LGBTQ+ Representation in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties

Updated December 2020 to reflect recent election results

It’s hard to come up with a group that is less represented in public office than LGBTQ people. If you take Santa Clara County, for example, with 2 million people, the percent of queer people serving on elected boards is about as close to zero as you can get. There are an estimated 298 local elected offices in the county that candidates can run for (city, county, school board, community college, special districts). Currently, there are 13 out LGBTQ elected officials.

Although a handful of LGBTQ people had run for office before, Ken Yeager finally broke through the lavender ceiling in November 1992 when he won a seat on the San Jose/Evergreen Valley Community College Board. His being gay became an issue when he unsuccessfully ran for State Assembly in 1996. A homophobic undercurrent existed when he ran for San Jose City Council in 2000, but he was able to win. He ran and won a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 2006.

It took 13 years, from 1992 to 2005, to have the next two openly LGBTQ people be elected: Jamie McLeod to the Santa Clara City Council (the first lesbian) and John Lindner to the Franklin-McKinley School Board. (Note: Elections are in November of even years, but candidates take office in January of the following year. We have put the year they took office, not the year they won). From there, several people were able to be elected in at-large races for city council: Evan Low in Campbell in 2007; Rich Waterman in 2010; Chris Clark in Mountain View in 2013; and Rene Spring in Morgan Hill in 2017.

The list is shorter for school board. In addition to John Lindner, Omar Torres was elected to the Franklin-McKinley School Board in 2015 and Jorge Pacheco, Jr. to the Oak Grove School Board in 2020. Rounding out the field is Dennis Chiu to the El Camino Hospital Board and Shay Franco-Clauson appointed to the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority in 2017. Our rising LGBTQ political star Evan Low was elected to the State Assembly in 2007.

The 2020 election brought much hope for LGBTQ candidates, locally and nationally. As Michael Vargas documents in his San Jose Spotlight article (linked with the “Oak Grove Trio” story), there were 574 out LGBTQ candidates who ran across the country, with 160 being elected, many to top offices. 

In Santa Clara County, there were a record-setting 9 people elected and 3 re-elected. The 2020 Class of newly elected officials includes: John Laird (State Senate) Alex Lee (State Assembly), Anthony Becker (Santa Clara City Council), Alysa Cisneros (Sunnyvale City Council), Beija Gonzales (Oak Grove School District), Carla Hernández (Oak Grove School District), Ivan Rosales Montes (Morgan Hill Unified School District), Jesus Salazar (Burbank School District), and Omar Torres (San Jose/Evergreen Community College Board). They join Evan Low (State Assembly) and Rene Spring (Morgan Hill City Council) who were re-elected, along with Shay Franco-Clausen (Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority) and Jorge Pacheco Jr. (Oak Grove School Board) who did not face re-election.

You may have noticed that “Oak Grove School District” shows up three times. That is because an amazing thing happened in the South San Jose K-8 school district: The five-member board now has a majority of three members who identify as LGBTQ. Who are these three queer members and how did this happen? Ken Yeager interviewed them, and their zoom conversation along with Ken’s article “Oak Grove Trio” are included below.

There were great strides in San Mateo County too. Lissette Espinoza-Garnica and Michael Smith won seats on the Redwood City Council and James Coleman won a seat on the South San Francisco City Council. They join San Carlos City Councilwoman Laura Parmer-Lohan, who was elected in 2019 and appointed mayor by the council on December 14.

Alejandro Campos

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In the late 1980s, J Alejandro (Alex) Campos Vidrio was a 21-year-old gay Mexican college student at San Jose. Like most Latinos, he grew up in a homophobic community, where he found that the stigma of being gay and the stigma of HIV was widespread enough for him not to come out. One of his friends had been in a relationship with someone who tested positive for HIV, so he accompanied him to the free clinic for an HIV test.

At the time, Alex knew nothing of the disease. In a counseling session, a nurse asked him a series of questions to determine if he was at risk. Before that, Alex had not told anyone he was gay, but when the nurse asked the question, he confirmed his sexuality. Because he was gay, this put him in the high risk group for HIV, so he took the test.

Two weeks later, he arrived at the clinic alone to receive his results: he was negative. The visit was so short that he stopped the nurse from leaving the appointment to ask her how he could help his Latino community get informed about HIV and learn how to protect themselves. The nurse explained there was no program for that at the time and suggested he get involved in creating options for his community. So he began volunteering. It was there that he met nurse Esperanza Garcia Walters and nurse Maria who would assist him in spreading awareness to the Latino LGBTQ community.

Alex’s first volunteer event was at Stanford University’s Walk for AIDS. Although he was there to help, he kept a distance between himself and the leaders with HIV, still scared of attracting the stigma of HIV. The walk, and how many people participated in it, made an impact on him.

Alex began attending a meeting of gay men in the Latino community at Club St. John on Mondays. Over time, he brought condoms and pamphlets and offered HIV counseling. Outside the meetings, participants didn’t even acknowledge each other for fear of being identified as gay.

At that time, Alex began seeing a Catholic Latino. One weekend he joined him on a retreat, which emphasized that participants were in a safe environment and would be protected by their peers and a higher power. The retreat changed his worldview: He wanted that kind of space for the gay Latino community to gather.

After he returned, he approached the Billy DeFrank Center, asking to host a gay Latino community night. They quickly turned him down, saying he was too young and not serious enough. He kept trying. Through his volunteering at the clinic, Esperanza Garcia Walters invited him to have dinner at an HIV patient’s home. He became close friends with the couple, and the dinner became a weekly gathering of friends. Alex and others fixed up the house, making it brighter, more comfortable, so it felt like a safe space. They called him “Chispa,” meaning “spark,” because he made them feel more alive.

Alex continued to pass out literature and condoms, attempting to connect with his community. His efforts were met with resistance; he was kicked out of many clubs and restaurants for doing so. He attended a meeting at the Billy DeFrank Center, voicing concerns that literature wasn’t available in Spanish for the Latino community, that they had neither a safe place to congregate nor resources away from the public. The DeFrank Center finally offered him space on Monday nights. Campos made a flyer inviting folks to “come and share with us,” as a way around using stigmatizing words like “gay” or “HIV.”

For the first meeting in 1992, Alex made 25 folders with pamphlets of information, condoms, and other resources. Thirteen people showed up, beating his own expectations. Attendees asked him to hold another meeting, so he spoke to Mark and was approved. The meetings were scheduled every other Tuesday. Every person attending committed to bring one more person with them to each meeting. This was the beginning of ProLatino.

In 1998, Alex decided to step down from ProLatino in order to take care of himself. He moved to San Francisco and joined the HIV Prevention Working Group of the State of California, traveling across the state, gathering data and analyzing trends in the virus’s spread.

In 1999, Alex went on vacation to Hawaii and according to him “never left.” He attended the University of Hawaii and worked at the School of Medicine as a director of the Pre-Health Career Corps. Due to the pandemic, he has not been working since March 2020.

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One of Alejandro Campos’s proudest moments working with ProLatino came while attending a conference with the Department of Education in Hawaii in 2011. He learned about LLEGO’s (National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization) opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community and attended a workshop about retreats. The Hawaiian group cited what they learned about retreats from a San Francisco group, which they learned from a Bay Area local, who turned out to be Campos. This moment validated all the work he did through ProLatino. His ideals had spread throughout the country, even making it to Hawaii. — Alejandro Campos

Liz Burkhouse

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“I have in front of me my journal. The date is 12/21/81 at 11:54pm. I wrote, I am director of the Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center. I just got home. I can’t believe it.” Thus read Liz Burkhouse, the first paid executive director of the Billy DeFrank Center, from her journal.

Liz had attended the meeting at the Unitarian Church in downtown San Jose where over 200 people came to discuss what an LGBTQ center would look like and operate as. Liz and her friend had already been discussing starting a club for women when they heard about the possibility of the center and went to see what the meeting was about. The community raised between $4,000 and $5,000, enough to begin a hunt for a place.

Liz remembers scouting out the first center and finding the Keyes Street location, “The first center was modest to say the least. It had only two large rooms, a bathroom, and a clothes closet transformed into a ‘phone room’ for the center’s hotline. Looking back it amazes me that anyone actually went there. It was in a really run-down part of town. I used to drive around the block three or four times before I even entered the building,” she recalled in Ted Sahl’s book, From Closet to Community, “But once I walked through the door, the joy in my heart of knowing we actually had our own community center brushed away any apprehension.”

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When Liz became the executive director she worked hard to get more people involved and try to spread the work around instead of burning out folks that were working so hard on various projects and tasks. The community was already despondent from the 1980 loss of Measures A and B a year before. She felt it was vital that the community have a place to feel safe given the blatant homophobic language used by opponents of the two measures.

Liz had a clear vision for the center. “It was not going to be a bar. We wanted a center. We wanted some place where people could come and see that being gay is not a bad thing and that you can be yourself and you can be thoroughly presentable and still be gay. I felt very strongly that the center needed to be a really comfortable, welcoming place for people.”

Liz served as the executive director for six months, which was her plan to begin with, before stepping down to become vice president of the board of directors, night manager, publicity coordinator, and public relations. The center would eventually move to Park Ave, then to Stockton Ave, and then end up on The Alameda. After volunteering for 18 years at the center, Liz was burnt out and had to step away.

In her years at the Billy DeFrank Center, Liz met her various partners and her wife there. She said that now it feels like the gay bars and the center are less important to the community, but there is still a need for them. “I think there’s always going to be a need for people to go where they feel comfortable and accepted. I felt it was important to work for an organization that showed us to be who we are, which is fully functioning, diverse people who have interests all over the place. We’re not just wild, we’re not just prancing around a gay pride parade; we’re also working and contributing to the general community.”

Liz is retired and living in San Jose with her wife.

Pam Walton

Pam Walton profile

In 1989, documentarian Pam Walton released “Out in Suburbia,” a 30-minute short film about the lives of 11 lesbian women – aged 25 to 67 – living in the South Bay.

Pam, who lived in Palo Alto and Mountain View, featured friends, neighbors and other local women in one-on-one and group interviews. They discussed everything from how they knew they were gay and the difficulties of coming out, to their thoughts on religion and expectations within relationships.

Released amid the AIDS epidemic and the disbandment of the Moral Majority, “Out in Suburbia” aimed to capture the ordinary lives of these teachers, students, lawyers, activists, wives, mothers, daughters and ordinary women, beyond stereotypes and assumptions of how lesbians live and love.

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Out in Suburbia Cover

“A lot of (the feedback) was, ‘Oh, it’s shocking to see that lesbians look like regular women,’” Pam said. “That’s what we wanted to accomplish.”

Becoming a filmmaker was an act of coming out for Pam. Growing up in Los Altos Hills, she remained closeted while teaching high school English for 20 years, prior to returning to Stanford University for a master’s in film and video production in 1985.

“When I got to Stanford, I thought, ‘I’m going to come out big time,’ and decided that my thesis film would be about the women I knew in suburbia, more or less in my neighborhood,” she said, “When I would go to the gay and lesbian film festivals in San Francisco or LA, I was sort of appalled that I never saw me or my friends in the festival, so I decided to make one that showed more of my life experiences.”

The women featured on-screen were Wiggsy Sivertsen, Elizabeth Birch, Jo-Ann Birch, Marilyn Gum, Marie Ceciliani, Jackie Brown, Diane Porath, Joyce Fulton, MaryBell Wilson, Luciana Profaca and Rosemary Murphy.

Pam said “Out in Suburbia” was one of the first lesbian documetaries to come out of Stanford’s film department, where she met Ruth Carranza, her partner and associate director.

The film was awarded “Best Documentary” by the audience at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which is now known as the Frameline Film Festival, the judge’s award at the Sinking Creek Film Celebration in Nashville, and a nod from the National Council on Human Rights.

Many of Pam’s other productions also highlight LGBTQ lives, including “Family Values: An American Tragedy,” “Gay Youth,” and the aptly named, “Lesbians.” She and Ruth are still making films, most recently featuring the Fountaingrove Lodge, an LGBT retirement community in Santa Rosa, where they currently call home.

Jeff McGee AKA Kelli Collins

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Jeff was an integral part of the gay community in the 80s and 90s. His performances as Kelli Collins in innumerable drag shows raised thousands of dollars for many causes, primarily for early AIDS victims who had no financial or medical support at that time.

Jeff moved to the South Bay in 1981. It wasn’t long after arriving in San Jose that AIDS became a tragic reality for the entire community. Jeff began to attend and host fundraisers with the Imperial AIDS Foundation to help support awareness.

Before long, he found himself more deeply involved with the community and started doing drag and performing at various events at The Savoy, TD’s, Club St. John, Mac’s Club, Buck’s, and any other venue whose doors and hearts were open.

Fundraising for the AIDS victims united lesbians and gay men, and also enabled much needed financial help for so many victims of this then-misunderstood disease.

While fundraising for the Imperial AIDS Foundation, he was asked if he’d be interested in joining a group of entertainers, fundraisers, and club personalities in the South Bay community by becoming part of a group representing the Imperial Court System, a nationwide organization.

The South Bay chapter of the Imperial Court System was called the Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy (IRLM). The figureheads of the organization were called Emperors and the Empresses. Jeff accepted the nomination for Empress, and in 1990, as his stage persona Kelli Collins, was crowned Empress 20 of the Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy. 

The AIDS crisis continued, so the fundraising and the generosity of the community, both lesbian and gay alike, came together and supported the fight against discrimination, AIDS and many other issues of the day. There was a true sense of community during those times. Everyone opened their hearts and their wallets and joined forces to get done what needed to be done.

Claudia and the Savoy

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For more than twenty years Claudia Thomas was the house DJ at The Savoy, a women’s bar located in Santa Clara. In addition, during the 1990s Claudia played at several of the mobile clubs for women including the G Spot  in San Francisco and The Office in San Jose.

Claudia was always willing to lend her talents to community fundraisers and  the Gay Pride celebration.

Note: Photo taken in  1992 during a Gay Cruise on the San Francisco Bay

An Insight Into the Bar Scene With Darlene

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Known throughout the gay community for her signature “beehive” hairdo and fundraising skills, Darlene Lutz Montalbano became a member of the San Jose area LGBTQ community in 1969. She began working as a bartender for Mom and Pop, the original owners of The Savoy  (women’s bar) in 1972. Over the years she worked as a bartender at Toyon Bar, continued working for Toyon when it moved from Cupertino to The Alameda in San Jose, and then went back to Savoy for a short time in 1984. Darlene then found an opportunity to open her own bar, Dar’s Hideaway in the old Silver Fox bar in Cupertino.

Darlene was also one of the first women to be accepted into Casa de San Jose, San Jose’s gay court/fundraising organization.  Darlene was the first woman Empress of CASA. She raised a great deal of money, organized many successful picnics and other events, and brought the men and women of the gay community together.

She assisted in some capacity with CASA for years after her reign, and then worked with the IRLM (Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy, another gay court), to continue organizing events and raising money for various causes.

During the AIDS crisis in Santa Clara County, she rallied the women of the community to support individuals diagnosed with AIDS with many fundraising events, hosting spaghetti dinners, gay cruises on the San Francisco Bay, and lending any support needed.

She feels the younger LGBTQ generation doesn’t have the same opportunities these days to connect:

“The younger community doesn’t have guidance from somebody who is my age or someone who is willing to get out there and get people connected. I miss that myself. It was a joy to be able to do stuff for other people.”