Speaking up About Marriage Equality

marriage equality button scaled

A diverse group of leaders in Silicon Valley in 2010 explain why they strongly believe that the civil right to marry should be extended to committed same sex couples. These leaders come from business, government, law, religion, the arts and community service organizations. Their comments can help us articulate a powerful case for changing our culture to embrace same sex marriage and to promote the healthy families that such changes will allow. The film-making group became acquainted as Senior Fellows of the American Leadership Forum in Silicon Valley, an organization dedicated to joining and strengthening leaders for the common good.

The Struggle to Gain U.S. Citizenship for Legally Married Couples

judy rickard torn apart

Long distance relationships are never easy, even when two people are in the same country. Living in different countries separated by an ocean makes it even more challenging. Prior to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, another layer of hardship existed for same sex couples because the main criteria for granting citizenship is being a married spouse, child, or relative of a U.S. citizen. Because same-sex couples couldn’t get married, bi-national couples had limited time they could stay in the other spouse’s country.

Since same-sex couples could not get married until rather recently, the issue of getting citizenship for a loving partner was always near impossible. DOMA, or the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, compounded the problem.

Judy Karin celebration
Judy Rickard and Karin Bogliolo celebrate their domestic partnership at Billy DeFrank Center

Section 3 of the law defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and a spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Thus it explicitly denied same-sex couples all benefits and recognition given to opposite-sex couples, such as Social Security survivor benefits, insurance benefits, immigration and tax filing.

Learning all these aspects of immigration law and how it discriminated against same-sex couples, San Jose native and longtime LGBTQ+ activist Judy Rickard took on the issue by lobbying federal officials locally and in Washington, D.C. She wrote a book in 2011 which shared her story and the stories of others facing this heartbreaking discrimination.

The book, Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law and published by Findhorn Press, included resources for affected couples and those who were allies. April, 2021 is the 10th anniversary of her book.

She and her wife Karin Bogliolo joined with immigration attorney Lavi Soloway to confront the injustice and seek a legal solution. Years of radio and television and newspaper interviews took the fight to the public, even while Judy and Karin were forced to be out of America to be together.

Judy Karin Lavi
Judy Rickard, attorney Lavi Soloway and Karin Bogliolo at Torn Apart book launch in Los Angeles, 2011

As the amazon.com book listing shared: “The horrors that thousands of lesbian and gay couples face are detailed in this moving political and personal story of immigration and love. As Judy and Karin’s legal battles reveal, when only one half of a gay couple is an American citizen, immigration struggles are confounded by the fact that the partners cannot legally marry in most parts of the United States.”

Publishing the book led to Judy being invited to speak on this immigration issue on a panel at the White House in March, 2013, as the DOMA case was being presented to the Supreme Court. A chance to visit President Obama in the Oval Office gave Judy a chance to remind him of the particular immigration issue she faced. Presenting on the panel one day and demonstrating outside the Supreme Court the next day with Karin, they were interviewed and pressed the message to national media outlets.

Though Judy and Karin were married in Vermont on April 6, 2011, by a Justice of the Peace, their marriage would not be federally recognized until DOMA was struck down. Nevertheless, they still met with U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials. They were lucky that their officer did not reject out of hand Judy’s application to sponsor Karin for immigration. Instead, he shelved it to be reviewed later.

Judy Karin DOMA
Judy Rickard and Karin Bogliolo demonstrated against DOMA outside the U.S. Supreme Court, March, 2013

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in United States v Windsor, ruling that DOMA was unconstitutional, thus allowing married same-sex couples the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples. The ruling meant that married same-sex bi-national couples can now sponsor spouses for immigration and receive all federal benefits other U.S. married couples receive.

When the case was settled by the Supreme Court, Judy’s application flew through the system. Karin received the first green card in California and the second in America for a same-sex spouse. Karin passed the U.S. citizenship test after three years and is now a U.S. citizen. They happily live in San Jose.

Torn Apart is out of print but available on amazon.com and used book stores.

The Debate over Marriage Recognition

city hall recognition

Read how the City of San Jose voted 17 years ago to recognize marriages of all city employees—not just straight ones—that were certified by other jurisdictions so their spouse could receive full city benefits. 

The council chambers were packed on March 9, 2004, with 103 pro- and anti-marriage residents speaking to the proposal by Mayor Ron Gonzales and Councilmember Ken Yeager. The crowd was overwhelmingly opposed. The religious right had hoped it could change minds by saying the council was acting illegally because gay marriages were not allowed in Calif. They threatened a recall against the Gonzales and Yeager. 

Read an account of the nearly four-hour meeting, as well as hear testimony from Councilmember Yeager. In the end, love won, with an 8-1 vote.

Lighting the Way

By Shawn Maxey

From OutNow, March 2004

On March 9th the San Jose City Council chamber was filled to capacity, as people turned out en masse to debate Item 3.5. If passed, the — resolution, co-authored by Mayor Ron Gonzales and City Councilmember Ken Yeager, would grant equal benefits to city employees and their spouses who had same sex marriages certified in other jurisdictions. What followed hours of impassioned comments by more than a hundred local residents was a historic vote to determine if, for the first time, San Jose would legally recognize same sex marriages.

item 3.5 memorandum
Memorandum for Item 3.5

Many who spoke in favor of the resolution said it was simply a matter of equality.

“The broader issue of gay marriage and rights is one of the key civil rights issues of our time,” said local resident Joe Pampicano. “The question is how marriage is recognized by government. The question is equal protection under the law. Councilmember Yeager and honorable Mayor, by bringing this measure forward you make me proud to be from San Jose today.”

Mark Perry echoed that sentiment.

“Are we, as a nation, going to go forth and deny rights to some of our citizens based on the prejudices of another group of citizens? How can the just thing be immoral? How can teaching ok and intolerance be moral? How are the rights of male and female couples lessened by giving those same rights to a minority class? Just as when African-Americans and the women of this country fought for the rights to vote, we now fight for equality with the rest of America.”

Others, like Rod Stone, stressed the importance of separating the religious definition of marriage from the secular.

“Let the churches keep the word marriage, just as long as my government, which is supposed to practice separation of church and state, grants me the same rights as my fellow taxpayers. My partner is a veteran of the Gulf War. He performed eight years of duty in the Marine Corps and he left highly decorated, only to find out he would be treated as a second class citizen because of his love for me.”

Opponents of Item 3.5 hold signs saying "Keep Marriage Sacred."
Opponents of Item 3.5 in the City Council Chambers

Members of the religious community who spoke were largely divided on the issue, with many voicing their support for the resolution.

Said Mary Parker Eaves, “I came today because | feel it’s important for you to know that many persons of faith, many Christians, stand in support of gay and lesbian rights including marriage, My congregation is one of many that have made an explicit statement that we welcome all. Throughout the Bible, love is the primary value. Our cultural context changes, our scientific knowledge grows—love and compassion supersede it all.”

Amidst the philosophical and religious arguments were more personal accounts of the resolution’s importance.

“My name is Don Burris, a City employee here in San Jose. 100 years ago, in 1901, my grandparents were not allowed to marry because mixed race marriages were not legal. The Baptist minister at their Church married them anyway. My grandparents were together 50 years and raised 17 children. I applaud that minister who stood up for fairness and equality. He could see that love and marriage are things that should be celebrated by all in his congregation. The chief issue is not an issue of morality or Christian values. This is a struggle for civil rights, the right for my spouse and I to be treated equally and fairly, not separately and unequal. I applaud Mayor Gonzales and Councilmember Yeager, for they believe that I, the gay employee here in the city of San Jose, should be treated equally and fairly.”

In addition to the usual religious condemnations and moral arguments cited by those who are against LGBT equality, many who opposed the resolution accused the Mayor and Councilmember Yeager of acting with reckless disregard for
the law. In particular, they charged that Item 3.5 violated Proposition 22, which passed easily in 2000 with a resounding 61% of the vote. Upon the completion of the public comments portion of the hearing, Mayor Gonzales invited City Attorney Rick Doyle to speak to that issue.

“What is before you is a motion where you are not passing on or making a decision on the validity or legality of same
sex marriages. The courts will have the final say on that, and whatever this Council says or does doesn’t impact that court decision. However, as a municipal employer, as an employer of a number of employees, you have the ability to provide benefits to your employees and determine who gets benefits and under what circumstances. It is a question of policy. So you do have the right under California law to decide what benefits you want to provide your employees and under what condition. And as such, you can determine to recognize same-sex marriage certificates that are issued by other jurisdictions.”

ken ron outnow
Ken Yeager and Ron Gonzales recognized in the April 2004 edition of OutNow

As it came time to vote on Item 3.5, Councilmember Yeager framed the resolution in a much larger context.

“I know that the only way really to change the minds of people who don’t believe in what we’re doing is when a loved one comes our to you and is gay, and that makes it a personal issue for you, you will then understand the type of love that those people have and how very important it is to recognize that love. I believe we are on the right path, I believe that San Jose has a long history of nondiscrimination and inclusiveness, and I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this resolution.”

And join him they did. In the end, Councilmember Chuck Reed, citing the illegality of same sex marriages performed in San Francisco, was the lone dissenting voice on the Council, With a few simple words and the final official vote, Councilmembers Yeager, Chavez, Gregory, LeZotte, Cortese, Chirco, Campos and Mayor Gonzales moved San Jose to the forefront of communities that are leading the fight for LGBT equality.

Mayor Gonzales: “I am going to have to ask for lights on this item. That motion passes with one no vote.”

To watch the full meeting, click here here.

Before Marriage, a Fight for Commitments

Amy Brinkman Katie Viall wedding ceremony

Same-sex couples who made lifelong commitments to each other never found the occasion printed in the pages of non-LGBTQ publications in the South Bay.

That changed on Nov. 7, 1992, when the San Jose Mercury News began publishing announcements of same-sex commitment ceremonies within the paper of record’s pages — reversing its policy of only featuring heterosexual couples.

Amy Brinkman and Kathleen Viall were the first same-sex couple to appear on the Saturday Lifestyle section’s wedding page, announcing their Sept. 12, 1992, commitment ceremony alongside a black-and-white portrait of the new brides in their wedding gowns.

Prior to dating in 1990, the two knew each other for years while working within the community; Amy worked for Santa Clara County in substance abuse services, while Kathleen ran a residential program for the AIDS Resources, Information & Services (ARIS) Foundation.

Their places of employment and address were left out of the announcement for safety and security reasons.

“It was a challenging thing for me to do, because I wasn’t out and I don’t know that I’m still out,” Amy said, referring to the fact that she is bisexual. “Katy always thought that they blurred our picture on purpose because they thought that it was a big step and didn’t want to shock people too much … but we were just happy that they changed their mind.”

According to Our Paper/Your Paper, an LGBTQ community newspaper in the South Bay, the change brought the Mercury News up to speed with similar-sized papers nationally, including the Oakland Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. By November 1992, the Washington Post was still considering the decision. The New York Times didn’t run a same-sex commitment announcement until 2002.

Amy and Kathleen’s openness about their relationship helped jumpstart conversations – even harsh, dehumanizing ones from her family – that slowly helped educate the American public, one story at a time.

These shifts started to impact laws around the country, including in Santa Clara County where officials were discussing providing domestic partner benefits.

“All these things seemed to fall into line together and push each other forward,” Amy said.

Months of pressure and protest

Reversing the heterosexual-only policy was a focused effort of several members of the local LGBT community and the South Bay Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). In addition to a letter writing and phone call campaign, organizers talked with supportive employees at the paper who could push for the change on the inside.

A Valentine’s Day protest at the Mercury News’ Ritter Park Drive office brought public attention to the policy at the start of 1992, which included GLAAD speakers, members from Queer Nation, previously denied same-sex couples and a vow renewal ceremony.

Mercury News’ then-publisher Larry Jinks defended the paper’s position, saying that “wedding announcements have always been for ceremonies sanctioned by the state.” That’s why Amy and Kathleen originally heard “no” after they first submitted their announcement on October 8, 1992.

Christine Schmidt, a South Bay GLAAD co-chair, said while Jinks’ explanation was plausible, it was wrong, citing other papers’ decisions to print same-sex announcements across the country.

“The Mercury News subscribes to an obsolete, prejudicial and unfair state law as the basis for their discrimination against lesbian and gay couples, when it is in their power to help move society in the direction of a more enlightened view of same-sex unions,” Christine said. “The Merc chooses to ignore the fact that the government won’t let us get legally married. Heterosexual couples can make that choice but right now gay and lesbian couples cannot … basically they are afraid to take a stand for fairness.”

Robert Greeley, co-chair of the South Bay GLAAD, said months of continued pressure and meetings with the publisher ultimately helped move the dial towards fairness in the Mercury News.

“To our great dismay, the more we pressed them, the more they dug in their heels,” Robert said at the time. “I was tickled to see that the Mercury News kept its promise and that our community was now fairly represented on its weddings page.”

Some readers, however, opposed the change and wrote letters to the editor expressing their disagreement: “The implication (of printing announcements) is that homosexual relationships are the equivalent both morally and legally of a marriage between a man and a woman. We believe you are wrong;” “Although you may consider yourselves enlightened, we consider your action both tasteful and an affront to our moral and religious beliefs.”

“They didn’t want anything to do with us”

merc commitment
A clipping of Amy and Kathleen’s commitment in the Nov. 7, 1992 issue of the San Jose Mercury News

That social and cultural backlash was why Robert and South Bay GLAAD sent the newlyweds a thank you and a bouquet of balloons for volunteering to publicly acknowledge their ceremony in the paper – a big step personally for Amy.

“It was scary for me. My family is very religious and ultra-right, and they rejected me because I was with Katy. They pretty much said they didn’t want anything to do with us,” Amy said. “Once I decided that I wanted to marry Katy, I was ready to it (publicly come out), because I felt like I joined that community.”

Amy said 175 coworkers, friends and community members attended their wedding at Christ the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in San Jose, a longtime supportive congregation, in a ceremony that combined traditional hymns, prayers and scripture with pagan traditions.

After the festivities, the brides headed to downtown San Jose for an evening at the Fairmont Hotel.

Kathleen’s family was very involved in the occasion, including her mother cooking a big Italian pasta meal for the reception afterwards.

Amy didn’t have the same reaction from her family. After inviting them to the ceremony, she received unsupportive, rejecting letters from her mother, brother, uncle and aunt. It wasn’t all encompassing; her sister and cousin attended the ceremony and another aunt sent a wedding present.

“I lost what I had with my parents as a result of this, but we had a really good group of friends and they were all in our ceremony,” Amy said. “They supported us 100%.”

Kathleen passed away in 2017 from complications of diabetes and heart disease. Amy lives in South San Jose, in a house Kathleen helped her purchase.

Vandalism of Gay Liberation Monument at Stanford University

Gay Liberation Statue

Content warning: discussion of homophobic violence.

Vandalism on Stanford University’s campus against “Gay Liberation” sculptures transformed the monument honoring the gay rights movement into a physical reminder of the LGBTQ community’s continued fight against hate and violence in the 1980s and 90s.

Renowned sculptor George Segal honed the life-sized, white-painted figures relaxing near a park bench facing the science and engineering quad: two women sitting, lovingly caressing each other’s hands on top of one’s thigh, while two men stand together, one clasping the other’s shoulder. 

Following the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the sculpture provided a domestic and intimate lens into LGBTQ lives, moving away from often sensationalized, over-sexualized depictions in media.

Stanford’s casting of “Gay Liberation” isn’t alone; the second casting resides in New York City in Greenwich Village, across the street from the site of Stonewall. While New York City was the original inspiration, delays from community approvals and renovations delayed its installation until June 1992.

Palo Alto became the first home to the artwork, which was completed in 1981. It was installed in Stanford’s Lomita Mall as a long-term loan in February 1984 – after San Francisco city officials decided not to accept the display at Harvey Milk Plaza, joining previous rejections from officials in Los Angeles and Harvard University because of its subject matter. 

Trepidation about its controversy proved correct; Segal’s immaculate castings only lasted two weeks, after an unidentified man struck the art with more than 40 blows from a hammer, etching out quarter-sized scars and flattening the nose of one of the female figures.

The statues were removed from campus and transported to storage the next day, but the new void was quickly filled with flowers and mourning students. 

The University’s campus overwhelmingly stood in support of the queer community, including a 200-person demonstration one week later on March 13, 1984, the same day then-California Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a bill that would have banned discrimination based on sexuality. 

Stanford enacted a university-wide ban on LGBT discrimination shortly after, joining Stanford Law School’s ban on discrimination within its admissions in 1982.

The brutal violence of the attack was a complete flip from the original inspiration behind “Gay Liberation.”

Following the incident, George Segal told the New York Times he was distressed, saying the art wasn’t meant as a political statement, but rather “a human one regarding our common humanity with homosexuals.” That ordinary subject matter – the shared human experience and aspiration of love – was a request from Peter Putnam, who originally commissioned the memorial to commemorate Stonewall’s 10th anniversary. 

Some students felt the vandalized work symbolized vulnerabilities still felt by the LGBTQ community on a national scale, especially given the school’s proximity to San Francisco and its active gay and lesbian community.

While in storage, the sculpture was renovated and eventually replaced back on the university lawn. However, it was attacked again less than a year later, after the word “AIDS” was spray-painted across the male couple. 

In May 1988, around 60 people rallied around the site where Gay Liberation formally stood, acknowledging its nearly year-long absence. Stanford students Steve Greene, Andrew Gans and Ann Chang, as well as Merry Meyers, a supporter visiting from San Diego posed as the statue’s four figures for a half hour as part of the Gay and Lesbian Awareness Week celebrating the community. After campus construction and renovation delays, the statue finally returned to Lomita Mall 20 months later in May 1989. 

gay liberation collage
May 1988 rally on the former grounds of Gay Liberation

On May 16, 1994 – a decade after the initial attack – “Gay Liberation” was yet again vandalized, this time covered in black paint and rammed with a bench. Varsity football and baseball athletes were arrested shortly after at 2 a.m., and two were charged with felony vandalism, while four others were charged with misdemeanors. Hate crimes were possible charges, as no individuals were directly harmed. 

The student athletes were sentenced to probation and community service.

Credit to Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives

Measure B in Palo Alto

palo alto 1981 headline

In the 1980s, even liberal Silicon Valley cities voted against LGBTQ+ rights.

In the mid-1970s, being openly gay often meant facing prejudices in facets of everyday life, from housing to employment. A handful of cities and counties began granting protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, in the absence of any state or federal laws. Regrettably, passage of those ordinances in places like Miami, Florida in Dade County created a backlash, leading to the rise of the Moral Majority, a conservative religious political organization, and setbacks for the emerging gay rights movement.

This is exactly what happened in Santa Clara County in June 1980, when Measure A, a countywide ordinance, and San Jose’s Measure B each failed by a three to one margin. The defeats sent a chill through the local LGBTQ+ community: Voters overwhelmingly said that LGBTQ+ residents should not have any legal protections whatsoever.

The only bright spot was Palo Alto, whose residents nearly passed the initiative—49% to 51%, compared to 30% to 70% elsewhere. Activists concluded a better approach would be to try to pass ordinances in liberal cities, thus turning the tide against the religious right.

A local group called the Palo Alto Coalition for Equal Rights (PACER) began the process in 1980 to get the city council to enact anti-discrimination policies. First, they brought it before the Palo Alto Human Rights Commission, which recommended the city council place it on the November 3, 1981 ballot. The city council agreed in a 6-3 vote.

According to a July 17, 1981 Stanford Daily article, the dissenting votes came from councilmembers Gary Fazzino, Fred Eyerly, and Anne Witherspoon.

Eyerly and Witherspoon claimed there was no compelling need for such a law in Palo Alto, the Daily later reported in October, citing that “only 100 gay individuals reported experiences of discrimination in Palo Alto, a city of 56,000 with an employment base of 100,000.”

“I think it’s a lot more widespread than the 100 who reported it,” said Rhio Hiersch, a spokesperson at the time for Stanford’s Gay People’s Union. “You have to consider gay people who don’t want to go public what the fact that they’ve had trouble because they’re gay. There are a lot of people who are undoubtedly not reporting their problems.”

The Daily also reported “Witherspoon pointed out that considerable hardship could be experienced by anyone accused of discrimination and sued for damages,” as well as shredded the proposal was “very nebulous.”

“A person could be trapped by the terms of the ordinance into an unintentional and unknowing discrimination,” she said. “Each judgement on discrimination would be very subjective. It is a very bad law that allows a person to be taken to court for discrimination when he did not intend to discriminate.”

This is what is known as a “legislative initiative.” Unlike a “voter initiative,” which gathers signatures to successfully put an ordinance on the ballot, legislative initiatives are put before the voters by the governing body. According to San Jose State University Professor Terry Christensen, this usually happens when the members don’t want to approve something outright but are willing to move the legislation along.

As gay leaders found with Measures A and B, opponents were able to organize people to attend public hearings and then to collect signatures to prevent legislation from becoming law, months before the actual campaign even began. The LGBTQ+ community had been out maneuvered and out organized.

The 1981 strategy didn’t allow opponents to take this approach, and by going straight to the ballot as opposed to a vote of adoption, Palo Alto’s measure uniquely and successfully avoided the pitfalls of previous attempts.

The November election coincided with the race for Palo Alto City Council, where 5 of 9 seats were up for election. One candidate was Doug Winslow, a gay man who served on the Palo Alto Human Rights Commission during the hearings of the proposed ordinance. At a candidates’ night before he urged support for the ordinance.

As quoted in the Lambda News, he said, in part, “I feel very strongly about this ordinance; I’m in favor of it, as well as all human rights concerns of the local government. If we don’t have legislation on the state and federal level, I think it is the responsibility of the community to protect people in something as simple as housing and employment.” He then went on to encourage other candidates to state where they stood. “I think it’s essential that we get honest answers out of people and not be too scared of controversy.”

Having helped organize the Measures A and B campaigns the previous year, many of the local bar and business owners made donations or held fundraisers. The Santa Clara Valley for Human Rights contributed $2,500 from leftover funds from the Yes on A and B campaign, and the Watergarden, a gay bathhouse in San Jose, made a substantial donation of $3,000.

Watergarden General Manager Sal Accardi said, “Palo Alto is part of our county, and the outcome of the campaign is going to affect all of us. If Palo Alto loses, the defeat will have national repercussions, especially since Palo Alto is one of the most liberal cities in the country. If Palo Alto wins, it will show that the New Right backlash is already being turned back, as the public awakes to the danger of the Moral Majority and similar groups.”

All totaled, the “Yes on B” campaign raised $20,000. Surprisingly, the opponents raised very little; The politically and religiously conservative political action committee FAMPAC and Palo Altoans Against Measure B only spent a reported $1,000.

Despite all best efforts, victory was not meant to be. On election night, Measure B went down to defeat as had so many other gay rights ordinances across the country: 58% to 42%.

Gay activists partially blame the results on low voter turnout: 36% in Nov. 1981, compared to 67% in Nov. 1980. Palo Alto held its elections in off-years, without presidential or gubernatorial contests on the ballot to drive people to the polls. Pundits speculate that the defeat was due, in part, to the low turnout of liberal-leaning voters.

Doug Winslow also lost. As a strong supporter of Measure B, he believed the turnout of more conservative voters was the explanation. Of the five contested city council seats, four were won by incumbents. To add insult to injury, the open seat was won by an opponent of the non-discrimination ordinance.

The loss in Palo Alto ended attempts to win passage of anti-discrimination ordinances at the local level. It was not yet to be, nor did it prove as a way to defeat the Moral Majority. Attention turned to states like California, where laws were passed by state legislatures but vetoed by governors. Finally in 1992, a bill was signed into law in California, thereby negating the need for municipalities to enact such protections.

The November 1981 Palo Alto election has been largely forgotten but its legacy remains: Even in liberal university cities, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is never guaranteed. Given the increasing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments that are emerging across the country, this is an important political lesson to remember: No political demographic is immune to an anti-gay backlash.

Meet Silicon Valley’s First-Out Lesbian Mayor: Laura Parmer-Lohan

laura parmer lohan swearing in

An historic first occurred in the City of San Carlos on December 14, 2020, when Councilwoman Laura Parmer-Lohan was sworn in as mayor. Although it was not reported anywhere, when she raised her hand to take the oath of office, she (surprisingly) became the first out lesbian mayor of any city in either San Mateo or Santa Clara counties.

laura parmer lohan swearing in

As to the significance of her position, Laura said, “It is an honor and a privilege to serve as mayor for my community. I think it is important for people of diverse backgrounds and life experiences to have a seat at the dais. I am proud to have requested that the Pride Flag be raised in San Carlos during my first year in office. Many community members expressed their gratitude and one shared that he had not felt welcome in the thirty years that he had lived here until that day. This is the power of representation.”

As mentioned in the introduction of the Elected Officials section of Queer Silicon Valley, there are a stunningly low number of open LGBTQ+ officials in Silicon Valley. Although there have been a handful of gay men serving on city councils, the only other lesbian was Jamie McLeod, who served in the City of Santa Clara from 2005 to 2012. Unlike Laura, Jamie was never able to become mayor during her eight years on the council, because Santa Clara elects its mayor.

That approach is an outlier; most cities in the South Bay do not directly elect their mayors. Instead, the position rotates among individual councilmembers.

Silicon Valley’s gay mayors are in cities with a rotating system: Evan Low in Campbell (2010, 2014); Rich Waterman in Campbell (2014, 2019), Chris Clark in Mountain View (2014), and Daniel Yost in Woodside (2019).

No LGBTQ+ mayor in neither Santa Clara nor San Mateo counties has been directly elected by voters.

This even dates back to John Laird, who was as one of the country’s first openly gay officials when he was served on the Santa Cruz city council from 1981 to 1989. He earned his place in history when, in 1983, he became (along with mayors in Laguna Beach and Key West) the first gay mayors ever to serve—also due to a rotating mayor system.

Maybe 2021 will become the year of lesbian elected officials. Santa Cruz welcomed its first lesbian mayor in December 2020, when Donna Meyer was selected as mayor by the council. So whereas before there were no lesbian mayors across in the three counties, now there are two.

Laura already has her eyes set on her next trailblazing goal. In January 2021, she announced her campaign for a seat on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

If successful, she would be the first lesbian in this role, joining three other elected gay county supervisors—Tom Nolan and Rich Gordon in San Mateo County, and Ken Yeager in Santa Clara—who have each served as chair or president of their respective boards.

Watch Ken Yeager interview the newly-elected Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan of San Carlos, California, in December 2020.

Oak Grove Trio

Oak Grove School Board members in conversation with Ken Yeager

The November 2020 election saw a historic “rainbow wave” of LGBTQ+ candidates running for office nationwide, but a Santa Clara County district school board took that one step further: a majority of its members are queer.`

Jorge Pacheco Jr., Carla Hernández and Beija Gonzalez will each openly serve as part of the five-member Oak Grove School Board, after the three millennials were either pulled out of the closet or “found out” while growing up queer in their Latinx, Afro-Latino and immigrant households.

The 30-, 27- and 24-year-olds primarily ran to better reflect the racial and cultural demographics of the district’s 10,000 students across 17 K-8 schools in South San Jose, but their successful campaigns also marked a shift in what it means—or doesn’t mean—to be a gay elected official.

Sexual orientation never came up in Beija nor Carla’s 2020 campaigns—a stark contract to the anti-gay rhetoric prevalent in 1992, when the first openly gay official was elected in the South Bay. At that time, some politicians even felt homosexuals deserved no legal or political standing in society.

The Oak Grove trio embodies a new generation of representation for LGBTQ+ youth. Instead of contending with homophobia in the form of housing, employment and social discrimination, students may still encounter internal turmoil at home while coming to terms with one’s sexuality, religion and culture.

That representation ensures LGBTQ+ perspectives will be heard during school board policy discussions about curriculum, educational disparities, mental health and physical wellness—all issues which disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ people.

This majority flip started with Jorge, a middle school ethnic studies and Spanish teacher, who ran in 2018 to fix the very system that failed him; he was years behind reading and writing by the 8th grade. In addition to competing against a four-year incumbent without earning any endorsements, he also met some pushback from voters who were concerned he would bring the “gay agenda” to schools.

The uncertainty of people’s reactions to his sexuality was one reason he never went canvassing alone, but defending his gay identity solidified his reason for running. He wanted to push for inclusivity policies, such as textbooks that teach LGBTQ+ history—the things no one besides queer people would advocate for—to increase understanding about the community.

Jorge was victorious at the ballot box, garnering more than half of the votes. He simultaneously become the inaugural gay and Latino, Indigenous and Asian Pacific Islander trustee—a shocking first, as Latino students account for half of the district’s enrollment.

After learning how to build coalitions and write resolutions, Jorge helped get ethnic studies courses approved for K-8th grade Oak Grove students within a year, in addition to recognizing Election Day as a district holiday and establishing a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee.

Jorge used the success, knowledge and connections he gained as a trustee to help open up the door for other LGBTQ+ candidates to follow his lead, including Beija and Carla.

Neither of the two women aspired to become school board members. However, they felt compelled to do so in order to provide a stronger voice at the table for their community, especially focusing on anti-racist and equitable work for future students.

Growing up poor at home with a single mother from Honduras, Carla’s love of reading propelled her to succeed in American society, eventually earning a full-ride to study science at the University of Pennsylvania. She later moved to San Jose to teach high school special education, in a conscious effort to live in a state with LGBTQ+ legal protections.

Before Carla ran for office, she was a successful campaign manager in 2018, but her otherwise outside political perspective initially made her nervous to serve the community the way it deserves. However, teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing struggles of students, teachers and staff first-hand diminished any reservations she had about not being good enough to craft policies for future students.

Voters agreed, and the 27-year-old pansexual Latina resoundingly defeated a one-term incumbent, earning nearly three-quarters of the votes.

Carla didn’t have an easy time coming out, once thinking her sexuality was a secret she would keep forever. She understood, however, that her perspective would be critical for students who may be having those difficult yet critical conversations, earning support through endorsements from BAYMEC and Stonewall Democrats along the way.

Unlike her educator colleagues, Beija works in tech as a data analyst, but had a background in grassroots organizing. After Mary Noel, a Black teacher and principal who served as an Oak Grove trustee for more than a decade, decided to step down, Beija didn’t see any representation for her Afro-Latino family in any of the other candidates.

The mother of two knew Noel’s shoes were big to fill, but decided to run for the board position to provide a voice for the priorities and concerns of the Oak Grove community, including her father who worked for the district. She fought for endorsements also embedded in South San Jose, securing key backing from the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, San Jose City Councilmember Sergio Jimenez and her future colleague, Jorge.

While being bisexual wasn’t a key facet of Beija’s campaign, being an openly queer elected official is a big step in countering the stigmas some people—including her parents—hold around being proud about sexual orientation.

That’s one goal of the new majority of queer board members serving the Oak Grove School District: dissipate homophobia and shame surrounding the LGBTQ+ community for future generations of students.

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