Nearly a year to the day since 49 people were killed and 53 more were injured in the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, San Jose will join cities across the country on June 11 to host an Equality March for the LGBT community. The event is being modeled after January’s massive Women’s March.
But in contrast to the worldwide day of protest, which in many ways retained a grass-roots identity despite millions coming together to send a message to President Donald Trump’s administration that “women’s rights are human rights,” it’s unclear if the origins of San Jose’s upcoming LGBT march comes from activists and community organizers or Santa Clara County’s headquarters on Hedding Street in San Jose.
San Jose has an annual pay-to-participate Pride party each August, but the festival is designed as an apolitical celebration, unlike events such as the Dyke March and Trans March in San Francisco. Despite a lack of experience or interest in organizing political rallies in the past, Project MORE announced that San Jose would host the LGBT march.
The event is being championed through the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs, which raises the question of who really proposed the event and whether it is a government-sanctioned protest. Maribel Martinez, director of the LGBTQ Affairs office, cites “local leaders” as the source of the idea. “We wanted to be connected with the national movement as well.”
But according to Nathan Svoboda, president of Project MORE, “a few people” on the organization’s board came up with the idea well before the national march was announced. “There’s never been a march” in San Jose, he says. “Why can’t we have our own?”
Ken Yeager, Santa Clara County’s first and only “out” member of the Board of Supervisors, expressed surprise at Svoboda’s claim that San Jose has never had an LGBT march.
“Of course we have,” Yeager says. “Wow.”
Yeager reminisces about three-to-four block parades down Stockton Street in downtown San Jose, which used to be home to multiple gay bars. Yeager has been involved in local gay politics since 1984 and remembers marching when he first ran for office in 1992. He says he first heard rumblings of a national LGBT march when he visited Washington, D.C., in December, but denied that the San Jose event was his idea.
“I was not involved in any of those discussions. Zero,” Yeager says.
Regardless of who came up with the idea, the goal is inclusivity, not policy changes. Initially, the march’s website explained that the event was not a protest. Language has since been changed to say that it is not a “partisan” protest: “This human rights march is not a Red event. It’s not a Blue event, either.”
The march’s FAQs do not mention the Trump administration, which since Jan. 21 has removed any mention of LGBT rights from its website, dropped legal protections for trans students, stopped the Obama administration’s efforts to count LGBT people in the census, and proposed funding cuts for HIV research, among other things. Trump’s health care bill, which narrowly passed in the House, removes protections for trans people. Trump has appointed virulently anti-gay politicians as heads of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Army, Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Education.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions used now-unconstitutional anti-sodomy laws to harass LGBT Alabamians in the 1990s and co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2004. Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s new Supreme Court justice, has voted against trans people in cases of discrimination and could support laws that chip away at federal gay marriage. Vice President Mike Pence used HIV prevention money for gay conversion “therapy” as governor of Indiana, and he unsuccessfully tried to not only amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages but also civil unions. All are Republicans, as are the sponsors of an onslaught of post-election anti-trans legislation in Texas and North Carolina.
Beyond specifically anti-LGBT policy, the Trump administration has increased arrests of undocumented immigrants by 40 percent, tried to enforce a ban on travelers from Muslim countries, and proposed massive cuts to food stamps—all changes that would make life far more difficult for low-income and immigrant LGBT people and LGBT people of color.
“The current political climate that we’re in on a national level is very concerning to us,” Svoboda says. “So we are rallying together and marching to express our dislike and dissatisfaction with many of the actions that have been done.”
And yet, the march’s official language is far more explicit about which hotels to stay at for the event than how the Trump administration is endangering LGBT people. “Our organization has always been very careful to be neutral on any political issues,” Svoboda says.
Given that 77 percent of LGBT people—and 73 percent of Santa Clara County—voted for Hillary Clinton, the supportive language for “red” voters seems disingenuous. But the goal is to build support among as many people as possible, according to organizers.
Martinez hopes to “see just a huge crowd of supporters,” including “folks who are LGBT-identified and those who aren’t.”
California provides much stronger protections for LGBT people than federal laws. Discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people in employment, housing, or public accommodations has been illegal for more than a decade. But in the current political climate, that does little to assuage the concerns of the LGBTQ community, in particular trans and gender-nonconforming people, immigrants, and LGBT people of color.
“We’ve got other things to worry about than just the rainbow,” says Candelario Franco, who is on the march’s Steering Committee. “Although we love gay marriage, we have other things to contend with, because we’re getting it from all these other fronts as well.”
Trans people in the nation’s 10th-largest city still have to go to Fremont, Santa Cruz or San Francisco to get trans-friendly health care.
“If somebody was looking for medically necessary services for transition, they couldn’t find any locally,” Martinez says. “For a community and county as big as Santa Clara County, that’s not acceptable.”
Her office has begun the search for a medical director for a new “trans and gender specialty clinic” to remedy the problem.
Yeager, who terms out at the end of next year, is seeking $1 million in funding for the Office of LGBTQ Affairs in 2018, including six new positions that would include a transgender program and community manager at a cost of $151,600, according to the Bay Area Reporter.
Franco and the march Steering Committee are working to ensure the event emphasizes the voices of those who are directly affected by the Trump administration. “We are looking in the right places and asking the right people, from drag queens to trans folks to young trans folks to Latinos to undocuqueers,” he says, referencing the movement for undocumented queer immigrants. “We’re seeing folks who live here and who grew up here making themselves visible because now we have this platform.”
Franco, who is the program manager for Getting to Zero, the county’s new HIV prevention initiative, sees the march as an opportunity for new LGBT activists to step up in San Jose. “This march needs to be for us, about us, and for those that are ready to defend us, and in every possible way.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Project MORE has a connection to Silicon Valley Pride. Also, San Francisco’s equality march was canceled shortly before this article went to press. San Jose Inside regrets the errors.