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.
A one-of-a-kind LGBTQ Latinx Theater ensemble located in San Jose. The plays produced are inspired by the queer Latinx experience. Rodrigo García and Ugho Badú direct the ensemble in addition to writing the plays that the ensemble performs. Every year the ensemble performs an originally written Christmas play that performs at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, Billy Defrank Center, and in Watsonville. In 2016, they produced a four-episode web series titled “SiemPrE Por Ti” funded by the Health Trust as part of the Getting to Zero strategy. Another project funded by Getting to Zero is “Canción de Cuna para Un Niño Herido/Lullaby for a Wounded Boy” which was met with great success. For three consecutive years, Teatro Alebrijes produced “Carlota” an original play by members of the ensemble, which performed to sold-out audiences that included English-speaking folks who attended despite the fact that the play was spoken in Spanish, but had subtitles projected on a screen in English. In 2019, Teatro Alebrijes was invited to perform at the historic El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista for its Day of the Dead celebration. The ensemble used to rehearse 2-4 days a week at the School of Arts & Culture, and it’s now holding virtual rehearsals through the Zoom platform.
In pursuit of creating strong leadership and community within local gay Latinos, Rodrigo Garcia and Omar Nuñez founded Colectivo Acción Latina de Ambiente, ALA, as a volunteer-run grassroots organization in 2011. Before this, Rodrigo had founded De Ambiente, a youth support group for young gay Latinos at Outlet. Having been involved in this and at Aguilas (an intervention program for bisexual and gay Latinos in San Francisco), Rodrigo had already seen the benefits of creating a Latino-based LGBTQ support group. Seeing the lack of organizations — especially in absence of ProLatino — Rodrigo linked up with Omar, who was working at the PACE Clinic and former ProLatino organizer. Together, along with the assistance of AACI (Asian Americans for Community Involvement) and the Billy DeFrank Center, Colectivo ALA was formed. The first meeting was on August 1, 2011. Ugho Badú (a.k.a. Hugo Badillo) was the first program coordinator. The mission of Colectivo ALA has and continues to be about providing a space for the freedom of expression, individual growth, and community building for LGBTQ Latinos and Latinas.
Colectivo ALA offers group sessions covering a wide array of topics. From HIV/PrEP, Sexual Health to Cultural Traditions and Identity to Social Media and Political Asylum, the organization has done their best to provide assistance for any issue the community brings to the table. They host a number of different programs and activities such as ALA, which is a bi-weekly meeting at the Billy DeFrank Center (on Zoom now due to COVID-19). Furthermore, there are many single-event activities to promote community participation, social interaction, and advocacy for the group, through participating in Pride and an annual summer weekend retreat for 40 gay or bisexual men members. As for art production, Teatro Alebrijes is a theater ensemble put together that creates LGBTQ Latinx-themed productions. Another part of Colectivo ALA is to welcome others into the group, including those from outside of the area to make everyone feel welcome while celebrating their cultural uniqueness.
You can learn more about Colectivo ALA at their website.
“And now we have in these meetings not only folks from the Bay Area, we have folks from Puerto Rico and Mexico. We have a guy from Boston, another guy from Michigan. So it has expanded… because there were places like De Ambiente like Colectivo ALA, where LGBTQ Latinx people have the opportunity to, to practice and become confident and feels empowered. You know, with people like that, these guys are able to take on leadership roles. And I hope that one of them, one day, feel inspired to do something more — but it starts from there, from nurturing those two spaces. When we came up with the idea of Colectivo ALA, we didn’t have anything, but there were allies who were supporting us with the resources that they had.” — Rodrigo Garcia
Jóvenes De Ambiente was a safe space for Spanish speaking and multilingual youth under the age of 25. Not exclusively for Latinx youth, this group was a safe haven for over 50 youth from all over the peninsula and South Bay. This safe haven provided sexual health awareness and leadership development for those interested in activism. Youth participated in rallies, pride parades, retreats, dances, and panels in different schools and medical facilities to bring visibility and awareness about LGBTQ+ youth. Many of the participants today say that De Ambiente was and continues to be a family where they can find comfort and support. This group of individuals was an outlet that kept many away from isolation, depression, drugs and alcohol, and for some, it was a space for individual growth.
Sera Fernando was born and raised in San Jose, and now works as a senior management analyst in Santa Clara County’s Office of LGBTQ affairs. As a transgender Filipino woman, she focuses on economic empowerment for people who are transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming and gender diverse.
Arturo Magaña attended a ProLatino meeting in 1992 where he first experienced, at 18 years old, a folclórico performance. He witnessed men dancing together to express stories, and he joined immediately. For two years, the group was invited to Washington to dance for the Peace March as well as San Jose Pride and San Francisco Pride. Around 1995, ProLatino dissolved, and Arturo looked elsewhere to continue to dance.
Arturo joined the Los Lupenos de San Jose dance company around this time as a lead dancer. It was important to him to have the LGBTQ aspect of dancing represented, so he requested approval from the Dean of Dance at Stanford, the co-founder of Los Lupenos, to bring men together to represent the LGBTQ community. He was denied time and time again to create this type of group in the company.
Around 2013, Colectivo ALA invited Arturo and Los Lupenos to put on a folclórico performance at their anniversary event. Arturo remembers fighting to get permission for this performance, “I said, ‘you can’t repress me. This is who I am. I need to represent myself,’ and Dr. Susan Cashion, a co-founder of the Los Lupenos Dance Company, said, ‘absolutely we have your back. Anything that you need, costumes, music, choreography, you do it. This is you.’ She gave me the opportunity to represent myself and bring that to Colectivo ALA anniversaries and that sort of seeded the idea for Rodrigo and myself to bring a program to the LGBTQ community.”
Arturo started the LGBTQ dance group at Colectivo ALA and left Los Lupenos. The group was named Ensamble Folclórico Colibri, and they were part of the Colectivo ALA group. At a certain point, Folclórico grew beyond the Colectivo ALA group and became independent. In 2016, the group marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade and received honorable mention from the City and County of San Francisco as well as receiving an award for the most vibrant and colorful group. Every year since 2016, they have participated in Silicon Valley Pride.
In 2017, the Ensamble was adopted by the School of Arts and Culture as a cultural partner at the Mexican Heritage Plaza. In 2018, the Ensamble was able to put together a full stage production where they invited an ensamble from Mexico, Grupo Folclórico Teocalli. That was the first time that they had over forty dancers, some men in Mexican Folclórico skirts, on the main stage of the Mexican Heritage Plaza stage.
In Seattle, a group called Somos Seattle, a queer organization focused on representation of the Latino community, brought Ensamble Folclórico Colibri to headline their Latino Pride. This was a great honor for Arturo and the ensamble.
In 2018, the organization experienced push back by an organization in Mexico who threatened to sanction them and contact the Mexican government to stop them from continuing. The worst part of this experience was that it was coming from the Folclórico community, a director. Arturo stood his ground, “We put our foot down and we said, ‘we’re not going anywhere. You can do whatever you want. We have a freedom of expression.’ That brought us to be more recognized, to the point where our Facebook page had like less than a thousand likes and within a month we ended up with about 9,000 likes. So the world and the community started seeing Folclórico Colibri more seriously.”
Ensamble Folclórico Colibri is an LGBTQ+ group, including folks that are in the LGBTQ community as well as others who are not. Arturo and the group believes that it is important to not repress those that are repressing you, so by accepting the straight members into their group they are showing solidarity with their allies who will stand with them.
The group still faces backlash today by those in California and other communities. The Folclórico community is still close minded, but there is progress being made. Arturo said, “I want to say that maybe 60% of the men who dance folclórico are part of our LGBTQ community. I feel that it’s more of this fear and repression that they have and they translate this into us not being traditional or being offensive to our culture. When we put on our show, I added a tagline that said, ‘we’re not here to change tradition. We’re here to add our stories because they matter.’ I know for a fact that in the fifties, when Folclórico became a bigger thing, there were queer people dancing. It’s just they’re not permitted to put it on stage.”
It’s important to Arturo that the group features their stories on the stage and add to the folklore of folclórico. “For example, in 2018, in one of the very traditional pieces, we call it Quadro, we put together a lesbian wedding, and it was on stage and was received well. Another piece I choreographed was a coming out story, two men falling in love. People saw us in a different light. They saw that it wasn’t just about movement. It wasn’t just about dancing men to men or women to women. It was for us to convey our day to day story because that’s what folclórico does. When you see a performance of folclórico, you see a representation of either a town, a festivity, or a main event in a family. I wanted to do the same thing, but with our queer identity, that’s one of our main components now.”
“I’ve seen the faces of young people and their parents when we are performing and they see themselves and they see the representation and the pride of our heritage as queer men or as a lesbian or as a nonbinary person. We have had a whole family unit, after our performance, come to us and thank us for giving them the platform to endorse their identity through culture, because they didn’t have that. Not only have they been removed from their place of origin, but also affcted by the cultural shock that they receive from living here. So to see a representation, through folclórico and costumes on stage, it’s been a major impact for them,” said Arturo on the group’s impact on the community.
“We had an event with the California School for the Deaf, which was a challenge because we’re going to dance and do videos and they couldn’t hear our footwork, but that’s when we met our first trans dancer. There was a student who was seven years old and she was already transitioning. When we performed, even though she couldn’t express with her voice, she came up on stage and she started crying. I’m gonna start crying myself. She started crying and just hugging us and feeling so comfortable. She asked us to take one of our skirts so she could wear it. That to me was probably the best acknowledgement that we have received. Her mom also came up and said, ‘Oh my God, you guys have completely changed my daughter’s life because she feels like she’s important. She matters.’ That was beautiful. That was really beautiful,” Arturo Magaña.
Kevin Roche, a member of the Imperial Courts, remembers that it was over fifty years ago when groups in Portland and San Francisco first started drag balls. “This is when being in drag was a more transgressive activity than it is considered nowadays,” he said in an interview. This was the beginning of the Imperial Courts on the West Coast. After drag balls were established behind the scenes in 1967, the International Imperial Court System (IICS) was founded in San Francisco and hosted many drag shows and coronation balls. Later IICS was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization to raise money for charity while still having a lot of fun.
Mama José, also known as José Julio Sarria, was the first Empress in San Francisco, the mother of all queens participating in the Imperial Courts. Kevin recalled: “She was the mother empress of us all. She rather notoriously declared herself empress when she won a pageant at one of these balls and they were going to crown her queen, and she took the Tiara out of their hands and says, ‘I’ve been a queen all my life. I hear hereby declare myself Empress.’ This was something that was transgressive. This was revolutionary.” Mama José was an outspoken activist for the drag community in San Francisco, whose goals for the Imperial Courts included education and cultivating a greater community sense of gay pride, identity, and unity.
The San Francisco chapter of the Imperial Court is still active today. Mama José died a few years ago, in 2013; a piece about her on the Imperial Court’s website notes that Mama José was “a proud openly gay Latino, drag queen, and one of the great iconic American pioneering political activists and leaders of the modern-day LGBT Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements, [who] gracefully and peacefully passed on from this life after a long battle with cancer at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at 7:02 AM on Monday, August 19, 2013 in his 90th year blessing this earth.”
In 1996, San Jose was the site of one of the biggest upsets in American figure skating history when Rudy Galindo became the oldest male national champion of the modern era at age 26. Galindo was also the first openly gay figure skating champion, having come out before the competition began.
Galindo was raised in a trailer home in East San Jose with his sister Laura. He began figure skating at an early age and his career took off when he began skating pairs with Fremont native Kristi Yamaguchi. As a team Galindo and Yamaguchi won three U.S. national championships. However, after 1990 Yamaguchi retired from pairs competition to focus on individual skating.
The AIDS epidemic had a major impact on Galindo’s personal and professional lives. His and Yamaguchi’s first coach, Jim Hulick, died of AIDS in 1989. In 1994, Galindo lost both his brother George and another coach Rick Inglesi to AIDS.
Despite those hardships, Galindo won the men’s singles champion title in front of a hometown crowd as the U.S. Figure Skating Championships were held at the San Jose Arena on January 20th, 1996. In the competition, he was the only male competitor to land combination triple jumps. After his performance Rudy chanted the names Jess, George, Jim, and Rick, who had all helped him to achieve the victory.
His championship defied the norms of the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Galindo later said he feared being an out skater might lower his score because of some judge’s discomfort with his identity.
In 1997, he released his autobiography Icebreaker. Proceeds from the book were donated toward funding the expansion of the San Jose Public Library’s Biblioteca Latinoamericana.
In 2000, Galindo announced he was HIV positive.
Today, he coaches figure skating at Sharks Ice in San Jose. His students include Kristi Yamaguchi’s daughter.
He was inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame in 2011 and the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2013. He has set the path for numerous LGBT and HIV-positive athletes to be themselves.
Aguilar always urged family members to celebrate holidays together. He was a founding member of The Imperial AIDS Foundation, which provided hot meals, paid rent, prescriptions, and provided transportation to medical appointments for people living with AIDS . Ray Aguilar died due to complications from AIDS in February 1995.