From the Whiskey Gulch in East Palo Alto to the Stockton Strip in San Jose, the gay community was widespread in Silicon Valley. Whayne Herriford describes community life and the bars and clubs that the gay community coalesced around.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
If the South Bay was home to changing internal policies, San Francisco became the hub for disseminating those ideas beyond Silicon Valley. Larger conventions and gatherings emerged in the early 1990s, including the first Out and Equal workplace conference in October 1991. From there, collectives like the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force (NLGTF) emerged from this community in 1992.
The need to communicate en-mass grew as the inter-corporate networks grew.
That year, software marketer Tom Reilly and writer and editor Karen Wickre co-founded Digital Queers—a Castro-based activist group that worked to bring gay-oriented nonprofits up-to-speed online through modems, PowerMacs, AOL software discs and email tutorials.
Named as a funny, more modern evolution from High Tech Gays, they worked tech show floors such art the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, talking to friends, colleagues and strangers who would agree to donate equipment, time and money to organizations across the United States.
The idea easily struck a chord with developers, with Tom and Karen at one point collecting $75,000 in software, $75,000 in consulting services and $50,000 in cash, which was later presented at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
As the technology grew, the need to stay up-to-date continued. Three years into business, DQ had 1,000 members and served 30 nonprofits, including the NLGTF and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), which boasted speakers bureau members like Bennet and Kim in the South Bay.
This fortunately happened at the same time personal computers became cheaper and more ubiquitous, so the gay and lesbian employee events grew more active. Recruiters for Microsoft and Apple had started posting jobs throughout the organization.
In the years after the first party in January 1993, word of mouth eventually led to these Digital Queers benefits became a socially hot ticket, bringing thousands of gay, lesbian and allies together in one social network.
“(Looking) at how many people were there could be very empowering,” Karen said, adding that people were often generous with trading email addresses and in-person introductions.
One of these connections was Tom talking to Apple CEO John Sculley about domestic partner benefits, which lagged seven years behind its nondiscrimination policy implementation, in part due to an incrementalist approach from its employees.
Tom told the Los Angeles Times he briefed the issue with the top Apple executive, who later breezily welcomed the idea at a meeting with Apple Lambda in 1993, eliciting tears and a standing ovation from staff.
The need for gay employee groups started to dwindle as newer organizations came on the scene with nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits already in place. And as nonprofits became more digitally self-sufficient, Digital Queers and its email address book effectively dissolved into GLAAD by 1998.
Supervisor Ken Yeager interviews Sera Fernando, senior management analyst in Santa Clara County’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, and Jules Chyten-Brennan, medical director of the Gender Health Center, about Santa Clara County’s efforts in ensuring healthcare for transgender, gender-non-binary and gender expansive people.
A haven for Vietnamese members of the LGBTQ+ community could be found every Sunday night on Song That Radio, the nation’s first Vietnamese gay and lesbian radio show broadcast out of KSJX in San Jose. Translated as “live truthfully,” the hour-long program was founded in March 1999 by Vuong Nguyen. She was known as the “Eldest Sister” of the ST family, who also founded one of the country’s first Vietnamese gay and lesbian groups in San Jose in the late 1980s.
This wasn’t Nguyen’s first radio gig, previously working as a news writer and reader for American military radio while living in Saigon. Born in 1943, she advocated against Communist Hanoi while a college student early in the Vietnam War. She brought a Vietnamese-style broadcasting mix of news, contemporary music, poetry and letters from readers to Song That Radio, focusing on messages of anti-homophobia and equality in the community and society.
A slogan of the program has been documented online as, “Live true to your biological nature, and live well together, with everyone around and proud of your own. Your natural nature, that of a homosexual, is useful in society.”
The mission of Song That Radio included advocating for acceptance in the Vietnamese community, bridging gaps between heterosexual family members and educating about HIV and AIDS. These goals proved especially vital for closeted LGBTQ folks who weren’t fluent English speakers.
The most recent programs still accessible online date back to August 2013, when discussion topics ranged from a French woman providing breastfeeding services to homosexual parents and Amsterdam’s Gay Pride festival, to Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” stance on gay people and ABC Family airing a lesbian wedding on TV – the first after the Supreme Court struck down the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act. In addition to radio programming, they hosted in-person shows, where packed audiences would watch nights filled with song, dance, comedy and fashion, sometimes with standing room only. Song That Radio’s location in San Jose wasn’t happenstance.
According to a 2011 report on the Status of Vietnamese Health, Santa Clara County’s Vietnamese population grew from 11,717 in 1980 to 134,525 in 2010 – the second largest of any county in the country. The City of San Jose had the largest Vietnamese population of any U.S. city. At the time, there were no Vietnamese words to clearly, respectfully talk about the LGBTQ+ community. The idea was that by building understanding, that would lead to love, openness and freedom by building a bridge between Vietnamese roots and queer life. This work blended into politics, including marching against Prop 8, which temporarily halted legal same-sex marriages in California. On May 15, 2012, Song That Radio received a commendation from the San Jose City Council.
South Bay Leather and Uniform Group (SLUG) had their founders meeting in September of 1988. Don Queen, David Carranza, John Esqueda and his partner Todd, Rafael Montejo and his partner Stan, and Jill and her partner, were the founders. SLUG was started as a social club for the leather community.
Graylin Thornton was new to the leather community in 1993. Graylin was about 26 years old when he, along with others, hosted the first Leather Pride Festival in San Jose. Shortly after this, Graylin became the first African American man to win the title of International Mr. Drummer in San Francisco.
The Drummer contest, now known as International Leather Sir/Boy, spanned a diverse range of fetish communities and included rubber, leather, and cowboys.
Since that early win, Thornton went on to receive the Leather Leadership Award from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as well as a Pantheon Award from the Leather Journal.
“We don’t do these things for ourselves as leaders, we do them for the community itself,” he said. “And I think that the younger people who are coming up … need to understand that you don’t just go to a beer bust and do one event. You keep going because you’ll always be a part of that community.”
But due to the toll of HIV/AIDS on the leather community over the years, Thornton said, “many younger members aren’t able to look up to as many role models as previous generations have. When I was 25 and 30, I had people there steering me the whole way,” he said. “Unfortunately, they don’t really have that. So those of us who are 50, 55, have to mentor our younger people.”
Mentorship was a key component of Thornton’s entrance to the community, and it still plays an important role.
SLUG disbanded in the mid-1990s, but the group Santa Clara County Leather Association(SCCLA) took its place. SCCLA still hosts leather nights at Renegades.
Read more about Graylin and the Leather Community here: https://www.ebar.com/news/pride//248569
Kim Harris is a computer scientist and gay rights activist based out of Sunnyvale, California.
Born in 1946, he studied physics at Louisiana State University, later earning his masters in computer science at Purdue. The Texas native moved to the Bay Area in 1974 to work on a super computer for NASA. He was not yet openly gay.
As Kim incrementally came out to friends and colleagues, he joined a gay men’s discussion group at Stanford where he met Bennet Marks, with whom he started a relationship in 1982 and married in September 2008. He also began attending High-Tech Gays meetings by 1983.
Kim joined Hewlett-Packard in 1984, where he joined unofficial gay employee groups like Friends of Dorothy and the Gay and Lesbian Employee Network (GLEN). From there, he helped get the ball rolling at HP to implement nondiscrimination policies and expand diversity training and AIDS-related health care coverage. He retired in 2001 at the age of 55.
During the 1990s, he joined groups like the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays speakers bureau, Peninsula Business and Professional Association, Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center Board of Directors and the HRC Business Council in 1998.
He also was involved with support and advocacy groups like Silicon Valley Gay Men’s Chorus, Outlet and Outlook TV.
Bennet Marks is a software engineer and gay rights activist based in Sunnyvale, California.
Born in 1954 in Long Island, he studied at Brown University before starting a graduate math program at Stanford. He ultimately left before presenting his final thesis, earning a masters degree.
Bennet got a job at Ford Aerospace in 1981, where he obtained a security clearance, in part, due to not yet being openly gay to himself or others. Beginning to come out, he met Kim Harris at a Stanford gay men’s discussion group. The two have been in a relationship since November 1982, and married in September 2008, before California’s Prop 8 initially passed later that year.
Bennet later moved onto a job at Apple, where he started a gay employee group named Apple Lambda in 1986. That group sparked nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits at Apple. Not long after he joined the BAYMEC board in 1986 and Outlet TV.
He transitioned to working at Google in 2004, where he created the Gayglers in 2006. Bennet retired in 2011, and continues to live with Kim in the South Bay.