Cupertino elected its first LGBTQ+ councilmember in 2022, but it wasn’t easy. Winning took a lot of thick skin to withstand the high level of homophobia prevalent in the campaign.
J.R. Fruen, 43, an attorney, and third generation Cupertino resident, ran for a seat on the city council to evoke policy change in the city he loves and pave the way for future LGBTQ+ candidates.
“It’s always difficult to be the first,” he said. “The campaign was fundamentally about progress.”
Fruen said it would’ve been even harder to be elected if State Assemblymember Evan Low or prior Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager hadn’t been. He is proud of the Cupertino City Council passing a resolution supporting Low’s amendment to repeal Proposition 8, which added language to the state’s Constitution stating that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.
“We managed to pass it unanimously,” he said, “which I don’t think would’ve been so easily achieved if I hadn’t been there.”
Fruen also ran for city council in 2020, despite his concern Cupertino wasn’t ready for an openly gay councilmember.
“We never really had an open and honest conversation about same-sex couples in the community,” he said. “There are a lot of people who exhibit significant hostility toward the gay community. Even if they don’t say it openly, it’s under the surface. You see it in a number of positions that they take on other social issues.”
Fruen started his involvement in politics in 2016, with a campaign to defeat Measure C, Cupertino Citizens’ Sensible Growth Initiative. The measure aimed to amend Cupertino’s General Plan to limit redevelopment of the Vallco Shopping District and restrict lots for large projects.
“Measure C threatened Cupertino’s housing element and would have required a public vote anytime there was a General Plan amendment,” Fruen said, “which seemed a recipe for never updating it.”
Working successfully against the measure, Fruen found he was an effective advocate. In 2019, he formed Cupertino for All, a nonprofit policy advocacy supporting housing for all income levels and racially integrated communities. It also advocated in support of the LGBTQ+ community, resulting in the city council approving a rainbow crosswalk.
Unfortunately, while campaigning and in office, Fruen faced challenges regarding his sexual orientation along with his position on policy issues.
He was disheartened to be told not to prominently display intimacy with his husband, Clifton “Kal” Der Bing, in a promo ad for his 2020 campaign in which Der Bing kissed him goodbye on the forehead.
During the 2020 Cupertino City Council race, Mayor Steven Scharf, who was running for re-election, made a rainbow-colored lawn sign for his campaign. Fruen felt Scharf did that in response to Fruen helping high school students install an affirming rainbow crosswalk near Cupertino High School across Stevens Creek Boulevard.
“I think Scharf perceived my involvement in trying to make that happen as a purely political stunt in support of a run for council, and not a genuine attempt to try to make something better for the kids and the rest of the community,” Fruen said.
When Fruen ran in 2022, he was attacked on social media for having students distribute campaign literature, implying he was a pedophile. City Councilmember Kitty Moore said he shouldn’t contribute to conversations on school closures as he didn’t have children. Fruen said this jab was painful as he would like to have children and having grown up going to Cupertino schools, they matter deeply to him.
“It made me like feel my concerns in 2020 were correct,” he said. “That maybe the city wasn’t ready for a gay councilmember and that people really aren’t as open as they think or claim to be.”
Then, the weekend before the 2022 election, the Pride flag and American flag at St. Jude’s Episcopal church were pulled down and buried with sticks and stones. Nearby, Fruen’s campaign signs were uprooted and thrown askew.
“I have a really hard time believing that those two things were unrelated,” he said, “because it was only my signs that were being tossed.”
The vandalism hit home especially hard for both Fruen and Der Bing—who have been together since 2011—since they attend St. Jude’s. It is also where they had their wedding ceremony in 2021.
But despite these challenges, Fruen persevered. In the November 2022 election, Cupertino, where council candidates run citywide, had three seats on the ballot. Eight candidates ran. Fruen received the third most votes, securing his victory.
“It takes a certain degree of fire inside to be willing to put up with it,” he said, reflecting on his hard-fought campaign. “It has to really matter to you.”
Housing policy was a major focus of his campaign. Fruen is in favor of densifying more transit-oriented parts of town, making them more bikeable and walkable, with retail close to where people live. He is proud of stabilizing the relationship between staff and council, which he said has been toxic for years.
His future goals include ambitious housing elements and updating the city’s General Plan to make Cupertino an affordable and enjoyable place to live.
“If we plan well, we can get interesting spaces that make us like where we live even more,” he said, “That makes us feel more connected to them and to each other.”
Fruen plans to run for re-election after his term ends in December 2026. He is fulfilled with his work on the city council, making policy decisions that impact the city and aid in providing services to its residents. In addition, he is proud of the strides he’s made for the LGBTQ+ community.
“It certainly makes it easier for the people who come after me,” he said. “It says you can do it, too. Representation matters.”
As to where the initials J.R. come from, his given name is Joseph Ryan. As he tells it, there are two parts to the story. When he was going up, his family—like most of America—watched the television show Dallas. A family friend adored it and started calling him J.R., after the chief protagonist, J.R. Ewing. It used to drive Fruen “bonkers.” When he heard the theme song at 8 pm, he knew it was time to go to bed.
Years later when he was working in a law office there were three attorneys all named Joseph. Clients would call asking for “Joseph,” and they had to go around asking each one if the call was for them. Resigned, Fruen said, “ok, that’s it. I’m fine. I’m J.R. from now on.”
As to including periods, Fruen prefers them, lest people think the letters are short for “Junior.”