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.
- LGBTQ+ community’s historic gains this election by Michael Vargas (San Jose Spotlight column)