Kathy Wolfe

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PIONEER OF LGBTQ+ VISIBILITY

Kathy Wolfe, Founder and CEO of Wolfe Video, remembers a time when movies about our LGBTQ lives were not readily available through multiple media outlets. 

Today’s LGBTQ+ younger community may not know that Kathy played a vital role in kickstarting the visibility of our community in media today.

But before the World Wide Web, Netflix, smart phones, Ellen DeGeneres, The L Word, and all the programming we take for granted today, Kathy Wolfe had a vision and took action. 

In 1979, Kathy Wolfe saw the powerful documentary Word is Out at the Frameline Film Festival. “I was completely inspired by seeing that film,” remembers Kathy. “I immediately grasped the importance of bringing our stories to the public.” 

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The iconic Wolfe Video logo

For the next several years, Kathy honed her skills in producing, directing and editing lesbian documentaries, including The Changer and the Changed, an early history of Olivia Records. But she soon realized the need for distribution channels so that these movies could be seen outside of film festivals. 

The technology of the day was VHS, so in 1985 Kathy formed a new company, Wolfe Video. Initially, Wolfe sold tapes directly to lesbians, many of whom were closeted and had no other way to see these movies. 

From the outset, however, Kathy’s ultimate goal was wider than mail order. She wanted to spur acceptance of our community by getting these titles seen by both gay and straight audiences. 

She worked tirelessly to overcome the almost automatic perception by homophobic wholesalers that lesbian and gay movies equal pornography. She made bold moves, such as cold-calling Lily Tomlin and asking to produce and distribute a VHS of The Search for Signs of  Intelligent Life in the Universe. This created a breakthrough into the giant mainstream video rental market. 

Another bold move was acquiring the hit movie Big Eden, getting it rated PG (a first), and producing it as a double DVD (another first). 

A continuing challenge has been keeping up with the very rapidly changing technology, but Kathy has adapted. Besides adding Blu-ray as a format for physical sales, in 2012 she launched WolfeOnDemand.com, the first digital LGBTQ platform. She also licenses Wolfe films to streaming outlets all over the world. 

Ironically, large companies such as Netflix are now both customers and competitors of Wolfe’s for quality LGBTQ films. Kathy is philosophical about this. “These days our films can be streamed all over the world or purchased on DVD for guaranteed rewatching. I take pride in knowing we helped make a difference for our community. We now see ourselves – and are seen – in a much truer light.”

Both the LGBTQ and mainstream community recognize her impact and Kathy has received multiple awards over the years including: Cinequest’s “Maverick Spirit Award;” NCLR’s “Community Partner Award;” the San Francisco Board of Supervisors “Certificate of Honor,” and the National Organization of Women’s “Excellence in Media Award.”

Read more about Kathy’s story here. 

Please visit WolfeVideo.com and WolfeOnDemand.com to see a huge selection of LGBTQ movies. 

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The “Wolfe Pack” in 2002

Wiggsy Sivertsen

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Born Aimee Devereaux Sivertsen in Southern California, she has gone by Wiggsy since early childhood, after her sister mispronounced “wiggles” to describe her rambunctiousness. She graduated from San Jose State University in 1962, and later received a master’s degree in social work from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Wiggsy’s career as an activist and community leader began after she was outed and then fired while working as a counselor at the Peninsula Children’s Center in Palo Alto. This traumatizing event would later push her to get involved with community organizing.She had already been working part-time at San Jose State’s counseling center so she was able to join the university’s staff full time in 1968. She was SJSU’s first openly gay employee.

While Wiggsy was out at San Jose State, she was not active politically until 1977 when State Senator John Briggs authored an initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. She took an active part in the campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative, which was on the November 1978 ballot as Proposition 6, making appearances on both radio and television.

As a result of the Briggs Initiative, Wiggsy’s public profile began to steadily rise. Over the next two decades she would become one of the most visible members of the Silicon Valley’s LGBTQ community.

One night in the summer of 1984 at the Toyon bar in San Jose, Wiggsy and Ken Yeager talked about the need for an LGBTQ political group. The two of them devised the outlines of a regional LGBTQ political action committee focused on Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties. The committee would eventually be known as the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC), modeled after a similar organization in Southern California known as the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA).

Wiggsy heavily shaped how BAYMEC operated. She helped prepare their initial budget, was one of the signers of the first checks, and the architect of their endorsement policy for political candidates.

As a professor and counselor at San Jose State University, she campaigned against ROTC programs on campus because of the Defense Department’s discriminatory policies toward lesbians and gays. She was active in other ways on campus, too, including as a faculty advisor to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and the Women’s Center. It was in these roles she counseled hundreds of students in the coming out process.

Wiggsy has been a tireless advocate, teaching classes to San Jose police officers about LGBTQ lifestyles, fighting for more programs for those who experienced domestic violence, advocating for LGBTQ seniors, being president of the California Faculty Union, and serving on the county’s Commission on the Status of Women, the Senior Commission, and the Human Rights Commission, to name a few. In 1988, she began teaching a sociology class at SJSU on gay and lesbian issues. In 1994, the university would establish a scholarship in her honor that focused on students who worked to support LGBTQ rights.

In short, there hasn’t been a single human rights issue that she hasn’t been involved in for the last half century.

Amy Caffrey

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Amy Caffrey’s father was in the military so she grew up moving around the country, but eventually settled in Virginia. She remembers growing up in Virginia as “a terrible place to come out. They’re still fighting the Civil War. I was dating a black woman and that really didn’t go well.” After doing research to find safer areas to live as a lesbian, she landed on moving to California and moved to San Jose in 1982.

A strong lesbian and women community existed at this time but they needed somewhere to meet. Amy had been collaborating with students at SJSU around the time that Sisterspirit was being born. “One of the reasons why Mary contacted me was due to my work at the San Jose State radio program, which I worked on with Kathy Carter. We played women’s music, which was a different type of music in the world at that time.” From there she met the other women and formed Sisterspirit alongside them.

Amy works in counseling, focusing on the LGBTQ community, and teaches at SJSU now. She advocates to have more conversations about same sex domestic violence and works with LGBTQ youth at SJSU to help them find community. Noticing that students come to her to try to find community, that it is not easy to get into groups, or it feels exclusive and not as open to everyone as it was previously. Amy does what she can to help guide them into the organizations she knows are still operating.

Reflecting on her time in San Jose, Amy said in a recent interview, “I’ve been here 37 years, which is cool because I’ve been with my partner for 36 of those, and it’s very cool that we still like each other. What’s interesting to me is that it’s a long time, but I’m not sure how much actually happened during that time in terms of progress. We have a lot further to go but how do you really get people interested again in fighting for rights when they think they already have them?”

Nikki Nichols

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Rosalie Nichols, who went by Nikki, was born in Sacramento and came to San Jose after attending Sacramento and San Francisco State Universities.

In 1975, she and her partner Johnie Staggs opened Ms. Atlas Press, a bookstore and publisher, on West San Fernando Street near downtown San Jose. It carried books and magazines by LGBTQ authors, and focused on the LGBTQ community. It also served as a social hub for the community at a time when there were not a lot of public gathering places for LGBTQ people in the South Bay besides bars.

Ms. Atlas Press also published the literary quarterly Lesbian Voices, which contained short stories, poetry, and essays. It had readers both across the United States as well as overseas.

Nikki became more active in LGBTQ politics in 1977 when she served as treasurer for the effort to defeat Proposition 6, otherwise known as the Briggs Initiative. In 1979, she was one of the founding members of San Jose’s Susan B. Anthony Democratic Club. As co-chair of that club she addressed the meeting of the California Democratic Party’s Executive Committee that was held in San Jose in July 1979.

Nikki and Johnie were also contributors to the pioneering South Bay LGBTQ newspaper Lambda News. Following disagreements with the paper’s publisher, she, Johnie and several others founded Our Paper in 1982. Lambda News would fold in 1983 but Our Paper continued regular publication until 1995.

She received a commendation from Santa Clara County’s Human Relations Commission in 1984. That same year she would become one of the first board members of BAYMEC.

Johnie Staggs

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After moving to San Jose from rural Oroville in 1974, Johnie Staggs was emboldened with a vision for liberation. Together with Rosalie ‘Nikki’ Nichols, Lesbian Voices was founded that year as a quarterly journal for feminist-lesbians. Complementing Lesbian Voices was Ms. Atlas Press, which was established by them. It would later become the largest gay print shop and contribute to the publication of many of Silicon Valley’s gay newspapers. In 1976, Johnie became an avid volunteer at the newly formed Lambda News, which was the first gay newspaper in Silicon Valley.

The press wasn’t Johnie’s sole passion, however. Due to rising threat of the Briggs Initiative in 1977, she became heavily involved with local gay politics, with her work with the Santa Clara Valley Coalition for Human Right. The coalition was an organization primarily dedicated to the plight of the LGBTQ community and combating efforts to criminalize or discriminate against it. Johnie’s work helped to organize its first press conference in September 1977. However, after the temporary stop to the Briggs Initiative, the coalition lost momentum of its support for gay issues. Meanwhile, Johnie had continued to network with and establish groups like the Sisters of Sappha and the Susan B. Anthony Democratic Club.

By February 1978, the controversy over the recognition of Gay Pride Week in San Jose was all the rage. Johnie was instrumental in advocating for the resolution by organizing an overnight protest that gathered over a hundred people. After both mayoral candidate switched their votes against recognition, the gay community was caught in a dilemma whom to support. Since Johnie’s organizing and work was well known, community groups expressed their support for her and Sal Accardi (co-owner and founder of the Watergarden) to run for mayor and city councilmember respectively. Their write-in campaign was unsuccessful, but it was a significant step towards LGBTQ participation in electoral politics in Silicon Valley.

Despite the defeat of the Briggs Initiative in November 1978, there was an overwhelming presence of opposition towards the LGBTQ community with the rise of the Moral Majority and religious fundamentalists. Due to her previous work within the community, Johnie was thrust into the position of campaign manager for both the county-level Measure A and San Jose’s Measure B. While the campaign was wrought with a lack of funds and support, Johnie was credited with holding it together and upholding what was left of the opposition to the religious right.

The defeat of Measures A and B were incredibly devastating, with Johnie declaring her retirement from politics right after the election. For the community at large and those personally involved in the campaign, the loss was innumerable. Seeking a reprieve from those traumatizing events, Johnie went back to publishing Lesbian Voices with Nikki in 1980. In spite of her so-called retirement, Johnie would be elected to the State Democratic Party Executive Committee in December 1980.

After leaving Lambda News in 1982, Johnie remained involved in the gay press through the creation of Our Paper/Your Paper. She would continue her work in the newspaper until 1985, when she began a brief six-month publication of her own paper X-tra X-tra. Johnie would then retire from the press after 20 years, and moved away from San Jose with her partner Teri Espy that year.

Ms. Atlas Press (1975-1995)

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Founded in July 1975 by Johnie Staggs and Rosalie Nichols, Ms. Atlas Press opened as a commercial printing operation and bookstore in downtown San Jose at 53 West San Fernando.

In addition, Johnie and Nikki wrote and published Lesbian Voices, a literary quarterly containing short stories, poetry, and essays that was internationally distributed as far as Egypt, Northern Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, and New Zealand. They also worked with Dan Relic to produce Lambda News, a local gay newspaper. When Lambda News started to falter, they created Our Paper, Your Paper, a local gay paper that also included important national news for the community. 

Ms. Atlas Press was the official printer for the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and both Johnie and Nikki were deeply involved in the struggle for gay rights through the existing political process.

Lesbian Voices (1974-1978, 1980-1981)

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Established by the San Jose group Sisters of Sappha in 1974, Lesbian Voices was the preeminent feminist lesbian quarterly in Silicon Valley. Publication was suspended in 1978, as owners Johnie Staggs and Rosalie ‘Nikki’ Nichols redirected their efforts towards a self-described political fight against fundamentalists. In 1980, Lesbian Voices would resume publication for one year before permanently ending.

Claudia and the Savoy

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For more than twenty years Claudia Thomas was the house DJ at The Savoy, a women’s bar located in Santa Clara. In addition, during the 1990s Claudia played at several of the mobile clubs for women including the G Spot  in San Francisco and The Office in San Jose.

Claudia was always willing to lend her talents to community fundraisers and  the Gay Pride celebration.

Note: Photo taken in  1992 during a Gay Cruise on the San Francisco Bay

An Insight Into the Bar Scene With Darlene

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Known throughout the gay community for her signature “beehive” hairdo and fundraising skills, Darlene Lutz Montalbano became a member of the San Jose area LGBTQ community in 1969. She began working as a bartender for Mom and Pop, the original owners of The Savoy  (women’s bar) in 1972. Over the years she worked as a bartender at Toyon Bar, continued working for Toyon when it moved from Cupertino to The Alameda in San Jose, and then went back to Savoy for a short time in 1984. Darlene then found an opportunity to open her own bar, Dar’s Hideaway in the old Silver Fox bar in Cupertino.

Darlene was also one of the first women to be accepted into Casa de San Jose, San Jose’s gay court/fundraising organization.  Darlene was the first woman Empress of CASA. She raised a great deal of money, organized many successful picnics and other events, and brought the men and women of the gay community together.

She assisted in some capacity with CASA for years after her reign, and then worked with the IRLM (Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy, another gay court), to continue organizing events and raising money for various causes.

During the AIDS crisis in Santa Clara County, she rallied the women of the community to support individuals diagnosed with AIDS with many fundraising events, hosting spaghetti dinners, gay cruises on the San Francisco Bay, and lending any support needed.

She feels the younger LGBTQ generation doesn’t have the same opportunities these days to connect:

“The younger community doesn’t have guidance from somebody who is my age or someone who is willing to get out there and get people connected. I miss that myself. It was a joy to be able to do stuff for other people.”