Fred Ferrer – former CEO of The Health Trust and now CEO of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley – talks about how he dealt with homophobia with his family, Santa Clara University and his career.
Frederick Ferrer grew up in Marin County, just twenty minutes outside of San Francisco, but to him the gay world felt “millions of miles away.” He knew he was gay as early as kindergarten, but it was the era of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t even think about it.’
Although Ferrer was unable to fully be himself growing up, he felt surrounded by love. “I learned to love from my family, from my church and from my government, but I also learned how to hate from those three places as well. I experienced this notion that it wasn’t even okay to think you were going to be gay.”
In 1976, Ferrer left his Catholic Mexican family home life for a Catholic institution to pursue an undergraduate degree at Santa Clara University. He partied hard and studied harder to fit in, but noticed other queer men were missing from the social gatherings he frequented. They spent their days off making secret trips to San Francisco; their classmates oblivious as to what they were doing. Ferrer remained in the closet.
He went on to grad school at San Jose State to study to be a therapist. There, he worked with students who were coming out. But Ferrer felt emotionally unequipped to guide others on the journey he himself had not yet taken, and ultimately switched career paths. “I didn’t stay as a therapist because there was just too much internal pain, and I really wasn’t going to be a good therapist to somebody else if I couldn’t deal with this stuff myself.”
Instead, he entered the nonprofit world and began working with low-income Latino families in the early childhood care system, drawing on his education in child development. Though he was still not out at the time, colleagues often assumed Ferrer was gay, but he did not confirm it. Still, the support from those around him, which included out gay executives, made him feel welcome in the valley as an advocate and leader who served on nonprofit boards.
While he was growing more comfortable with this identity in his professional life, it wasn’t until tragedy struck in his early thirties that Ferrer began to reckon with his struggle to come out to his family. When his mother died of cancer at age 54, he knew it was time to come out, and he entered therapy to help him do so. “It really helped me come to grips with who I was, what I wanted to do, and what I was doing that wasn’t helpful to my personal and spiritual growth as a gay man.”
Ferrer’s father’s reaction to his being gay was as he always expected: He immediately began seeing his son through the lens of demonizing stereotypes. With his family situation rocky, Ferrer missed a few years of family events and tried to make up for lost time by socializing in the bars of San Francisco and San Jose. “It was like I was celebrating my twenties all over again.”
Coming out in the nineties brought its own challenge. Ferrer lost many high school and college friends to HIV. “I was going through all kinds of turmoil with dealing with the death of my mom, the aftermath of dealing with my father, and then dealing with this incredibly sad pain of losing high school and college gay friends to HIV and not having anyone to share that with.”
Despite that trauma and isolation, after he came out, he began advocating for LGBTQ-inclusion in early childhood settings. He taught a curriculum called: Makng Room in the Circle to help involve LGBTQ+ parents. Ferrer pushed on with his LGBTQ advocacy. As vice chair of the Santa Clara County United Way board in 1992, he led efforts to defund the Boy Scouts because the local chapter would not sign a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation. This debate led to conducting a needs assessment of the LGBTQ community and the ultimate funding of programs like the Billy DeFrank Center.
His work with the United Way showed him the power of putting money where your mouth is and walking the talk when it comes to fighting discrimination.
When Ferrer entered his new role of CEO of The Health Trust 1987, he was upfront about being gay from the start. He ensured HIV services were a top priority, and transformed and expanded the programs based on the best practices and highest standards of care. He upgraded the food baskets that HIV-positive clients were given, allowing them to choose products themselves from stores like they would if they ahopped at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. “I was able to have Michelin star chefs come in and do cooking projects with us. It was great.” Later he would co-chair a county-wide LGBTQ+ Health Assessment that would also lead to funding LGBTQ programs.
Ferrer’s identity remains deeply intertwined with his work in the nonprofit sector, being it was the first safe community he found after experiencing a homophobic culture in college.
In 1995, Santa Clara University graduates wanted to form an LGBTQ alumni group, but the school prohibited it, thinking it would somehow be approving of homosexuality. It brought back memories of the pit Ferrer had in his stomach during his four years of undergraduate enrollment. “It brought back all of the homophobia that existed when I was a student and why it wouldn’t have made sense for me to come out. It also inspired me to make a difference and to work in the world of nonprofits.”
In 2014, then president Father Michael Engh invited Ferrer to chair a Presidential Blue Ribbon Task force on Diversity and Inclusion at the school. “To have a gay latino man come back as the chair of the presidential commission, I think it showed how far the university has come.”
In 2010, the university established the Rainbow Resource Center. Ferrer now serves as a mentor at the Rainbow Center, working with young gay undergrads who share similar backgrounds. “I see the power of mentorship and the power of having the university recognizing you, and giving you a place to fit in and find like-minded people so that you can continue to develop in ways that may not be normative but in ways that you become more authentic.”
Today, in his role as CEO of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, Ferrer advocates for the LGBTQ+ children in the foster care system, who make up a disproportionate part of the population. He is grateful for the opportunities he has had to work with children, given that one of the biggest arguments against gay marriage concerned children and their development.
Over his lifetime, Ferrer has seen Santa Clara University grow from a place where he had to remain closeted to an institution that seeks out his queer leadership. In 2014, Ferrer was granted an honorary degree from Santa Clara University for Public Service, the first gay man to ever receive this prestigous award. He saw HIV begin as a death sentence that ostracized the gay community further, and later become a chronic health condition that has lost much of the heavy stigma it used to carry.
“I keep thinking what are the ways that we, as a community, can come together to end the kind of discrimination, homophobia, and now transphobia that exists and then work to change it. I know we will have a better community when those things no longer exist it.”