The Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center
Provided by the Billy DeFrank Center
The Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center was established in 1981, and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1983: The Center has been an incubator and catalyst for new and ongoing groups and organizations, reflecting the needs of the community at the time. The Center has continued to inspire purposeful action and ensure a safe place to gather for all in our LGBTQ+ community and allies.
The Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center did not happen in a vacuum. Through the 1970s after Stonewall (1969), Santa Clara County had a healthy cluster of LGBTQ community of activists, charity, and social organizers. The Gay Liberation Front, a band of activist gay women, were fighting for our LGBTQ rights on the San Jose State campus since Stonewall. They were also connected to a network of women’s groups, businesses, and political action committees: Atlas Press & Bookstore, Sisters of Sappho, AMETHYST, and the Susan B. Anthony Democratic Club which was open to everyone and concentrated on gay and feminist issues. The Lambda Association (1974 – 1983), mainly consisted of gay men, was also doing charity work and local activism. Many of their members started or owned gay businesses: bars, restaurants, and a bathhouse were involved in coordinating drag, leather, other contests, and performances as fundraisers.
After a huge LGBTQ community meeting and brainstorming, the Billy DeFrank Center opened its doors on March 1, 1981, in a two-room storefront on 86 Keyes Street using the leftover funds from a failed campaign that left everyone depressed. Santa Clara County residents voted to repeal ordinances extending housing and employment protections to lesbians and gay men. Having a safe place, an LGBTQ Community Center, was a need at the time. And to embrace his generous and diverse spirit, the Center named itself after William Price, a popular, African American drag queen, Billy DeFrank. He loved everyone in the community and raised thousands of dollars for all the causes facing the community in the 1970s. He died in 1980, but his inclusive spirit lives on in the Center, even for our allies.
Many groups and organizations started or moved to the Billy DeFrank Center: High Tech Gays, or HTG (1983) grew enormously and continued to be a major force in initiating anti-discrimination policies in Tech Companies and successfully sued the Federal Government’s discriminative practices regarding security clearances. HTG also initiated a sub-group of High Tech Lesbians. The Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC) started in 1984, to endorse candidates which they initially did together with High Tech Gays at the Billy DeFrank Center. The Women’s Coffee House, the South Bay Leather Group (SLUG), sport teams, and many more groups and ongoing events began to blossom under the one LGBTQ roof. The Lambda Association’s phone line for referrals was transferred to the Billy DeFrank Center and survives to this today as the Billy DeFrank Resource Line. By 1986 the Billy DeFrank Center was bursting at the seams.
The Billy DeFrank Center was still growing and had to move to a larger venue to 1040 Park Avenue, San Jose. The same happened again, and the Billy DeFrank Center moved to the 10,000 square foot building at 175 Stockton Avenue in 1990.
Bigger things were able to happen at the new venue. Sisterspirit Bookstore expanded their presence, Forbidden Images Gallery curated many art exhibits, the Youth Group flourished, and the Addiction Outreach program started in 1993 which helped start local transgender group visibility: Rainbow Gender Association, Transsexual Support Group, and initiated the Silicon Valley Gender Association to meet at the Billy DeFrank Center. The Addiction Outreach program also started the Thanksgiving Day & Xmas Day potluck traditions, and worked with The Savoy women’s bar, Club St. John (a gay bar), The Watergarden (a men’s bathhouse), “Go Smoke-Free” for the Gay American Smoke Out.
Rainbow Women’s Chorus was founded in October 1996 as a project of Silicon Valley Gay Men’s Chorus – their first performance as a Chorus was at the Billy DeFrank Center. San Jose didn’t have a women’s chorus and SVGMC started the ball rolling. RWC’s first performance was as guests of SVGM C. Lavender Liquids coffee bar started, Moonstruck Library expanded, and OutLook Video (LGBTQ TV show) which started in 1987, stayed connected to the Billy DeFrank Center and is one of its programs to this day. HTG to become one of two groups, the other being Gay Bingo, that substantially supported the Center financially, and the Center continued to address HIV/AIDS issues, hosting the World AIDS Day Vigil at the Center and supporting the local Walk for AIDS.
The Center had a myriad of discussion groups and many educational and social events that also helped raise funds for the Center. More diverse groups had the space to expand: South Bay Queer and Asian, ProLatino (now Colectivo ALA), Bisexual group (now Bi+ South Bay), recovery groups, and groups for varying ages and interests developed.
The Billy DeFrank Center started expanding its outreach into the community decorating a tree for San Jose’s Christmas in the Park festival and launched its first website in 1995. The Billy DeFrank Center produced editions of Wilde Oaks (prose and poetry) and continued to produce its own newsletter since 1983 amid flourishing LGBTQ publications in the area: Our Paper Your Paper, OutNow, Entre Nous (newsmagazine for Lesbians), High Tech Gazette (High Tech Gays), Uncommon Voices (Bay Area Career Women), and Valley Views.
A New Building Again
By 1997 the Billy DeFrank Center started discussing its future. The newly built Arena near the Billy DeFrank Center was starting to impact the Center’s parking spaces (1994). Also the ongoing police harassment of gay men, and the arrests of transgender women, along Stockton Avenue (and elsewhere,) was wearing. There were four gay bars by the Billy DeFrank Center: Buck’s, Renegades, the 641 Club, and Greg’s Ballroom on Julian Street. The Billy DeFrank Center met with the Police Department and found out officers newly out of the academy were assigned to the Stockton Avenue area. As a result the Billy DeFrank Center organized a community meeting at the Center with San Jose Police Department to discuss and trouble shoot police targeting gay men and the transgender community.
A feasibility study in 1996 revealed that the LGBTQ community would support a capital campaign to move into a new facility of ‘our own’ by the year 2000, estimating $5.9 million. Under the leadership of Mayor Susan Hammer, and Councilmembers Frank Fiscalini and Ken Yeager, they were able to secure $1.8 million by the Redevelopment Agency, and Councilmember Yeager coordinated a 55-year lease at $1 a year rent.
A cluster of events converged almost at the same time. There was a fire at the Stockton Avenue facility pushing the Center to move in early 1999, to a house that had been converted into a small pre-school next to the new building at 938 The Alameda.
The Redevelopment Agency funds were used to renovate and make the new building ADA compliant. Construction, which took longer than planned, expanded over several years to complete. Also many in the community stopped visiting or utilizing the unsuitable and small temporary venue.
In 2011, California passed a law dissolving redevelopment agencies across the state. In their place, successor agencies were established to dispose of all redevelopment agency properties and distribute the proceeds to benefit school districts and other local governments.
Under the dissolution law, properties should be retained by the successor agencies if there is a pre-existing “enforceable obligation.” In the case of the DeFrank Center, the 50-year lease was a clear enforceable obligation.
In 2014, the San Jose Successor Agency staff proposed subdividing the property in order to sell the parking lot. County Supervisor Yeager worked with County staff to find a way to keep the entire property intact. County staff determined that the lease agreement included the parking lot and the entire site should be seen as part of the enforceable obligation.
On February 13, 2014, the San Jose Oversight Board for the Successor Agency agreed and voted unanimously to follow the County’s advice. The DeFrank Center property was submitted to the California Department of Finance—which gives final approval on all redevelopment property decisions—as an enforceable obligation. The Department of Finance accepted the recommendation on September 8. The San Jose Successor Agency will retain ownership of the property and continue the lease agreement with the DeFrank Center.
The Year 2000 and the Next 15 Years
On top of the delayed move into the new renovated building at 938 The Alameda, the Internet burst into popularity and people were more able to find each other for friendship, common interests, relationships, and hookups. This diminished the need for printed publications, gay bars, other businesses, and venues. Then the Dot.com crash happened in 2000, which devastated the possibility of the planned robust capital campaign for a ‘building of our own’.
During the next decade or so, the Billy DeFrank Center along with many other nonprofits were exploring new ways to diversify fundraising and grant applications. The United Way, a source for many nonprofits’ funds, changed their priorities, and eventually created their 211 Resource Telephone Line. The Billy DeFrank Center applied for funding to provide services for the community, however, with the changing government budget priorities, none of these grants were sustainable. Even the membership diminished and fewer people were engaged in the membership decision-making process. Eventually, the Billy DeFrank Center became like most other nonprofits, governed by their Board of Directors.
Despite the financial difficulties and issues with re-defining itself, the Billy DeFrank Center was still able to be the container of the Transgender Day of Remembrance each year on November 20th mourning those who have been murdered, especially Transgender women of color.
The Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center is also the birthplace for the Trans Day of Visibility in 2008, to affirm the Transgender community each year on March 31st, which was founded and coordinated for 10 years by Lance Moore. The Transwomen’s discussion group has remained since its inception in the early 1990s, a Trans Men’s Trans Masculine group now meets on a regular basis, and so does a new Non-binary group.
In the wake of Marriage Equality, June 25th, 2015, San Jose Mayor, Sam Liccardo, worked with the Billy DeFrank Center to convert one of the crosswalks, to the first of its kind in the South Bay, a Rainbow Crosswalk, on June 27th, 2016. As part of the process the Billy DeFrank Center joined The Alameda Business Association and has remained an active participant in events, such as ‘The Stroll on The Alameda’ (DeFrank is the Water Station), ‘Trick or Treat’ on The Alameda, The Rose, White & Blue Parade, & community discussions regarding safety issues & beautifying The Alameda.
This was also when people in the LGBTQ+ community wanted to meet with people in person again, and not just via the Internet. The Billy DeFrank Center took note of that and invited more organizations to the Center, started new groups and events. This gave LGBTQ’s and allies opportunities to experience being with each other. It became such a huge phenomenon that by 2016 the Center consistently had over 1,000 people attending groups, events and meetings every week.
- The Billy DeFrank Center Library had grown over time housing over 5,000 LGBTQ+ books you can borrow, a Free Cyber Center with computers donated by the David Bohnett Foundation. The Library had GAYme (game) nights, author events and art exhibits.
- The HIV Testing Site is staffed by AACI’s Hope Program at the Center
- The Vintage, senior program remains active meeting at the Center, participating as advocates for LGBT senior issues, connecting with the County Senior Agenda, Age Friendly San Jose and Sourcewise. The Center produces the Vintage eNewsletter keeping LGBT seniors informed about resources, senior issues, and social opportunities.
- Gay Bingo was renamed Rainbow Bingo incorporating not just Drag Queen Bingo, but also another night for the Dogg Pound: drag king and queen performances.
- Thanksgiving Day and Xmas Day potlucks remain as major social and fun events, as well as the newer annual New York New Year’s Eve party from 6PM – 9PM.It attracts young people who watch the Ball drop in New York at 9PM and move onto another party, while seniors who normally would stay home come out to enjoy the festivities.
- Although the Billy DeFrank Center lost its robust women’s programming over a decade ago, today the Center collaborates with a new multigenerational ‘Hey Girl, initiated by Silicon Valley Pride, is an all-inclusive women’s, transgender, non-binary of all sexual orientations collaborative. The Hey Girl business meetings organize regular social events at Play (Women’s Night at SPLASH), political discussions and Issues Forums. At the Silicon Valley Pride Festival Hey Girl has its own space for Women’s booths, a Hey Girl Stage with women performers, DJ, fashion show and more. Hey Girl also has a Coming Out, Going Out Group that meets at the Billy DeFrank Center.
- The Billy DeFrank Center collaborates regularly to organize events in the community with: Silicon Valley Pride, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Rainbow Chamber of Commerce, Further Confusion (FurCon), and BAYMEC.
- The Center also collaborates with a number of other organizations: The Peace & Justice Center, The Women’s March, March for Our Lives, Science March, Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, Asian Law Alliance, AACI, and the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs.
- The Billy DeFrank Center now has an active Advocacy Program connecting with elected officials on issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, and connecting with appropriate organizations when issues arise.
- Billy DeFrank is represented: on the Santa Clara County HIV Commission, San Jose City Senior Commission, the LGBTQ Alliance of Tech employee groups, on Advisory Boards of Sourcewise, the Children’s Discovery Museum, the Community Health Partnership, the Police Chief’s Community Advisory Board, and the Police Academy which meets at the Center.
- All the Billy DeFrank discussion groups remain active, now online, including Monday night’s GAYmer night, and Heart Space Meditation – go to www.defrank.org for details.
- The Vintage, senior program, still meets, now on Zoom with guests, discussions, and the eNewsletter continues to inform: Vintage@defrank.org
- All collaborations and connections with other organizations, advocacy and co-operative projects and events have continued Online.
- OutLook Video, a program of the Billy DeFrank Center is still producing monthly shows out in the field. Most Interns during COVID-19 will be helping produce shows, help with the updating documents and other virtual projects.
- The Billy DeFrank Center is upgrading the phone and Internet system during COVID-19.
- Due to the changes on The Alameda to better protect the building the Center is upgrading its security system, and has added the building on San Jose Police Department’s STOP program for trespassing, and had the City has replace the lights in the parking lot.
- The concrete blocks in the parking lot have been painted rainbow colors by the Evergreen Giving Tree, a group of young people quarantined together in one household. They are also raising money to help buy hand sanitizer, wipes, masks and cleaning spray for when the Center opens up again.
- The Billy DeFrank Center continues to produce its eNewsletter going out to over 6,000 people informing about Billy DeFrank updates/evcents, community events and resources, and connecting with the community during these challenging times.
- Billy DeFrank is also staying in touch with the fabulous volunteers, the life-blood of the Center.
To stay in touch, volunteer, donate, or sign-up for the monthly Billy DeFrank eNewsletter (top right corner), go to the website, www.DeFrank.org, and follow the Center on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter at billydefrank.