Santa Clara County LGBTQ+ Equality Leaders in Conversation

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Supervisor Ken Yeager interviews Maribel Martinez, Director of the Office of LGBTQ Affairs, and David Campos, Deputy County Executive, about the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and Division of Equity and Social Justice.

Gender Health Center

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While activists and politicians continue to advocate for transgender rights across the country, people who are transgender, non-binary and gender diverse in the South Bay never have had specialized access to healthcare for years.

Santa Clara County established the Gender Health Center in November 2018—the first of its kind in the nation. The need for the health center came after then-President of the Board of Supervisors Ken Yeager called for a health assessment of the LGBTQ+ community in his January 2013 State of the County address. Not surprising, the report found that 28% of transgender, gender non-binary, and gender expansive people had experienced healthcare discrimination, while 38% were unable to access medical care at all.

Part of the second largest county-owned health and hospital system in the state of California, it was the first all-ages clinic dedicated to LGBTQ-centered medical, mental and emotional health care, including social work. By having the ability to partner with institutions across the county system, more comprehensive care can be readily provided for needs like transitioning, which often requires physical, mental and emotional support.

This unique opportunity within a public health system is why Jules Chyten-Brennan, the center’s medical director, moved from New York City to guide the center’s work two years ago. They said concerns ranging from hormones and loneliness to unsupportive families and unstable employment environments are more easily addressed when hosting services under one roof.

“The center is not just giving people hormones and doing those things which are essential,” they said, “It’s really seeing someone as a whole person, and being able to reach across those different departments to treat someone like a whole person.”

The need for the Gender Health Center was clear.

When Sera Fernando, a senior management analyst in the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, first came out as transgender, she had to travel to Santa Cruz or San Francisco monthly to find resources like a therapist and treatment.

When options finally became accessible in San Jose, she said those resources allowed her to live more authentically and create community in the place she was born and raised.

The specified care expanded beyond the Gender Health Center. Since LGBTQ folks comprise nearly one-third of homeless youth and young adults under the age of 25 and 10% of homeless adults, a separate, federally funded Gender Clinic within the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program was also started to offer a one-stop approach where people can access a primary care doctor, mental health support and housing assessments.

Being the first in the nation doesn’t mean the work stops to address gaps still present in healthcare. While 2019 solidified work in areas like primary care and surgery options, Jules said they staff will start offering services like speech therapy and electrolysis in the coming months, as well as partnering with community support groups.

“I think (those additions are) rare to have in a clinic in general, and will be such a huge door opened for a lot of our community,” they said. “We know so much of our health is not what happens in the clinic, but it’s community connection, finding those other supports that bring joy to our lives.”

Gender Health Center Website

 

Trans Pride Flag

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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. Read more about Pride flags in Santa Clara County

Getting to Zero

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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.

According to a 2020 Master’s Project from San Jose State University, the GTZ program in Santa Clara County has allowed for significant strides in transmission reduction and available care for current and new diagnoses, especially when compared state-wide. Read more here.

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

Raising the Rainbow, Transgender, and Bisexual Visibility Flags

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Rainbow and transgender flags on display in SJC Terminal B

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.

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BAYMEC Community Foundation Executive Director Ken Yeager, BAYMEC Board President Drew Lloyd, and BAYMEC board members Maureen Heath and Hahn Mo join SJC Aviation Director John Aitken to raise the rainbow and transgender flags in Terminal A

The Fight Against Prop. 64

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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 ARIS Project

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The AIDS Resources, Information & Services (ARIS) Foundation formed in 1986 to provide information, resources, and support for AIDS & HIV positive patients in Santa Clara County. ARIS supplied assistance to patients through a monthly food basket and nutritional supplements program, a 24-hour residential care facility, transportation services, and weekly emotional support groups. ARIS offered a housing program for the HIV and AIDS patients who needed assistance: they had 4 houses and 18 bedrooms for patients with regularly scheduled visiting nurses.

ARIS’s newsletter, Pages, shared several times a year. Many back issues have been preserved in the ARIS collection archive at San Jose State University.

ARIS was working closely with the Public Health Department to create public education programs to end the stigmatization of HIV & AIDS, as well as a sex education program to prevent the spread of HIV. The foundation shut down in 2003. Read more about the organization in Battle Against HIV/AIDS (PDF).

Battle Against HIV/AIDS

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On June 5, 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newsletter Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published a story about five young, previously healthy gay men who had come down with a rare lung infection, pneumocystis pneumonia. This was the first public mention of what the CDC would name in just over a year the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The AIDS epidemic had begun in the United States.

Karl Vidt, who became a prominent local HIV/AIDS advocate—including a multi-year term as chair of the Santa Clara County World AIDS Day committee—said that during 1981-82 people in Santa Clara County thought AIDS was “something affecting people in San Francisco.”

A crisis emerges

In 1983 that attitude changed rapidly. AIDS arrived in Santa Clara County with the first diagnosis being confirmed by the public health department in April. The first signs of AIDS-related fear followed shortly afterwards.

The Santa Clara County Public Health Department’s AIDS Program was formed in 1983 to conduct community education. Utilizing a small grant from the state, the team began to educate people in jails, gay bars, and elsewhere. They also distributed condoms. In November, Santa Clara County obtained its first state funding for AIDS.

In 1985, the first HIV tests became available and the Public Health Department opened Santa Clara County’s first HIV clinic. Numbers were climbing: 53 deaths, 148 people living with HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Marty Fenstersheib took on the difficult role of telling people they were HIV positive. In a 2012 San Jose Business Journal interview, he recalled the reactions of those earliest patients, “They would run out, bang doors, sometimes they’d cry, sometimes they’d scream. It was horrible.”

In January 1986, BAYMEC, led by BAYMEC co-founder Ken Yeager, successfully secured the support of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to make a substantial commitment to funding AIDS-related services. Even as the County was facing tight budget times, they were committing critical dollars to AIDS services. Yeager was also named chair on the new Santa Clara County AIDS Task Force. The epidemic, and the lack of an adequate government response to it, was becoming the dominant issue in the LGBTQ community.

Life expectancy from diagnosis to death was around two years. People got sick and died very fast. Tens of thousands of families learned for the first time that their sons were gay only after they became sick. Often parents had to simultaneously come to grips with their son’s sexuality and their deaths.

The total death count continued to climb from 1986 to 1990: 96, 172, 265, 296, 433.

As the 1980s came to a close, the death toll from AIDS continued to rise, reaching 124 new deaths in Santa Clara County in 1989. By 1990, total deaths reached 433 with more than a thousand people living with HIV/AIDS.

Dark times

The early 1990s were some of the darkest times of the AIDS epidemic. Death tolls continued to increase locally and nationally. 1993 and 1994 were the years of highest deaths in Santa Clara County: 219 in 1993 and 220 in 1994.

AIDS patients continued to die at a rapid pace. At the end of 1994, the Public Health Department produced an analysis of the first 10 years of the epidemic in the county. It revealed that through 1990 more than 90% of individuals diagnosed with AIDS had died within the same year. In both 1983 and 1986, every single individual in Santa Clara County died the same year they were diagnosed with AIDS.

Thankfully, 1995 would bring some hope for HIV/AIDS sufferers. A medical breakthrough, whose impact continues to be felt today, dramatically transformed an AIDS diagnosis from a likely death sentence to a serious but manageable health condition.

Finally, a breakthrough

Public pressure and the growing death toll from AIDS led the Food and Drug Administration to approve the protease inhibitor Saquinavir for use outside of clinical trials in June 1995. The era of the AIDS cocktail had begun. It would not become widely used in the U.S. until 1996, but the earliest results were extremely promising.

By 1997 the full effects of the “cocktail” were becoming apparent to public health officials in Santa Clara County as the year-end statistics showed that only 67 people died of AIDS-related causes. That is a drop of almost 50% compared to the previous year.

Almost overnight, HIV/AIDS went from being a near-certain death sentence to a manageable health condition if diagnosed and treated. This change was extremely welcome after more than a decade of darkness, when friends and loved ones got sick, wasted away, and then died with blinding speed.

From 1984 when the first AIDS deaths were reported in the county to the end of 2017, there had been a total of 2,498 deaths from AIDS. A tragic loss.

While HIV/AIDS has been a treatable condition for almost a quarter-century, it is still a health crisis that impacts thousands in our community.

African-American and Hispanic residents continue to be disproportionately impacted, with rates among African-Americans more than four times higher than rates among non-Hispanic Whites.

We have come so far since those early dark days. But much work still needs to be done.


For help with HIV/AIDS or to volunteer, visit GettingToZeroSCC.org. 

History of Silicon Valley Pride

The celebration of pride in Silicon Valley can be characterized as a series of struggles and triumphs. Whether it was presiding over one the largest pride events in between San Francisco and Los Angeles to staving-off bankruptcy and uneven organization, Pride in Silicon Valley has persevered and evolved into a wondrous event that the LGBTQ community eagerly awaits every year.

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Pride Locations:

SJSU (1975)

The Gay Student Union was able to organize the first pride event in Silicon Valley. The main event began at 9:30 am, with other events held in various parts of the SJSU campus. Workshops included bisexuality, drag, couples, legal rights, religion, and sadomasochism. The day was closed with a potluck dinner and dance at the Student Union Ballroom.

St. James Park (1976-1980)

Sponsored by the Lambda Association, the first Gay Freedom Rally and Dance was held downtown at St. James Park. More than 300 people attended, and it was considered a small but strong showing for Silicon Valley’s first official pride event. Guests included Harvey Milk, who was a speaker in 1978. This would be come to the location for pride for the next four years.

City Park Plaza (1981-1982)

The Lambda Association moved its Gay Freedom Rally to City Park Plaza (now known as Plaza de Cesar Chavez) on San Carlos and Market Streets.

St. James Park (1983-1985)

Renamed Gay Pride Celebration in 1983, the organizers returned the festival to St. James Park. By then, there were more gay businesses and organizations participating than ever before.

5,000 people participated in 1985, marking a huge milestone for Pride and the LGBTQ community in Silicon Valley.

SJSU Athletic Fields (1986)

Due to redevelopment efforts at St. James Park, San Jose Pride moved to the SJSU Athletic Fields on 10th and Alma. Attendance remained stable, despite the financial constraints and a venue change.

Santa Clara County Fairgrounds (1987-1993)

After 1986, the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds was chosen as a less expensive alternative to St. James Park, one that also allowed for more flexibility with vendors and better accessibility to facilities. Though Pride had been cast out of downtown, festivities and attendance continued to grow each year.

The Alameda Pride and Parade (1993)

While the location of Pride at The Alameda was brief, it drew a great deal more attention and recognition than it had in the past. Mayor Susan Hammer was named one of the grand marshals, the first time a San Jose mayor participated in Pride. With 10,000 people attending, Pride became far more than a niche event for the local LGBTQ community.

Stockton Strip (1994)

Despite the previous year’s success, Pride was endangered. The Gay Pride Celebration had lost thousands of dollars the previous year. In an effort to preserve its momentum, Stockton Avenue was chosen as a cost-effective way of organizing gay businesses and activities in a central area. While there was a significant decrease in attendance (only about 2,000 per day), Stockton Avenue kept Pride alive in Silicon Valley.

Discovery Meadow (1995-2014)

The move to Discovery Meadow in 1995 ushered in a more stable and organized era of Pride in San Jose. Attendance broke a new record with 12,000 attendees. Five years later it reached 20,000. Additionally, the appearance of high-profile individuals, including drag superstar RuPaul in 1998, offered even more reasons for people to participate in Pride. Discovery Meadow remained Pride’s home for several years. In 2014, San Jose Pride was renamed Silicon Valley Pride to be more inclusive of neighboring communities.

Park Avenue and Almaden Boulevard (2015-2016)

Under new chair Thaddeus Campbell, Silicon Valley Pride had its first parade event in years. This new parade also coincided with a new event location on Park Avenue and Almaden Boulevard. In 2016, the organization launched the first Saturday Night Festival.

Plaza de Cesar Chavez (2017-2019)

After successfully restarting Pride with a new parade and location, along with unloading the troublesome debt accrued in previous years, Thaddeus Campbell oversaw Silicon Valley Pride’s move back to Plaza de Cesar Chavez. Because Pride tends to be majority male driven events, in 2018 the organization launched HEY GIRL, a queer female identified group under Silicon Valley Pride umbrella started by Liz Asborno and Nicole Altamirano, as well as the first Trans and Friends Rally and a Drag Queen Cooking Showdown.

Digital Venue (2020)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Silicon Valley Pride debuted a virtual celebration of Pride. Community members were invited to submit videos of their art, dance, or a simple greeting to commemorate Pride.

For more information on current and upcoming Silicon Valley Pride events, visit svpride.com, or check out the Silicon Valley Pride YouTube channel.

Parade Routes:

Stockton Avenue Parade (1991-1992)

Heralded as the first pride parade in the South Bay, the 1991 San Jose Gay Pride Parade marked the first in many efforts in heightening the visibility of the LGBTQ community. The parade was on Stockton Avenue, going from Taylor Street to the Alameda, and concluded at the Billy DeFrank Center. Stockon Avenue was a prime location for the parade, largely owing to the Stockton Strip and its gay clubs and businesses.

Watch a video of the 1992 Pride Parade

Market Street Parade (1995-2009, 2015-2019)

After the move of the Gay Pride Celebration to Discovery Park, the parade was able to resume in 1995. The new downtown route was along Market Street, beginning at St. James Street and ending at Park Avenue. Attendance was consistent, with parade having an uninterrupted 14-year streak. Unfortunately in 2009, the recession had hit organizers deeply, leading to an end of the parade. In 2015, after rebranding itself as Silicon Valley Pride, the parade made a successful comeback along its regular route on Market Street.

Pride names by year:

  • 1976 Gay Freedom Rally and Dance
  • 1982 San Jose Gay Pride Rally
  • 1983 San Jose Gay Pride Celebration
  • 1991 San Jose Gay Pride and Parade
  • 2014 Silicon Valley Pride