“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.”
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.