Supervisor Ken Yeager interviews Sera Fernando, senior management analyst in Santa Clara County’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, and Jules Chyten-Brennan, medical director of the Gender Health Center, about Santa Clara County’s efforts in ensuring healthcare for transgender, gender-non-binary and gender expansive people.
It was at the 2011 United Nations World AIDS Day that the international Getting to Zero (GTZ) program was launched with the goal of achieving zero deaths, zero new infections, and zero stigma. In 2015, Supervisor Ken Yeager worked with the county’s Public Health Director Dr. Sara Cody and community stakeholders to explore how to start such a program in Santa Clara County.
Once it was known how to create a GTZ program that suited our needs, Yeager asked the Board of Supervisors in 2016 for funding and received approval for a $6 million budget spread over four years to 2020. Yeager stated at the time that it was one of his proudest moments as an elected official.
The program has four focus areas: and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) implementation, guideline-based sexually transmitted disease (STD) and HIV screening, initiation and retention of HIV care, and reducing stigma.
One of the main elements of reducing infection is pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), an HIV prevention tool based on taking a daily medication designed to prevent HIV RNA from replicating itself in the body. Daily use of the drug can reduce the risk of getting HIV from sexual contact by virtually 100%.
PrEP is a remarkable tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS but has hurdles to implementation. Truvada, the only FDA-approved PrEP drug, costs as much as $2,000 a month. Much of the county dollars to cover the cost of the treatment for people who cannot afford it comes through Medi-Cal dollars and a federal program called 340B.
In 2017, the CDC announced that individuals with undetectable viral loads have essentially no risk of sexually transmitting HIV. This is a significant breakthrough that helps to reduce transmission.
Of the three goals of Getting to Zero, reducing stigma is the hardest to quantify and requires the most sustained effort and funding. Through collaboration with the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, the GTZ initiative supported nine mini-grantees to conduct unique projects that reduced HIV-related stigma.
The county has sponsored two extensive marketing campaigns geared to inform young Hispanic/Latino men who have sex with men about the option of PrEP. Another PrEP awareness campaign was specific to African-American residents.
By 2018, the county was halfway through the four-year program and already had seen increases of more than 50% in PrEP prescriptions compared to the baseline before the County began Getting to Zero. The initiative set a new precedent for increased County STD clinic hours and staff, greater number of healthcare workers trained on PrEP/PEP, and other public health advancements that will continue after GTZ sunsets.
Santa Clara County has come far since the early dark days of AIDS. But much work still needs to be done. The goals of Getting to Zero are within our grasp, and we must remain committed to doing everything we can to ensure that we reach them. For everyone who has been involved in this pandemic, our hearts are full of both sadness and hope.
Provided by Getting to Zero staff with Supervisor Ken Yeager
The month of June holds special meaning for many people because it is known around the world as LGBTQ Pride Month. In San Jose and Santa Clara County, the governing boards issue pride proclamations and raise the rainbow flag, usually at their first meeting in June.
Ken Yeager was the first openly gay councilmember elected to the San Jose City Council in November 2000, taking office January 1, 2001. In June 2001, Yeager asked the city manager and Mayor Ron Gonzales if he could raise the rainbow flag in front of what is now called Old City Hall on Mission Street. They both agreed.
It was the first time the Pride flag was flown there, so there was quite a media event around the flagpole. The Silicon Valley Gay Men’s Chorus sang a moving rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Like city hall before 2001, the rainbow flag had never flown at the County Government Center. That changed in June 2007 when Yeager hoisted the flag after winning election as the first openly gay member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Once again, the Silicon Valley Gay Men’s Chorus sang the national anthem.
The flag from that first event in 2001 was framed in a large glass case and hung in Yeager’s office during his time on city council, and later hung outside his door at the county building.
The rainbow flag has flown over the County Government Center during LGBTQ Pride Month every year since 2007. In fact, the rainbow flag has become such an important symbol of the values of the county that when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages in 2013 County Executive Jeff Smith agreed with Supervisor Yeager that it should fly every workday, which it did from that day forward.
On the 6th annual International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 22, 2016, the county raised the Transgender Pride Flag at the County Government Center, making it the first county in the nation to do so. Afterwards, it was decided to fly it under the rainbow flag everyday as well.
After the horrific killings in Orlando, Florida, at the Pulse Night Club, in grief and solidarity the Rainbow and Transgender Pride Flags were flown at half-staff for two days.
The pink, lavender and blue Bisexual Pride flag was raised for the first time at the Santa Clara County Government Center for the first time on September 21, 2017, as part of Bi Week of Visibility.
In 2019, a large coalition of local organizations and residents who stood united to speak out against the future opening of a Chick-fil-A at Mineta San Jose Int’l Airport (SJC) Terminal B. Unable legally reverse the contract with Chick-fil-A, Ken urged the City Council to instead fly the rainbow and transgender flags as powerful symbol signaling that San Jose is a welcoming place to visit and live. The flags would come to serve to counter the discriminatory causes supported by the company and its leadership.
On March 10, 2021, BAYMEC Community Foundation Executive Director Ken Yeager and members of BAYMEC hoisted the rainbow and transgender flags at SJC Terminal A. The flags, which are now prominently displayed in the Terminal A Baggage Claim, expand on the SJC’s commitment to providing a welcoming environment for those traveling to San Jose.
The installation of the new flag poles in Terminal doubles down on that expression of welcoming and celebration of diversity. In addition to the support of the City Council, SJC Aviation Director John Aitken and Communications Director Vicki Day were essential in showing that San Jose welcomes all LGBTQ+ travelers.
Efforts to Quarantine AIDS Patients
The early to mid-1980s was a time of widespread misinformation and hysteria about AIDS. There were public fears that AIDS could be transmitted through the air like the common cold or by mosquitoes.
Into this atmosphere stepped Lyndon LaRouche, a one-time Marxist who, by 1986, had become a far-right reactionary, calling Henry Kissinger a communist and accusing Queen Elizabeth of conspiring to get the U.S. population hooked on drugs. His followers exploited the misinformation and public fears about the AIDS epidemic to secure the 500,000 voter signatures necessary to get an initiative on the ballot.
LaRouche’s initiative appeared on the November 1986 ballot as Proposition 64. It would have allowed public health officials to make HIV testing mandatory for people thought to be infected and required public disclosure of anyone who tested positive. Further, it would have prohibited anyone with HIV from attending or teaching school, as well as restricting their ability to travel.
When Prop. 64 qualified for the ballot in June 1986, many Californians held a negative or even hostile attitude towards both the AIDS epidemic and the LGBTQ community. A Los Angeles Times poll published that summer found half of the public favored quarantining AIDS victims, and a quarter believed that “AIDS is a punishment God has given homosexuals for the way they lived.”
The South Bay fight against Prop. 64
On July 1, 1986, BAYMEC’s board voted to put the organization’s full resources into defeating Proposition 64. The South Bay’s LGBTQ community, demoralized by the passage of Measures A and B and the subsequent arrival of AIDS, gained a renewed sense of activism. The next few months would see a dramatic transformation in the community’s profile and relevance.
The statewide No on 64 campaign initially planned to open offices only in San Francisco and Los Angeles. BAYMEC board members thought this was short-sighted. They feared that the San Francisco and Los Angeles-based campaign leadership would ignore the South Bay and put little or no effort or outreach into the region. There was a lot of work to do in educating voters all over the state about the realities of the epidemic and just how dangerous and disruptive Prop. 64 would be if it were approved.
BAYMEC was eager to run the local campaign for two reasons. First, even though they were a fledgling organization, they felt they had the capabilities to run a professional campaign. Second and equally important, they believed that the South Bay needed a strong LGBTQ organization to lead all the subsequent fights they knew would surely come over the years. It would be a missed opportunity to leave no lasting legacy of progressive gay politics and coalition-building. Though originally there was no universal agreement on BAYMEC’s role by some gay activists, over time most came on board.
Wiggsy Sivertsen agreed to serve as the local No on 64 campaign chair, Paul Wysocki as finance chair, and Ken Yeager became the campaign manager for Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Wiggsy, Paul, and Rich Gordon also served on the statewide committee.
There was never any question that local campaign headquarters would be at the Billy DeFrank Center, then located on Park Ave. It was not only the hub of South Bay LGBTQ political activity in 1986, but also a landlord who was willing to rent office space for the incredibly low rate of $200 a month.
Financially, the South Bay community stepped up in a big way. State organizers only expected BAYMEC to raise $20,000. In under 14 weeks, they raised $73,000. Santa Clara County donors actually contributed more than those in the much larger San Diego County. The first fundraising letter was mailed out on July 30. The September 7 kickoff fundraiser had over 200 attendees and raised over $7,000.
The fundraising campaign was the definition of grassroots. More than 1,200 contributors wrote checks of $10, $50, or other small amounts. The average contribution was $60. There were no corporations or wealthy individuals writing big checks. Fundraisers were held at bars and nightclubs stretching from San Jose to the Peninsula to Santa Cruz and 23 house parties in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Election night victory
On election night, November 4, 1986, a large crowd of supporters watched the returns at the Billy DeFrank Center. A sense of happiness and relief mounted as it became clear that Prop 64 was going down to defeat. The people of California had listened to the No on 64 campaign’s prevailing message of reason and understanding.
The next day, BAYMEC immediately began planning a celebration. Someone had a connection to Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose so they decided to hold the event there. Rebecca Obryan organized volunteers who cooked spaghetti for approximately 200 people. Admission cost $5.
Because so many deserved to be recognized for their contributions, during the dinner Ken Yeager asked people to stand up and be acknowledged for their work on voter registration, speakers’ bureau, fundraising, house parties, and voter outreach, or as Billy DeFrank Center board members. When he asked who donated their hard-earned dollars, everyone in the cafeteria stood up. There was a roar of applause, creating a sense of community that was palpable.
The politically charged story behind San Jose’s Pride proclamation reflects the local struggle for LGBTQ rights and the community’s long fight with the Religious Right.
Although the first U.S. Pride marches and parades were held in June 1970, it wasn’t until 1975 that leaders in San Jose’s LGBTQ community asked then-Mayor Janet Gray Hayes and the city council for a Pride proclamation. It took three more years, but in February 1978, Hayes, along with Councilmembers Susie Wilson, Al Garza, and Jim Self, approved a resolution declaring the week of June 18, 1978, as Gay Pride Week in San Jose.
The resolution generated tremendous backlash among the city’s conservative Christian population, which was numerous and politically influential. Councilmember David Runyon, absent for the initial vote, called for a reconsideration of the proclamation at the Council’s March 14 meeting.
According to Ted Sahl’s 2002 book, “From Closet to Community,” the LGBTQ community made a valiant effort to mobilize support for the proclamation, with a telephone campaign and more than 200 supporters in attendance March 14. However, they were overwhelmed by the opposition. Approximately 800 Pride proclamation opponents, most from area churches, attended the meeting, and their presence was enough to convince Garza to switch his vote and rescind the proclamation.
The council, including Garza, did agree to issue a proclamation for Gay Human Rights Week, but the LGBTQ community saw it as a defeat.
The 1978 rescinding of San Jose’s Pride proclamation foreshadowed the further resurgence of the Religious Right in San Jose and Santa Clara County. Gay Pride proclamations became politically toxic. When Mayor Hayes ran for re-election that November, her campaign was confronted with a newspaper ad reading: “The recent Gay Pride Week initiated by Mayor Janet Grey Hayes is a perfect example of moral insensitivity and weak leadership.”
In 1980, the Religious Right managed to defeat two ballot measures, A and B, which would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing in the city and county. Following those defeats, it became politically dangerous for the mayor and city council to vote for a proclamation supporting a Pride celebration for years.
The full San Jose City Council did not issue a proclamation until Councilmember Ken Yeager proposed it in 2001—23 years after the first attempt to secure this city council recognition.
The situation was better at the county level. In June 1993, then-Supervisor Ron Gonzales introduced a resolution declaring a Lesbian and Gay Pride Week. Similar proclamations have been annually adopted by the Board of Supervisors since then.
Today, getting a city proclamation for an LGBTQ event generates no more controversy than any other cultural celebration in San Jose’s diverse community. It wasn’t always the case, and it’s a reminder not to take such things for granted. What is now routine was once unthinkable, and as long as members of the community stay engaged and committed, we will continue moving forward.