Rich spent his childhood on the Peninsula before moving to Orange County for high school. He stayed in Southern California for college, at USC, before moving to the Midwest to attend divinity school at Northwestern. He was ordained as a Methodist minister and began working with homeless youth in inner city Chicago. He left the ministry rather than accept a transfer to a church near San Diego County’s massive Marine base at Camp Pendleton where he would mostly minister to suburban military families.
By this time, Rich knew his passion lay in helping those most in need, especially young people. He found a job doing social work through the YMCA, first in Orange County and then back on the Peninsula in Redwood City. He eventually formed a nonprofit group in San Mateo County—Youth and Family Assistance—that grew to have 60 employees and a $5 million annual budget.
Rich dated girls in high school and women in college. He would get married in 1974 to a woman he had met at a Methodist church in Southern California and who he had lived with for two years before marriage. However, by the time he was in his mid-30s he was ready to accept who he was. He undertook the difficult process of ending his marriage and coming out in 1982.
Rich had an early interest in politics. He was elected student body president in high school. His work with the YMCA and in the nonprofit sphere had already exposed him to public policy at the local level. Then, he began to get involved with the nascent LGBTQ political movement on the Peninsula. He became very active with the Peninsula Business Guild, a gay business group, and in late August 1984 Doug De Young introduced him at one of the founding meetings of the BAYMEC board. In September, he was elected to the board, and in 1985 he became BAYMEC’s president.
In 1992, Rich would run for San Mateo County Board of Education and win. Later in 1997, Rich was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and in 2010 to the State Assembly, representing the heart of Silicon Valley – including parts of both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. In the Assembly, he would spend more than four years as chair of the influential Rules Committee. In 2012, he was chosen to chair the full Legislature’s LGBTQ caucus, which would include two successive Assembly speakers during his tenure: John Perez and Toni Atkins. He would remain caucus chair until term limits forced him out of the Assembly.
In July 2017, Rich was named President and CEO of the California Forestry Association.
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.
No on 64 rally with Paul Wysocki, Wiggsy Sivertsen, and Ken Yeager. Photograph from the Ted Sahl Archives at SJSU
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.
Proposition 64, “No On 64”, buttons and stickers
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.