Filed away amongst a trove of yellowed newspaper clippings, worn newsletters, fading photographs and nearly obsolete newsreels, four oversized office cabinets inside former Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager’s San Jose garage gradually became an unofficial archive of the last 50 years of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer life in the South Bay.
After nearly 30 years in Santa Clara County politics, during which time he became the county’s first openly gay elected official when he served two terms as trustee of the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District from 1992 to 2000, it’s no surprise that Yeager's makeshift libraries were the final destination for receipts of gay civil rights’ stinging defeats at the ballot box, the San Jose City Council’s passing (and quick rescinding) of the first local Pride Week in 1978, homophobic and transphobic violence and inaugural legal marriage celebrations.
“You just kept those types of things, so you would have it in case you might need it, but not knowing really exactly why,” Yeager said jokingly in a recent interview, reminiscing over how he’s become one of the area’s de-facto gay historians. “By the time it was all over, I had huge cabinets full of material that I could use for a history project.”
Yeager had a great start, but knew he still didn’t know the full history of the LGBTQ community in Santa Clara County, so he broke out his mailing lists and Rolodexes chockfull with names of local LGBTQ leaders and got to work, determined to fill as many missing details and gaps in knowledge before they became forever lost.
“If we had hired a historian to call these people up, how comfortable might they be in responding?” Yeager asks. “I think a great deal of the people could trust me that I was going to accurately tell their story.”
The result is “Coming Out: 50 Years of Queer Resistance and Resilience in Silicon Valley,” which details the lives, strides and vibes of the LGBTQ community in the South Bay—from its agricultural roots to its tech legacy.
On display at History San Jose, located near Happy Hollow at 1650 Senter Road, the exhibit opens to the public for free on Saturday, June 26—carving another notch on a historically significant day for the queer community. That date will also mark six years since the Supreme Court of the United States federally legalized same-sex marriages, eight years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, 18 years since it voided sodomy bans in Texas, and 50 years since the first “Gay Rally” in San Jose.
The exhibit will extend beyond Pride month, open to the public through the entire second half of 2021.
A Comprehensive Look
Despite delays and health concerns, the pandemic proved somewhat fortuitous to the project, as Yeager’s research and collection of stories grew more comprehensive. When he wasn’t pruning his persimmon tree or teaching online classes at San Jose State University, he spent the past year cracking open old copies of the 1980s Santa Clara Valley newspaper Our Paper/Your Paper, navigating clips of LGBTQ public access cable TV show “OutLook Video,” and scheduling hundreds of Zoom interviews with folks who made headlines.
The end result, funded through donations from individuals and organizations, as well as the county’s Historic Grant Program, includes 40 exhibit artifacts, 150 reported stories and 200 timeline entries about more than 40 community organizations published on the exhibit’s sister website, Queer Silicon Valley.
The curation process didn’t start from scratch, but Yeager assembled a team of 100 different contributors and administrators to log tales of non-discrimination benefits in Silicon Valley’s tech companies, secret student meetups on and off Stanford University’s campus, ARIS’ organized care for HIV-positive patients, and the sense of community forged within groups like ProLatino, Song That Radio and Carla’s Saloon.
A range of original artifacts line the exhibit’s halls, from dishonorable discharge papers for queer U.S. military service members to a crown from the Imperial Court drag shows and coronation balls to flowing Folclórico dresses worn by traditional Mexican dancers and panels of the infamous AIDS quilt, adorned with names of those who succumbed to the disease.
These stories go beyond LGBTQ History 101—Stonewall riots, Harvey Milk and legalized same-sex marriage—and instead highlight strides in civil rights and social acceptance that were happening 50 miles south of the Castro District’s backyard.
While legalized same-sex marriage in 2015 jumped a major hurdle for queer civil rights, the idea that “love is love” doesn’t preclude discrimination, physical violence and social scorn. And as 2021 has ushered in a new age of renewed scrutiny and even reversal of LGBTQ rights—by May, more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills had been introduced in state legislatures restricting access to sports, education and medical care—Yeager thinks the stories within “Coming Out” not only provide windows into how bad things got in the past, but also illustrate previous paths towards equality.
“For the people who lived through it with me, they are so appreciative that I'm recording this, because it's their history, too,” Yeager says, noting this has been particularly true when it comes to documenting the AIDS crisis. “They're just so grateful, and for some people, it brings a little tear to their eye for all the emotional baggage that they've been carrying around with them because of all of these events.”
Compared to what many people consider history—stories collected after everyone involved is dead and gone, featuring 100-year-old events and sepia-toned photos—records of the LGBTQ community are relativly recent.
Yet Amy Cohen, executive director of Exhibit Envoy, which helped design the program, says one of the biggest challenges of piecing together narratives of the South Bay’s LGBTQ history was distilling it down into an experience that visitors of all backgrounds can enjoy and understand.
The result became a deeply educational repository of information, including basic definitions along with contextual background, in an effort to fully represent the discrimination, hatred and even danger queer members of the community have dealt with and continue to face for being themselves.
Cohen hopes every visitor will be able to walk away from History San Jose and say they learned something new.
“A lot of the folks that we're talking about are alive today and are going to be at the opening and see their name on the wall, but then there are also going to be visitors who don't necessarily know that trans and gay people have lived in the region or don't really understand what LGBTQ means,” Cohen said. “Going through a history museum and being able to engage with that kind of content on your own terms, and really dig into it just to learn something new, that might kind of shape or change your thinking. It helps us understand each other better if we understand where we've all been.”
Understanding, acceptance and protection are even more pressing concerns as record numbers of young people are openly identifying as LGBTQ. According to a Gallup poll, one in six people born between 1997 and 2002 identified as LGBTQ—a statistic that helped drive the rate of queer people in the United State’s population up to 5.6%.
But even with growing numbers, discrepancies still exist. UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute found LGBTQ people as a whole often fare worse economically than their non-queer peers, while the CDC reports higher risks for health concerns. Additionally, the pandemic alone exacerbated risks for younger generations, as 42% of LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 seriously considered suicide in the past year, while 94% said recent politics negatively impacted their mental health, according to a May report from the Trevor Project.
Whayne Harriford, one of the founders of the monthly LGBTQ publication South Bay Times, says physical collections like “Coming Out” offer both older and younger generations proof of the struggles they endured, as well as overcame.
“There's tangible proof and evidence, whereas stories sometimes either lose things in translation or they change in translation,” Harriford said. “When you look back on that history, it feels like we were able to create building blocks, and it probably helped better institutionalize the presence and the rights of LGBTQ people in that area. That feels good.”
That’s one reason why the advisory board for “Coming Out” opted to present the exhibit’s real-life experiences “as is,” rather than watering down any content or avoiding offensive language and events. Visitors will notice words match their historically accurate meanings: “gay rights” often referred to any LGBTQ identities in the 1970s, while many in the “queer” community in 2021 use the word inclusively, compared to the ’60s slur.
“We did not want to shy away from calling things out for what they are; we talk about homophobic and transphobic violence, we talk about homophobic initiatives and we talked about marriage equality,” Cohen says. “We tried to use terms that really named what's going on and not capitulate to folks who might be offended by reading those terms, because these are people’s lived experiences and it's important to call it out for what it is.”
Despite living in the Bay Area for a decade, Cohen says she had never heard any of the queer history from Santa Clara County.
“It’s wild—I really always thought San Francisco was ‘the place,’ and that's not true,” Cohen says. “I’m sure that communities across the United States have histories like this, too … It’s great that we're able to reopen History San Jose with this exhibit that's maybe going to open some minds.”
Amy Brinkman and Kathleen Viall know about opening minds. They were the first same-sex couple to appear on the Mercury News’ wedding page, announcing their September 1992 commitment ceremony complete with a black-and-white portrait of the new brides in their wedding gowns.
Brinkman says she fought against backlash from locals, and even her family members, many of whom didn’t fully understand nor accept her relationship. Challenging misunderstandings and changing misconceptions about same-sex relationships was why Brinkman agreed to share her story within the halls of “Coming Out,” in the hopes that their actions could help push the needle forward socially and politically.
It wasn’t until seeing her and Viall’s story told within the entire Queer Silicon Valley website that she realized its true impact.
“There's a couple things I'm very proud of, and that's one,” Brinkman said. “I think we're around so many heroes in the moment that we don't see the outcomes sometimes until years later, or not at all. Doing this history project helped me look back and relive some of the power of those days.”
Revisiting those memories in interviews for the exhibit’s curator was difficult at times, but she says she focused on the positive outcomes—mental, emotional, physical—of letting other LGBTQ people in Santa Clara County know not only are they not alone, but they’re also not the first to face challenges and hardship, along with love and support.
“I think it takes time and age and perspective. I think all of us live a history, and we don't know how it's going to impact other people in the future,” Brinkman says. “If we do our best and try to do the right things and be true to ourselves, I think it creates better things for the people to come.”
Yeager thinks it’s probably fair to say that’s one goal of the entire queer community: make life as a LGBTQ person in the South Bay easier and better for the next generation—transitioning the turmoil and pushback previous generations fought against into acceptance and success. He says that starts by telling elders’ stories of resistance, resilience and “Coming Out.”
“Knowing what I was going through, what people were thinking about me, what I thought about myself, I think that propels a lot of people to get involved,” Yeager says. “Most people, especially younger generations, don't think that there were any gay things happened here in San Jose and Santa Clara County. And why would they? There wasn’t anybody else to tell them.”
Prior to joining Metro’s staff, Katie Lauer contributed to Queer Silicon Valley.