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.”

liz burkhouse billy defrank

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.

Out in Suburbia cover
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

Kelli Collins 1

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

darlene lutz profile

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.”