Outside of court, she has a special focus on mentoring transgender applicants. Currently, there is only one trans judge on the bench in California, and Delgado wants that to change.

“I have my own work to do around being affirming to my trans brothers and sisters. We have to have the capacity to have empathy and compassion for people who are different to be a good ally.”

Gail Reflects on Mac’s Club

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Queer Silicon Valley is proud to present an interview with one of the most influential people in the bar scene — Gail Chandler-Croll

Interview conducted by Ken Yeager

Author’s note: The interview with Gail Chandler-Croll, the owner of Mac’s Club, took place inside the bar on Post St. in the late morning of July 30. I had been wanting to interview her for a year as part of Queer Silicon Valley’s history of the bar scene. Standing behind the bar was longtime bar manager and friend Jim Michl, and off to the side was John Croll, Gail’s husband.

As Gail tells the story of Mac’s, she remarks that she is a straight woman who had never owned a bar, much less a gay one. She was looking for cash flow and the owner was looking for cash, so they struck a deal. That was in 1977. Soon later, she would also own Renegades from 1980 to 2006.

Gail referred to Mac’s as a sanctuary. “Through the years, people would come in to be with their friends, enjoy themselves, and be part of the community. It was a privilege to be part of that,” she said.

Harassment from the police was constant. There were ongoing raids, intimidations, and arrests, all without legitimate reason. Once, there was an undercover agent who pretended to be a patron – who later turn people in. Whenever the police cleared the bar, it had an obvious effect on business.

Then there were the years of AIDS when so many people were dying. She estimates she lost 40 friends to the disease. It got to the point where she could no longer attend funerals.

The drag queens and drag shows were always a highlight. “The outfits were beautiful, the make-up, the wigs. I never looked that good,” she laughed. “When we had the drag shows, everybody came.”

The old Mac’s had to close in 1998 due to changes in building codes from the Loma Prieta earthquake. The adjoining business in the building, Sal and Luigi’s pizza, also had the close. The building was later retrofitted and housed Brix’s gay bar and now the Continental bar.

She found a place for sale on Post St. in a 107-year-old building that she thought was intimate and similar to the old Mac’s. After they had bought the building, John Croll had gone to an auction and had bought the entire bar furnishing for $500. He was the only bidder.

Gail thinks the new location on Post St. has served the community well. She brags that it was there before Splash and before it was known as the Qmunity District. But now the time has come for her to sell the bar and move onto other projects.

Be sure to listen to two other interviews about the old and new Mac’s. One is with longtime bartender Rafael Hussin; the other from longtime manager Jim Michl. Listening to all three interviews will give people a picture of the bar scene that no longer exists today but which played an important role in creating a community for LGBTQ people in Silicon Valley. Much of that world has been lost as the number of gay bars has dwindled to three. Hopefully it doesn’t dwindle to two.

Thank you, Gail, for the interview and for the memories you gave to so many friends and patrons.

Bartending at Mac’s with Rafael

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Rafael Cuilan was a very popular bartender at both Mac’s Club and later Renegades. Rafael was always great with faces and drinks, so no matter how long it had been since you’d been in the bar, he’d remember your drink and be busy mixing it up before you even sat down.

Mac’s was a kind of “gay family” bar, and Rafael, Skip, and Rich treated their customers like family. It was always great to sit down at Mac’s and enjoy a drag show and conversation with everyone sitting around you.

Rafael moved to Germany in 1994 but he’s back now and enjoying his retirement by getting deeply involved in helping elect progressive politicians. 

Kathy Wolfe

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PIONEER OF LGBTQ+ VISIBILITY

Kathy Wolfe, Founder and CEO of Wolfe Video, remembers a time when movies about our LGBTQ lives were not readily available through multiple media outlets. 

Today’s LGBTQ+ younger community may not know that Kathy played a vital role in kickstarting the visibility of our community in media today.

But before the World Wide Web, Netflix, smart phones, Ellen DeGeneres, The L Word, and all the programming we take for granted today, Kathy Wolfe had a vision and took action. 

In 1979, Kathy Wolfe saw the powerful documentary Word is Out at the Frameline Film Festival. “I was completely inspired by seeing that film,” remembers Kathy. “I immediately grasped the importance of bringing our stories to the public.” 

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The iconic Wolfe Video logo

For the next several years, Kathy honed her skills in producing, directing and editing lesbian documentaries, including The Changer and the Changed, an early history of Olivia Records. But she soon realized the need for distribution channels so that these movies could be seen outside of film festivals. 

The technology of the day was VHS, so in 1985 Kathy formed a new company, Wolfe Video. Initially, Wolfe sold tapes directly to lesbians, many of whom were closeted and had no other way to see these movies. 

From the outset, however, Kathy’s ultimate goal was wider than mail order. She wanted to spur acceptance of our community by getting these titles seen by both gay and straight audiences. 

She worked tirelessly to overcome the almost automatic perception by homophobic wholesalers that lesbian and gay movies equal pornography. She made bold moves, such as cold-calling Lily Tomlin and asking to produce and distribute a VHS of The Search for Signs of  Intelligent Life in the Universe. This created a breakthrough into the giant mainstream video rental market. 

Another bold move was acquiring the hit movie Big Eden, getting it rated PG (a first), and producing it as a double DVD (another first). 

A continuing challenge has been keeping up with the very rapidly changing technology, but Kathy has adapted. Besides adding Blu-ray as a format for physical sales, in 2012 she launched WolfeOnDemand.com, the first digital LGBTQ platform. She also licenses Wolfe films to streaming outlets all over the world. 

Ironically, large companies such as Netflix are now both customers and competitors of Wolfe’s for quality LGBTQ films. Kathy is philosophical about this. “These days our films can be streamed all over the world or purchased on DVD for guaranteed rewatching. I take pride in knowing we helped make a difference for our community. We now see ourselves – and are seen – in a much truer light.”

Both the LGBTQ and mainstream community recognize her impact and Kathy has received multiple awards over the years including: Cinequest’s “Maverick Spirit Award;” NCLR’s “Community Partner Award;” the San Francisco Board of Supervisors “Certificate of Honor,” and the National Organization of Women’s “Excellence in Media Award.”

Read more about Kathy’s story here. 

Please visit WolfeVideo.com and WolfeOnDemand.com to see a huge selection of LGBTQ movies. 

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The “Wolfe Pack” in 2002

Ted Sahl

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Ted Sahl began his 30-year career photographing the gay and lesbian community in the South Bay in 1978 “through a combination of curiosity and accident.”

After the San Jose City Council approved a proclamation for Gay Pride Week, the photographer stumbled upon a confrontation between members of the Moral Majority and gay activists, who later celebrated the historic moment in St. James Park.

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Ted Sahl’s Press Pass

Previously covering the anti-nuclear movement and farm labor strikes across California, the LGBT civil rights movement from the 1970s provided plenty for Ted to photograph, from political protests and fundraising campaigns, to pride celebrations and community events.

“These issues were close to my heart,” Ted later wrote in 2002, “but when I became acquainted with the gay community I recognized a deep richness of the human spirit that, in my view, demanded all the support it could muster.”

He captured moments of life, love and legislation within the LGBT community across three decades, with efforts to not “out” folks to family, friends or coworkers by always asking for permission. While he was self-described “hopelessly heterosexual,” Ted earned trust and respect with the community, often using only first names or drag names out of caution, especially with at a time when many worked in the high tech industry, who could lose security clearances for being LGBT.

A welder by trade, Ted attended fundraisers and demonstrations after work, or weekend picnics, coronations, parades and nights on the town for the gay press. He served as the staff photographer for a number of local LGBT newspapers, including the Lambda News (1978-1983), Our Paper (1984-1988), South Bay Times (1988-1990), and the Valley Views.

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Ted Sahl surrounded by his works

Born in May 1927, Ted grew up near Boston and dropped out of school at 16. He served in the U.S. Navy in 1947, stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, before arriving in the Bay Area. Ted described himself as “a self-taught artist dedicated to developing, and enriching the human spirit; If it be with a critical eye, So be it!”

His photos can be found throughout Queer Silicon Valley, as well as his book, “From Closet to Community: A Quest for Gay and Lesbian Liberation in San Jose & Santa Clara County,” pulling work from his personal collection, “The Ted Sahl Archives,” at San Jose State University.

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

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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

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Elizabeth Birch

Elizabeth Birch HRC event

As a lawyer, corporate executive and open lesbian, Elizabeth Birch helped coordinate LGBT company policies and guide cultural perspectives of the queer community on a national scale throughout the 1980s and 90s. 

While activists and LGBTQ+ workers pushed for civil rights, she used her legal expertise to solidify changes and acceptance during six years at Apple and nearly a decade with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the United States’ largest LGBT organization. 

Elizabeth first arrived in the South Bay to attend Santa Clara University School of Law, where she graduated in 1985. She was previously living out of her home at the age of 17 as an open lesbian, moving around the United States. She credits those experiences and struggles for her ability to advocate within both a legal and corporate structure. 

While still a student, Elizabeth brazenly called the head of Apple’s legal department asking for her dream job. To her surprise she was told she could work there—once she got a few years of experience practicing law under her belt. She joined McCutcheon, Doyle, Brown, and Enersen after graduation, where she help found AIDS legal services in San Jose, and left in 1989. She entered the political arena as a member of the San Jose-based Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee. 

She was one of the lawyers representing BAYMEC in a case against the Macy’s located at Valley Fair Shopping Mall in 1988. They successfully argued for the First Amendment right to campaign against Prop 102, which would have required people who tested positive for HIV/AIDS to be reported to health authorities. 

Elizabeth was thrust into the high-tech world when she joined Apple in 1989, where she directed international litigation. After LGBTQ+ employees formed Apple Lambda and pushed for non-discrimination policies earlier, her influence and rank as Senior Counsel for the company’s Human Resources department essentially ran interference for their continued efforts. 

She decided her duty as a lawyer was to break through cultural barriers and make the company even better for LGBTQ employees. The advent of employee resource groups provided both a sanctuary within corporate companies, as well as an organizing platform to accomplish goals and change. 

Whether that meant providing contacts, advice, or green-lighting ideas like making shirts with the Apple logo – an ask that initially made Apple Lambda members shiver – she helped garner support and benefits from the inside out. 

Most notably, she spent time with then-Apple CEO John Scully, arguing for these changes, especially for a company using a rainbow-colored logo at the time. 

Management often brushed off offering benefits, claiming they posed a financial burden. Elizabeth argued equality policies were breakthroughs to productivity, creativity and innovation—all coveted by high tech companies in competition with each other—in addition to offering to cover any costs from her own salary. 

If one employer didn’t offer benefits, talent could move to the next town over or across the street to places that did, which led to a wave of change in Silicon Valley. 

Scully eventually kicked off a 100-employee meeting by committing to domestic partner benefits by that January. This was the third attempt of Apple Lambda, after previous rejections. 

“Every member of the board, you just saw the outpouring of emotion. There were tears,” Elizabeth said. “I saw the cascading through the culture, and that was a big lesson for me up up to and including Apple.”

Former Apple employees and South Bay activists have credited Elizabeth with the decision to work with businesses before politicians; her pragmatic approach to make incremental policy changes proved successful, as opposed to solely pursuing slow, polarizing legislation. 

While on business trips for Apple, Elizabeth said she would travel to nearby companies, such as Kodak, Chevron, McDonald’s and General Mills, to speak with employee resource groups and CEOs. These heartfelt, genuine and trusting conversations about personal experiences are what she says allowed people to learn about and become comfortable with the LGTBQ community. 

Despite a few holdouts, including Perot Systems and Exxon Mobil, as those companies passed more progressive policies, more liberal people went to work for those companies—not exclusive to LGBTQ people.

Elizabeth’s work in Silicon Valley was just the tip of the iceberg of her legal and political career. 

She was the co-chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 1992 to 1994. Around that same time, Elizabeth sat on the board of Digital Queers, a Castro-based activist group founded to bring LGBTQ+ organizations across the country up-to-speed online, in part through organizations like NGLTF. 

“By the time I leave the San Jose area, I’m now thinking big,” Elizabeth said. “How do we really use corporate America to help revolutionize progress?”

By January 1995, she accepted the position of president and executive director of HRC, where she spent nearly a decade working to stem discrimination of LGBTQ+ people by sharing their stories, struggles and successes within society. 

She helped acquire, rewrite and implement the Corporate Equality Index for LGBTQ employees–which she retroactively sees as her best contribution to the organization–in addition to helping form the Human Rights Business Council, which brought together gay executives across industries, from airlines to entertainment. Together, they figured out who to talk to within top management to have their friends and competitors fall in line.

Elizabeth continued efforts to change how people across the United States viewed the LGBTQ+ community through programming on Good Morning America, the Today Show and NewsHour, as well as an entire rebranding of HRC. 

She also revisited her Silicon Valley roots in company-driven policy making when the HRC formed its Business Council in 1997, which brought together dozens of LGBT employees—including those at Apple—who already had on-the-ground experience making policy changes. They leveraged internal knowledge, such as budgetary timelines and proposal requirements, to craft best practices for other hopeful LGBT employees nationwide.

Some have estimated that the HRC Business Council helped around 100 companies across different industries earn nondiscrimination and domestic partner benefits by 2002.