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.
Aejaie Franciscus’s story starts with a letter to Santa Claus at five years old, “I asked Santa, to make me a little girl for Christmas, as I was born a boy. To say the least, that present wasn’t under the tree, but it did set me on my life’s journey,” she recalled.
She endured bullying throughout high school and, with the support of her family, finished her transition before heading off to college in 1982. She moved to San Jose in 2004 and met her husband, Tony. The couple married during the “Summer of Love” in 2008.
“Other than the drag queens, people did not see much of this community. It was an underground community. It wasn’t until the last ten years that folks were seeing transgender folks in the LGBTQ community even,” Aejaie remembered, “I think it was about three years ago that the community saw representation at Pride events.”
Aejaie worked in the nonprofit arena for 20 years before being hired as the first transgender executive director of the Billy DeFrank Center. In an article from the Bay Area reporter, Aejaie mentioned that she was excited to start working, “This job offered me an opportunity to bring my personal life and professional life together. It’s like a coming out party.” This was the first job where she was able to speak about being transgender safely. She served as director from 2005 to 2008, during which time she spearheaded a HIV rapid testing program and worked with local schools to support kids dealing with homophobia.
Aejaie now owns the Carla’s Social Club, a space for transgender people to find resources for transitioning and get support among other transgender people.
“It will be interesting to see what happens once we come out of the pandemic, because the work we do is so social and interactive. We had events and discussion groups activities at Carla’s Salon that are online, but are more effective in person,” she explained about the local impact of the global COVID-19 crisis. “Other than discussion groups online, and anything else we can move online, there’s only so much social activity you can do. It’s hard to help girls pick out clothes online, you need to see someone in person to help them put together outfits. You need to see someone in person to give them a hug for support.”
In 1985, it was unsafe to be trans in public. As a response, private salons were opened for people in the community to dress as their true selves. Carla’s Salon opened in 1985 by Carla Blair, a heterosexual woman. Those who attended would have a private place to explore their gender identity. It was a combination tearoom, beauty salon, boutique, and social center that became popular worldwide within the transgender community.
“In 1985, the word ‘transgender’ had not gotten into the lexicon yet. Honestly, we use that word loosely now, but it was the transsexual community at the time,” Aejaie Franciscus remembered about the time Carla’s Salon was founded. “This was happening in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, yet people didn’t understand the gay community or the AIDS epidemic. When you introduce the idea of someone wanting to change their sex, they really didn’t understand that.”
In 2010, Aejaie Franciscus and her husband took over the Carla’s Salon from founder Carla Blair. Carla approached Aejaie one day and suggested the idea, and after some convincing Aejaie accepted. The name changed from Carla’s Salon to Carla’s Social Club.
Aejaie has noticed a change in clientele over the years. As people have become more comfortable with presenting in public, there’s less need for haircuts and make up, and more need for socialization and support. Carla’s is a great resource for finding doctors as well. People participating in the salon need help at every level of transition.
“I have been on the fringes of cross-dressing for a number of years now,” said one reviewer about Carla’s on their website. “Recently I decided to go deeper. I decided to have a makeover to see what I would look like as a woman. Aejaie could not have been more patient, supportive as well as doing an excellent job making me up and describing what she was doing and why. It is so comforting to know that I am not on this journey alone. Thank you so much Aejaie.”
Membership at Carla’s is around 200 people, including 70 active locker members and people who come from all over the world to attend events. “There are a lot of people you could talk to from over the years that would say Carla’s was a life saver; it was a great resource. Whether it be through me, or someone else, that that’s where they found their family and place,” Aejaie said.
As of 2020, Carla’s is still in operation, continuing to offer members locker rentals and a safe space for those to spend the day en femme. The services and memberships are listed on their website, Carlas.com.
While activists and politicians continue to advocate for transgender rights across the country, people who are transgender, non-binary and gender diverse in the South Bay never have had specialized access to healthcare for years.
Santa Clara County established the Gender Health Center in November 2018—the first of its kind in the nation. The need for the health center came after then-President of the Board of Supervisors Ken Yeager called for a health assessment of the LGBTQ+ community in his January 2013 State of the County address. Not surprising, the report found that 28% of transgender, gender non-binary, and gender expansive people had experienced healthcare discrimination, while 38% were unable to access medical care at all.
Part of the second largest county-owned health and hospital system in the state of California, it was the first all-ages clinic dedicated to LGBTQ-centered medical, mental and emotional health care, including social work. By having the ability to partner with institutions across the county system, more comprehensive care can be readily provided for needs like transitioning, which often requires physical, mental and emotional support.
This unique opportunity within a public health system is why Jules Chyten-Brennan, the center’s medical director, moved from New York City to guide the center’s work two years ago. They said concerns ranging from hormones and loneliness to unsupportive families and unstable employment environments are more easily addressed when hosting services under one roof.
“The center is not just giving people hormones and doing those things which are essential,” they said, “It’s really seeing someone as a whole person, and being able to reach across those different departments to treat someone like a whole person.”
The need for the Gender Health Center was clear.
When Sera Fernando, a senior management analyst in the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, first came out as transgender, she had to travel to Santa Cruz or San Francisco monthly to find resources like a therapist and treatment.
When options finally became accessible in San Jose, she said those resources allowed her to live more authentically and create community in the place she was born and raised.
The specified care expanded beyond the Gender Health Center. Since LGBTQ folks comprise nearly one-third of homeless youth and young adults under the age of 25 and 10% of homeless adults, a separate, federally funded Gender Clinic within the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program was also started to offer a one-stop approach where people can access a primary care doctor, mental health support and housing assessments.
Being the first in the nation doesn’t mean the work stops to address gaps still present in healthcare. While 2019 solidified work in areas like primary care and surgery options, Jules said they staff will start offering services like speech therapy and electrolysis in the coming months, as well as partnering with community support groups.
“I think (those additions are) rare to have in a clinic in general, and will be such a huge door opened for a lot of our community,” they said. “We know so much of our health is not what happens in the clinic, but it’s community connection, finding those other supports that bring joy to our lives.”
On the 6th annual International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 22, 2016, the county raised the Transgender Pride Flag at the County Government Center, making it the first county in the nation to do so. Afterwards, it was decided to fly it under the rainbow flag everyday as well. Read more about Pride flags in Santa Clara County