The Awakening of Santa Clara University Toward LGBTQ+ Students and Alumni

scu sv pride parade august 2019

From Rejection to Support

Being out and proud isn’t always an easy feat at any university, let alone on a Catholic Jesuit campus. Santa Clara University has slowly progressed to make that experience easier, from rejecting a gay alumni group in 1995 to founding a Rainbow Resource Center in October 2010, which offers a physical space for LGBTQ+ students to find social, academic and financial support. 

Whether providing maps of “all-gender” bathrooms and hosting “lavender graduation” ceremonies, or offering safe space trainings across campus and a Rainbow Buddies mentorship program, these efforts seek to increase cultural competency for the LGBTQ+ community through conversation and connection across campus.

The RRC proves especially vital as younger Santa Clara students can often have trouble finding acceptance at home, coming out within the broader community and building relationships with welcoming peers. 

Ryan Quakenbush, a 2017 graduate who worked as an RRC student coordinator and co-created the Rainbow Buddies mentorship program, said the comprehensive education provided by the RRC helped leaders of clubs and student organizations increase inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students across the board. 

“I can’t express enough how valuable the RRC was for me as a gay Bronco,” Ryan said. “Not only was it a safe haven for queer students, it was making the whole campus a better place.”

Located within the Benson Memorial Center, the RRC is a subset of the Office of Multicultural Learning (OML), which was formed in 1999 to support the development of more diversity in race, culture, ethnicity and other identities on campus, prompted by student protest against a lack of resources, awareness and allyship for marginalized groups. 

The RRC celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2020. Most students hear of its services through word of mouth, annual orientation fairs, and events like queer film festivals and rainbow proms. A small group of students, faculty and staff marched in the Silicon Valley Pride Parade for the first time in 2018, the same year Dr. Joanna Thompson began overseeing the RRC as director of the OML. 

“(Pride) was a moment to be able to be visible on and off campus, and show that we do have a growing queer population—faculty, staff, and students,” Joanna said. “Even though there are a lot of traditions within the Catholic Jesuit faith, there are folks who believe that you can be both gay and Catholic.”

While folks on the ground at SCU will refer others, upperclassmen tend to be more comfortable utilizing the center’s services, since simply entering the RRC can be an “outing” experience. However, offering a place for folks to hang out or do homework is important for students’ identity development outside the classroom, especially as many struggle with learning how to support their own mental health.

Joanna—a queer woman of color— arrived at SCU after spending eight years in Chicago, where she earned her masters and PhD in criminology and taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She offers expertise on identity development at the intersection of interpersonal violence, such as bullying, microaggressions and harassment – all common occurrences for people of color and LGBTQ+ folks. 

Joanna blossomed into her own queer identity after coming out in grad school and worked alongside other queer community members to address hate crimes and inequities, including two years at the Center on Halsted, the largest LGBTQ+ community center in the Midwest. 

As a Black and Latina woman, her subsequent move to SCU provided an opportunity to continue fostering broader conversations about intersectionality and social justice, this time revamping the OML and RRC offices. Joanna’s team became “fully staffed” for the first time in 2020 with 2.5 staff members—highlighting the lack of SCU resources dedicated to issues of diversity.

Joanna said the queer staff and faculty on the SCU campus help fill some of the gaps by fostering one-on-one relationships with students and keeping a pulse on what’s happening on campus. She has had students come out to her and ask questions, coming full circle from her own experiences on a college campus. 

Despite the progress, any programming from the RRC is still seen as taboo by some traditional Jesuits, who have reached out to Joanna with concerns within her first two years on campus. 

But LGBTQ+ students have been making waves since before the RRC came to be, including kicking off the school’s inaugural drag show in 2002. Despite being called a “talent show” for its early years, archives of the school’s newspaper said administration was supportive for the educational elements highlighting the campus’ diversity. 

Even through friction between queer groups and Catholic leadership, Father Michael Engh—the university president from 2009 to 2019—was vocal about his approval of the community.

That support was made clear in October 2016, when bulletin boards were vandalized with a swastika and slurs against LGBTQ+ people. Engh donned a rainbow armband and joined 70 other staff members and students in a march of solidarity.

The number of LGBTQ+ students the RRC serves remains unclear, due to a lack of data. The school does not collect information on how many queer students are on campus, nor how many have been served by the RRC, as privacy concerns have halted any data collection beyond what is provided through college applications.  

But even getting to this point wasn’t easy.

A group was founded for gay and lesbian graduate law students in 1984. However, the formation of a group dedicated to undergraduates was ultimately denied in 1987, based on beliefs that younger students are impressionable and being gay or lesbian was only a phase. 

That abruptly changed in 1988, after fellow Jesuit institution Georgetown lost a lawsuit for similar denials. This news brought along a nondiscrimination clause inclusive of sexual orientation to SCU, and years later a group for LGBTQ+ staff and faculty began. 

That change wasn’t initially extended to alumni, after requests for a gay, lesbian and bisexual alumni chapter were rejected in an 18-7 vote in 1995. School officials and faculty argued the decision was meant to avoid splintering groups within the association, despite having different chapters for geographic areas and academic achievements, as well as Asian, African-American and La Raza groups. 

While LGBTQ+ alumni were welcomed to join any existing chapter, proponents said barring the community from gathering together in its own organization not only forced some graduates to stay closeted, but also violated the school’s own non-discrimination policy. 

An LGBTQ+ alumni chapter was finally established in 2017—22 years after the first attempt. Joanna said it has been one of the most active across SCU’s alumni groups since then, even setting up an endowed scholarship for LGBTQ+ students. 

Other LGBTQ-focused groups have since faded, including Gay and Straight People for the Education of Diversity, but a student-led group called Queers and Allies (Q&A) actively collaborates with the RRC. While SCU joins Georgetown as one of the more inclusive Jesuit institutions, with its RRC and Safe Space Initiatives held up as examples to follow, there’s still a long way to go. 

The RRC continues to struggle against the students and alumni who hold traditional religious values on and off the Catholic Jesuit campus, including beliefs that homosexuality is a sin—one reason Joanna said some married queer faculty members don’t always hold hands on campus. Most recently in November 2020, a school-wide email chain about the Transgender Day of Remembrance was met with transphobic pushback, whether intentional or not.

These struggles can make recruiting prospective students and faculty difficult from the start, especially as progressive schools abound in Silicon Valley, such as San Jose State University and Stanford University—each of which were pioneers in offering support for the LGBTQ+ community. 

But as SCU continues to grapple with its identity in modern times, the successes of the RRC and LGBTQ+ alumni group mark stark, positive transformations from the 1980s and 90s.

Interview with Dr. Joanna Thompson


Oak Grove Trio

Oak Grove School Board members in conversation with Ken Yeager

The November 2020 election saw a historic “rainbow wave” of LGBTQ+ candidates running for office nationwide, but a Santa Clara County district school board took that one step further: a majority of its members are queer.`

Jorge Pacheco Jr., Carla Hernández and Beija Gonzalez will each openly serve as part of the five-member Oak Grove School Board, after the three millennials were either pulled out of the closet or “found out” while growing up queer in their Latinx, Afro-Latino and immigrant households.

The 30-, 27- and 24-year-olds primarily ran to better reflect the racial and cultural demographics of the district’s 10,000 students across 17 K-8 schools in South San Jose, but their successful campaigns also marked a shift in what it means—or doesn’t mean—to be a gay elected official.

Sexual orientation never came up in Beija nor Carla’s 2020 campaigns—a stark contract to the anti-gay rhetoric prevalent in 1992, when the first openly gay official was elected in the South Bay. At that time, some politicians even felt homosexuals deserved no legal or political standing in society.

The Oak Grove trio embodies a new generation of representation for LGBTQ+ youth. Instead of contending with homophobia in the form of housing, employment and social discrimination, students may still encounter internal turmoil at home while coming to terms with one’s sexuality, religion and culture.

That representation ensures LGBTQ+ perspectives will be heard during school board policy discussions about curriculum, educational disparities, mental health and physical wellness—all issues which disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ people.

This majority flip started with Jorge, a middle school ethnic studies and Spanish teacher, who ran in 2018 to fix the very system that failed him; he was years behind reading and writing by the 8th grade. In addition to competing against a four-year incumbent without earning any endorsements, he also met some pushback from voters who were concerned he would bring the “gay agenda” to schools.

The uncertainty of people’s reactions to his sexuality was one reason he never went canvassing alone, but defending his gay identity solidified his reason for running. He wanted to push for inclusivity policies, such as textbooks that teach LGBTQ+ history—the things no one besides queer people would advocate for—to increase understanding about the community.

Jorge was victorious at the ballot box, garnering more than half of the votes. He simultaneously become the inaugural gay and Latino, Indigenous and Asian Pacific Islander trustee—a shocking first, as Latino students account for half of the district’s enrollment.

After learning how to build coalitions and write resolutions, Jorge helped get ethnic studies courses approved for K-8th grade Oak Grove students within a year, in addition to recognizing Election Day as a district holiday and establishing a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee.

Jorge used the success, knowledge and connections he gained as a trustee to help open up the door for other LGBTQ+ candidates to follow his lead, including Beija and Carla.

Neither of the two women aspired to become school board members. However, they felt compelled to do so in order to provide a stronger voice at the table for their community, especially focusing on anti-racist and equitable work for future students.

Growing up poor at home with a single mother from Honduras, Carla’s love of reading propelled her to succeed in American society, eventually earning a full-ride to study science at the University of Pennsylvania. She later moved to San Jose to teach high school special education, in a conscious effort to live in a state with LGBTQ+ legal protections.

Before Carla ran for office, she was a successful campaign manager in 2018, but her otherwise outside political perspective initially made her nervous to serve the community the way it deserves. However, teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing struggles of students, teachers and staff first-hand diminished any reservations she had about not being good enough to craft policies for future students.

Voters agreed, and the 27-year-old pansexual Latina resoundingly defeated a one-term incumbent, earning nearly three-quarters of the votes.

Carla didn’t have an easy time coming out, once thinking her sexuality was a secret she would keep forever. She understood, however, that her perspective would be critical for students who may be having those difficult yet critical conversations, earning support through endorsements from BAYMEC and Stonewall Democrats along the way.

Unlike her educator colleagues, Beija works in tech as a data analyst, but had a background in grassroots organizing. After Mary Noel, a Black teacher and principal who served as an Oak Grove trustee for more than a decade, decided to step down, Beija didn’t see any representation for her Afro-Latino family in any of the other candidates.

The mother of two knew Noel’s shoes were big to fill, but decided to run for the board position to provide a voice for the priorities and concerns of the Oak Grove community, including her father who worked for the district. She fought for endorsements also embedded in South San Jose, securing key backing from the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, San Jose City Councilmember Sergio Jimenez and her future colleague, Jorge.

While being bisexual wasn’t a key facet of Beija’s campaign, being an openly queer elected official is a big step in countering the stigmas some people—including her parents—hold around being proud about sexual orientation.

That’s one goal of the new majority of queer board members serving the Oak Grove School District: dissipate homophobia and shame surrounding the LGBTQ+ community for future generations of students.

Further reading:

Elizabeth Birch

Elizabeth Birch HRC event

As a lawyer, corporate executive and open lesbian, Elizabeth Birch helped coordinate LGBT company policies and guide cultural perspectives of the queer community on a national scale throughout the 1980s and 90s. 

While activists and LGBTQ+ workers pushed for civil rights, she used her legal expertise to solidify changes and acceptance during six years at Apple and nearly a decade with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the United States’ largest LGBT organization. 

Elizabeth first arrived in the South Bay to attend Santa Clara University School of Law, where she graduated in 1985. She was previously living out of her home at the age of 17 as an open lesbian, moving around the United States. She credits those experiences and struggles for her ability to advocate within both a legal and corporate structure. 

While still a student, Elizabeth brazenly called the head of Apple’s legal department asking for her dream job. To her surprise she was told she could work there—once she got a few years of experience practicing law under her belt. She joined McCutcheon, Doyle, Brown, and Enersen after graduation, where she help found AIDS legal services in San Jose, and left in 1989. She entered the political arena as a member of the San Jose-based Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee. 

She was one of the lawyers representing BAYMEC in a case against the Macy’s located at Valley Fair Shopping Mall in 1988. They successfully argued for the First Amendment right to campaign against Prop 102, which would have required people who tested positive for HIV/AIDS to be reported to health authorities. 

Elizabeth was thrust into the high-tech world when she joined Apple in 1989, where she directed international litigation. After LGBTQ+ employees formed Apple Lambda and pushed for non-discrimination policies earlier, her influence and rank as Senior Counsel for the company’s Human Resources department essentially ran interference for their continued efforts. 

She decided her duty as a lawyer was to break through cultural barriers and make the company even better for LGBTQ employees. The advent of employee resource groups provided both a sanctuary within corporate companies, as well as an organizing platform to accomplish goals and change. 

Whether that meant providing contacts, advice, or green-lighting ideas like making shirts with the Apple logo – an ask that initially made Apple Lambda members shiver – she helped garner support and benefits from the inside out. 

Most notably, she spent time with then-Apple CEO John Scully, arguing for these changes, especially for a company using a rainbow-colored logo at the time. 

Management often brushed off offering benefits, claiming they posed a financial burden. Elizabeth argued equality policies were breakthroughs to productivity, creativity and innovation—all coveted by high tech companies in competition with each other—in addition to offering to cover any costs from her own salary. 

If one employer didn’t offer benefits, talent could move to the next town over or across the street to places that did, which led to a wave of change in Silicon Valley. 

Scully eventually kicked off a 100-employee meeting by committing to domestic partner benefits by that January. This was the third attempt of Apple Lambda, after previous rejections. 

“Every member of the board, you just saw the outpouring of emotion. There were tears,” Elizabeth said. “I saw the cascading through the culture, and that was a big lesson for me up up to and including Apple.”

Former Apple employees and South Bay activists have credited Elizabeth with the decision to work with businesses before politicians; her pragmatic approach to make incremental policy changes proved successful, as opposed to solely pursuing slow, polarizing legislation. 

While on business trips for Apple, Elizabeth said she would travel to nearby companies, such as Kodak, Chevron, McDonald’s and General Mills, to speak with employee resource groups and CEOs. These heartfelt, genuine and trusting conversations about personal experiences are what she says allowed people to learn about and become comfortable with the LGTBQ community. 

Despite a few holdouts, including Perot Systems and Exxon Mobil, as those companies passed more progressive policies, more liberal people went to work for those companies—not exclusive to LGBTQ people.

Elizabeth’s work in Silicon Valley was just the tip of the iceberg of her legal and political career. 

She was the co-chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 1992 to 1994. Around that same time, Elizabeth sat on the board of Digital Queers, a Castro-based activist group founded to bring LGBTQ+ organizations across the country up-to-speed online, in part through organizations like NGLTF. 

“By the time I leave the San Jose area, I’m now thinking big,” Elizabeth said. “How do we really use corporate America to help revolutionize progress?”

By January 1995, she accepted the position of president and executive director of HRC, where she spent nearly a decade working to stem discrimination of LGBTQ+ people by sharing their stories, struggles and successes within society. 

She helped acquire, rewrite and implement the Corporate Equality Index for LGBTQ employees–which she retroactively sees as her best contribution to the organization–in addition to helping form the Human Rights Business Council, which brought together gay executives across industries, from airlines to entertainment. Together, they figured out who to talk to within top management to have their friends and competitors fall in line.

Elizabeth continued efforts to change how people across the United States viewed the LGBTQ+ community through programming on Good Morning America, the Today Show and NewsHour, as well as an entire rebranding of HRC. 

She also revisited her Silicon Valley roots in company-driven policy making when the HRC formed its Business Council in 1997, which brought together dozens of LGBT employees—including those at Apple—who already had on-the-ground experience making policy changes. They leveraged internal knowledge, such as budgetary timelines and proposal requirements, to craft best practices for other hopeful LGBT employees nationwide.

Some have estimated that the HRC Business Council helped around 100 companies across different industries earn nondiscrimination and domestic partner benefits by 2002.

Stanford’s Old Firehouse

Photo Cole Griffiths The Stanford Daily

Stanford’s Old Fire Truck House became a hub for LGBTQ students and community members alike – one of the first campus organizations of its kind nationally. 

Built in 1904, the aptly named structure transitioned in the 1970s from housing fire trucks to community meetings for those who were queer, questioning or allies to connect and politically organize. Despite a history of name changes – from the original Gay People’s Union to today’s QSpot – students have walked up the Firehouse’s steep outdoor steps to find a community of their own on the second floor. 

Stanford has a piecemeal history with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people, dating back to the first documented relationship in 1911. 

However, organization started coming to a head in the 1960s, when folks began creating forums and discussion groups dedicated to the exploration of sexual rights, including civil rights for homosexuals. By November 1970, a Stanford Gay Students Union was formed off-campus by students and community members.

This idea stuck. The Gay People’s Union officially began in December 1971 with a desk in the Old Union Clubhouse. Founded by Maud Hanson Nerman and Fred Oakford, the movement started with the intent to be accessible to the entire Palo Alto community. 

Its members began efforts to provide personal outreach, mentorship, mental health counseling and support groups geared to gay students, especially through smaller groups like the Women’s Collective and the Gay and Lesbian Speakers Bureau. 

This was risky business at a time when students and faculty feared facing retribution for being gay from Stanford, including expulsion or termination. Non-campus locations were originally considered for safety concerns. 

The Gay People’s Union found a permanent home in the Old Firehouse in the fall of 1974, growing from a small office to claiming the entire second floor of the building along Santa Teresa Street. 

Within its early years, GPU’s work catalyzed the formation of state-funded mental health programs for the Bay Area gay community, the first gay and lesbian awareness week held on campus, hiring of openly gay faculty and an unsuccessful campaign to exclude discriminatory employers from Stanford’s Career Planning and Placement Center.

Four members carried a GPU banner within the first National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights by October 1979.

Despite growing recognition of the LGBTQ community in the Bay Area and beyond, progress wasn’t entirely met with open arms. Notably, the campus’ “Gay Liberation” statues were repeatedly vandalized with hammers and spray paint. 

As tensions heightened in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, the Firehouse’s community worked to provide practical and emotional supporters for people with AIDS, increase visibility with Gay Family Days and simply educate others that queer people spanned the entire campus, including students living in dorms, teachers and entertainers.

Known as the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community Center by 1989, students continued political activism throughout the 1990s, planning “Queer Be-Ins” at local coffee houses, establishing student orientation celebrations and hosting queer graduation events. 

Despite the Old Firehouse’s consistent, decades-long presence, all of its opportunities and events were solely student-driven and supported by staff because it remained unrecognized as an official community center by Stanford. 

Stanford eventually provided a full-time director for the LGBCC in 1999, after student requests and task force studies, which allowed for increased access to resources and targeted programming. 

The organization was renamed the LGBT Community Resources Center in 2001 to increase transgender representation, and later morphed into the Queer Student Resource Center, or QSpot, by 2017. 

The Murder of Gwen Araujo and The “Panic” Defense

gwen araujo killed

Content warning: discussion of transphobic and homophobic violence.

On October 3, 2002, Gwen Araujo was murdered at a party in Newark California. The four killers, Michael Magidson, Jaron Chase Nabors, Jose Merel, and an unnamed fourth man, buried her body near Silver Lake campground, more than 150 miles away in El Dorado County. Although four were arrested, more at the party could have intervened to stop the murder and did not. 

Araujo’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero, buried her daughter under her chosen name, Gwen. The funeral, held October 25 in Newark, was open to the public. Guerrero released 17 butterflies, one for each year of Araujo’s life. Many came out to mourn the loss, but anti-transgender protesters were also in attendance. Students from Newark High School wore angel costumes to help block the family from protesters. 

For Araujo, living as an out transgender teen at the time was difficult. It was important to Araujo to be true to herself, but met with adversity at both high schools she attended. News articles about her death misgendered her repeatedly, an issue that prevails in the press today. Gwen was an inspiration to many trans youth in her community. Her horrific death also inspired multiple films, including a Lifetime dramatization and a 2007 documentary by a trans director.

During the Araujo trial, defendants invoked a “panic” defense, which attempted to excuse crimes like murder and assault by blaming one’s actions on a heat of passion, mental breakdown or self-defense.

This approach ultimately failed for defendants in Araujo’s case, but panic defenses have historically downgraded the severity of criminal consequences, including reducing charges of murder to manslaughter or even assault and battery.

While the exact number of times this defense has been used against members of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t clear, it has long been utilized by straight men attempting to justify and minimize the killing of gay men, dating as far back as a 1954 murder in Florida to a 2019 homicide in Santa Clara.

Arguably one of the most infamous, yet unsuccessful, uses of the gay panic defense followed the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in 1998.

Advocates argue that this defense blames victims, thereby insinuating that violence against the LGBTQ community is not only understandable but accepted.

State legislators attempted to remedy this with the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act. Passed in September 2006, the bill required informing members of a jury that they were forbidden from making decisions based on any victim’s gender or sexual orientation.

Those protections were often circumvented, including in 2008 when 15-year-old Lawrence King, also known as Latisha, was shot and later died after flirting with another boy at his school near Los Angeles.

Restrictions were placed on defendants themselves in October 2014, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2501 into law, which banned panic defenses in criminal court entirely.

California became the first state to outlaw blaming victims’ sexual orientation or gender for violence committed against them. Also in 2014, Brown signed off on the Respect After Death Act, which requires that death certificates represent the deceased person’s documented gender expression.

As of 2020, only 11 states have banned the defense, but nine others have introduced legislation. Attempts at federal law outlawing LGBTQ+ panic defenses were introduced in 2018 and 2019, but ultimately failed to move forward.

LGBTQ+ Tech Employees

mega lunch sign 1991

The diverse, liberal work climates touted by Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies first began with a push for increased civil rights by gay and lesbian employees in the 1980s. As companies like Apple and HP advocated for internal nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits, news spread through the software, hardware and conventions created by the tech industry itself. Gay employee groups and business collectives led to expanded networks of in-person, internal and inter-corporate communication, which directly helped disseminate increased protections inside company walls and national politics.

The liberally diverse culture within Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies was sparked by an employee-led push for increased civil rights for gay and lesbian employees in the mid-1980s.

At a time when California politics, like Propositions 6 and 64, pushed ideas of removing gay teachers from classrooms and quarantining people with AIDS altogether, South Bay companies from Apple to Hewlett-Packard approved internal nondiscrimination policies, with domestic partner benefits following throughout the next decade.

In the high-tech industry—where Silicon Valley employers battled each other for a stiffly competitive pool of talent—more LGBTQ people flocked to jobs where protections increased. This snowballed into a cultural shift that eventually applauded diversity, moving away from tech’s more conservative roots.

But at the same time, the AIDS crisis was devastating the LGBTQ community. While it forced many people to come out to family, friends and coworkers, being out at work was terrifying as the lack of safety in the corporate world left workers vulnerable to lose everything: jobs, families and homes.

Some came out by necessity, others as an attempt to humanize the disease and advocate for change. Many employees, however, stayed closeted out of retribution or being passed up for promotions, especially in high-tech government jobs that demanded security clearances.

Employees pushed back in 1983, when the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office was sued by the South Bay-based group High Tech Gays (HTG) for subjecting gay and lesbian employees to more intense scrutiny and investigation for secret and top-secret clearances because of sexual orientation. A judge eventually sided with the Sunnyvale-based plaintiffs in 1990, closing the iconically named federal court case High Tech Gays v. DISCO.

The existence of HTG and conversation between gay people not only opened up a vision of possibility for other groups to start but also raised awareness with such a brazen name that was unable to be ignored.

Other unofficial gay employee social groups were established—such as Friends of Dorothy and the Gay and Lesbian Employee Network—which stretched across Silicon Valley corporations like HP, Sun Microsystems and Oracle.

Beginning as communities for connection, camaraderie and a dating pool, these gatherings soon led to redacted membership directories and discreet newsletters, which helped crowdsource knowledge of internal business practices across the high-tech sector to secure protections in workplaces at a time when no state or federal protections existed.

After a stint in political activism, Bennet Marks, a former Apple software manager inspired by stories from HTG and his experience on the company’s AIDS Response Committee, wanted to work directly with the company to develop staff policy.

He formed Apple Lambda in August 1986, and came out to the entire company in the process. Named after the Greek letter that had quietly emerged as a gay symbol at the time, the group welcomed in employees by word-of-mouth, even those otherwise afraid of retaliation.

Bennet said their work was the driving force behind Apple adopting nondiscrimination policies—the first Silicon Valley company believed to do so—and pushed others to follow.

By 1987, Apple Lambda marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade and started publicly shifting what was acceptable in the high-tech workplace.

But not all Silicon Valley companies welcomed these policies with open arms out of the gate. Older, more conservative companies took longer to welcome these employee protections.

Kim Harris, a manager at HP, learned from previous successes and failures in organization and advocacy from Bennet, with whom he was (and still is) in a relationship starting in 1982. Together, they eventually became known as the Silicon Valley poster boys.

Despite having one of the first unofficial gay employee groups, HP was hesitant to offer direct company resources. Kim began by stealthily parsing out company health plans, eventually calling out the denial of AIDS treatments for former staff.

“I marched right into HR and benefits, and I said, ‘Is this the kind of company you run? Is this the kind of company you’re proud of?’ Kim said. “All of a sudden it was approved.”

This got the ball moving at HP in working toward nondiscrimination and diversity education policies across the global company. After a unanimous “no” vote, Kim organized reader’s theater performances to dozens of executive staff, featuring personal stories from employees who dealt with internal harassment, jokes and the AIDS epidemic.

One year after the initial denial, an unanimous “yes” arrived in the late 1980s. Despite fears of negative reactions from the press and public, HP’s decision made only whispers in the local news. Combined with Apple’s work, however, the news started circulating regionally.

“Apple then was Apple; Apple now is Apple,” Bennet said. “It was my very strong opinion that anything we did at Apple would have ripple effects throughout Silicon Valley and throughout the country.”

It did ripple. The start of internal policies for gay and lesbian employees at Apple arrived not only before California state law, but also before federal precedent.

In September 1992, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed non-discrimination protections for sexual orientation into the state’s Labor Code—an effort first vetoed eight years prior. By 1993, there were around eight Fortune 500 companies that provided domestic partner benefits. The number was more than 100 by 2001.

This work was continued through external groups like the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC), Peninsula Business and Professional Association, and the invite-only HRC Business Council, as members met with hundreds of other gay employees and learned how internal business hierarchies and organization could advance approval of nondiscrimination policies.

Google, which was established in 1998, did not have any formal group until the Apple Lambda founder also helped create the Gayglers group in 2006.

That group continued to push for more civil rights for gay and lesbian employees, advocating in 2010 for “grossing up,” which increased compensation to offset unequal taxes for same-sex partners, and kicking off the nationwide “It Gets Better” project through Google subsidiary YouTube.

As LGBTQ issues continue to arise to the forefront, the work of gay employee groups remains vital to furthering liberal expectations for the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and across the country, especially as they worked to create new expectations of office life.

“I think every generation paves the way for the next generation,” Bennet said. “I believe that the Silicon Valley corporations had a direct impact on (protections) going through the legislature.”

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