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20 Years of Love & Sex
20-Year Timeline: From the beginning of AIDS awareness to outed cartoon sponges.
Love Is a Drug: Once the realm of poets, artists and philosophers, love has been exposed as biochemistry.
When Porn Wore Sideburns: In San Jose's golden age of smut, real fans converged in the dark at theaters like the Burbank, the New Paris and the Pussycat.
Gay Nineties: Twenty years of queers in the South Bay.
The Joy of Mix: Want a real window into the soul? Don't look into the eyes—look at the CD collection.
Victims Gone Wild: How feminism has messed up relationships.
Borderless Dating: In the valley, young couples aren't afraid of diversity.
Twenty Years of Tom Cruise: What were we thinking?


Gay Nineties

Twenty years of queers in the South Bay

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

I'M SITTING inside a darkened bar, just steps from a small dance floor where a cute twentysomething girl with shoulder-length vanilla-blonde hair, tattered blue jeans and a backward baseball cap is belting out her ghetto-best karaoke version of an Eminem rap anthem.

"Would the real Slim Shady please stand up, please stand up," she croons, gesturing to her crotch and the audience seemingly all at once.

My friend Susan* has just moved from San Francisco to Sunnyvale, and I've brought her here to celebrate. This is Club Savoy, the oldest lesbian bar in the country, described by our friends as a fun country club. For me, the descriptions had elicited images of Izod cardigans and girls named Buffy; for Susan, it apparently meant Bud Lite-guzzling girls named Sam.

Turns out neither of us was completely right, as the Savoy is a mixed-crowd lesbian club split into two sections, each equipped with its own DJ, dance floor and full bar and nary a cowboy boot in sight.

After an hour of the Savoy's down-home bar-dyke shenanigans, Susan is certain that she's made a terrible, life-altering mistake by moving to the South Bay. And yet, within weeks, she's changed her tune, singing the praises of Lesbian Teatime, a queer twentysomething social group, women's movie night, gay bowling league, L Word Mondays at Club Savoy and the Billy DeFrank Gay and Lesbian Center's must-attend gay bingo every Wednesday.

Her social schedule is so full these days, in fact, that I've lost touch with Susan. I'm sure I'll come across her again someday, perhaps at Sisterspirit Bookstore, an outing of the Reelers' gay square-dance party or one of the hundreds of oh-so-queer local activities. That's the beauty of being gay in the South Bay.

How Did We Get Here?

In 1969, just months after New York's historic Stonewall Riots, students at San Jose State University brought the revolution home by founding the first gay student group—the Gay Liberation Front—on a CSU campus.

The early-'70s brought an avalanche of change to gay South Bay: San Jose's first queer newspaper (Lambda News), a feminist press (founded by activists Johnie Staggs and Rosalie Nichols), a couple of queer bars (the Savoy in 1969, A Tinker's Damn in 1970) and the establishment of a small number of gay-owned businesses in San Jose and the surrounding cities.

Still, it wasn't until 1976 that San Jose hosted its first organized gay pride festival. With teddy bears, three-legged races and water-balloon tosses (sponsored by the Imperial Court's drag queens), the event was an almost wholesome family event by today's bare-chested go-go-float-boy standards.

The '80s, though, brought the area's biggest surges in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) visibility: a powerful new political organization, a community center, a women's bookstore, a growing gay pride parade and a powerful activist with a quirky name.

"The most exciting change in the South Bay?" ponders high-school-teacher-turned-filmmaker Pam Walton, a South Bay resident for 53 years. "I would say the work BAYMEC has done to make us visible, especially the hard dedicated work of Wiggsy Sivertsen."

The director of counseling services at San Jose State University, Siversten co-founded the school's Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA) in 1971 and became one of the South Bay's most outspoken queer activists.

Partnering with gay activist Ken Yeager, Sivertsen set out to educate local politicos by forming the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC) in 1984. A four-county LGBT political-action group, BAYMEC was, Sivertsen once told reporters, a "way of bringing change that wouldn't make people throw themselves on their own swords."

Yeager, of course, became San Jose's first openly gay City Council member and today is the model for the new public-service advertising campaign for the Billy DeFrank Center.

"Many of us remember growing up at a time when there was no safety at home from the taunts and ridicules of others," Yeager says. "While society has become more accepting of LGBT people, these issues remain just as relevant for our young people today."

Marching Orders: The valley's gays and lesbians took to the streets for the first time in 1974 (top) and kept on marching in 1980 (bottom).

A Room of Our Own

Years before BAYMEC came to fruition, some gay activists were alarmed when voters defeated gay rights ordinances in Santa Clara County. In 1980, activists called a town-hall-style meeting with the hopes of creating a lesbian and gay community center.

Elizabeth Burkhouse, a 24-year-old student at SJSU, joined 200 other people at that raucous gathering. Within the next few years, Burkhouse would become the organization's first paid executive director.

Today, Burkhouse is retired from the fray, but her legacy, and that of dozens of other local activists, is clear. In 1981, the LGBT Community Center opened in downtown San Jose next door to a modest donut shop and later moved twice in the next decade. In the '90s, the center began a youth program in the county high schools, welcomed Sisterspirit into its basement and saw membership surpass 1,000. In 1999, after a $5.5 million capital campaign, the center moved to its current location on The Alameda and adopted the name of Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center.

"The Community Center opened with a dream in mind and a few hundred dollars in the bank," recalls Ron Schoof, the center's senior-services coordinator. Schoof says about 12,000 people walk through the center's doors each year and another 15,000 visit its website.

The center has become an active member of The Alameda Business Association. "I think that being in the South Bay has made us stronger," Schoof admits. "We have had to unite and fight for what we believe and show that we can stand on our own here in the South Bay and not just support our neighbors up north. We have our own issues to deal with here in San Jose and the Silicon Valley. It is not always easy, as this is essentially a farming community at heart and still believes you do what you want, and I will do what I want and just don't bother me. But that does not always get things done here."

Founded in 1984 by Mary Jeffery, Karen Hester, Amy Caffrey and Marilyn Cook, Sisterspirit recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. "When I started with Sisterspirit, it was in the spirit of feminism," recalls Margie Struble, a San Jose resident who has been volunteering at the store for more than 18 years. "It was a time when bookselling was dominated by men deciding what got published and read in this country. Women's bookstores were starting up around the country along with women's publishing companies in a grassroots effort to get women's words out to the women who needed them."

Today, mainstream presses publish lesbian authors, and even good gay activists find themselves buying books at Amazon.com. But that won't stop the chicks at Sisterspirit. The cute, bespectacled baby dyke I met on Saturday gabbed on her Winnie the Pooh-covered cell phone (no kidding) and debated politics as a steady trickle of young, tentative women browsed nearby, proving, if nothing else, that sisterhood is still powerful and that Sisterspirit is probably a better place for my friend Susan to find a date than gay bingo ever will be.

Come One, Come All

As LGBT life integrates into the mainstream, queer performers such as Kate Clinton and Marga Gomez (who both have appearances planned at the San Jose Rep) and Joan Jett (who headlined San Jose Gay Pride last summer) find themselves gracing the stages in the South Bay.

Those acts are now competing for attention with homegrown lesbian and gay performers and arts groups in the South Bay. For the 9-year-old Rainbow Women's Chorus—a predominantly lesbian choral group—the increasing acceptance of queer life is, well, slightly frustrating.

"Clearly, competing with so many other things to do is frustrating," says Rainbow singer Heather Hartter. "It's hard to keep our membership numbers from fluctuating because there are always people moving around—figuratively and literally. In addition, on any given concert night, we are usually competing with at least five other local events. It's impossible to schedule apart from all of them."

One of those events is the 7-year-old, monthly Fierce Words Tender Women's Open Mic Night. "I started it because I was sick of being one of the only women performing at local open mics," says organizer Miri, a longtime South Bay resident who also organizes FIYAH!, San Jose's new queer open mic. "Since then, all those open mics have come and gone, but we are still kicking."

The crowd is mostly white lesbian or bi women, Miri says, and it's "always a challenge to get more young women, more folks of color, and for straight women to feel comfortable. We also get some transwomen at each mic because we're one of the few mics that are very welcoming of transwomen. There's a lot of discrimination against them in the lesbian community." But getting performers in the South Bay, she admits, is a whole lot more difficult. "It's much harder to get an audience, harder to get people to participate, to perform," she says. "In San Francisco and Santa Cruz, you have to beat performers off with a stick. Here, you have to beg them on your knees to take the stage."

And where do these open mics take place? At the grooviest homes for queer performance art: the Billy DeFrank and Sisterspirit.

A Place at the Table

When it comes to the history of gays and lesbians in the South Bay, the seminal reference is Ted Sahl's tome From Closet to Community: A Quest for Gay & Lesbian Liberation in San Jose and Santa Clara Count. Sahl, an award-winning independent photojournalist, documented the South Bay's lesbian and gay community for a quarter-century.

His collection, the Ted Sahl Archives at SJSU—which consists of 6,000 images, newspapers and other ephemera and more than 100 audiotape interviews—is one of the most unusual in the country in that a single individual has created an uninterrupted documentation of the modern gay-rights movement in a local urban community, dating from the early post-Stonewall era when such coverage was almost nonexistent.

Sahl was careful to photo document all constituencies of the local gay community, including social as well as political events and working-class men and women as well as celebrities.

Sahl wasn't the only person covering the revolution, though. Since 1987, the South Bay has had its own gay television in the guise of Outlook Video, a public-access cable program produced by an all-volunteer staff in the studios of Mountain View Community Television, KMVT Channel 15, and carried on stations throughout the Bay Area and in Sacramento on GayTV.

"When I took over as executive producer in 1995, it was time for us to get away from reporting news. News topics are now covered real-time via the Internet, gay papers and even mainstream television news," says Ken Sullivan-Martin.

"The era of Outlook Video churning out gay news program needed to come to a close. We could not compete, since our show is taped and mailed via tape to other public-access stations, but Outlook Video served wonderfully as the voice of news and events in the early years."

Outlook covers everything from LGBT films to arts to health to mini-fashion shows and current issue commentaries. Field reporters have gone as far as Bangkok and Australia to cover global gay events. "We are the conduit of fair, accurate, and inclusive representation of the LGBT community in the media," Sullivan-Martin adds. "And that we serve the local entertainment industry in a supporting role."

Where Do We Go From Here?

Though an oft-overlooked younger sibling to San Francisco's headline-grabbing queer community, the GLBT denizens of the South Bay rarely feel overshadowed by their gay neighbor to the north.

"People in the South Bay are exposed to more diversity in general," says Jamie McLeod, Santa Clara's openly gay City Council member and vice mayor. That diversity helped her win the seat last November. "Santa Clarans are more on the conservative side, when compared to the Bay Area," McLeod figures. "I wasn't elected because Santa Clarans are liberal, but because they are generally fair and civil. It helped that my partner, Vanessa, attended a lot of events with me and that she is quite charming and won over lots of people on her own! People could just see us as a regular boring couple and the novelty of being gay wore thin."

The newly appointed vice mayor says that comparisons between the South Bay and its northern neighbor are futile. "San Francisco is a place to go for major GLBT events; the South Bay is a place to go to settle down and live," she says. "In lumping them together, you lose the opportunity to see each for what it is. It would be like putting an extrovert and an introvert together, then judging their ideas based on who is the most outspoken."

Burkhouse, the woman who helmed the LGBT center first, says that the pros and cons of living in the South Bay can be one and the same: "Living in an area that is so tolerant, witnessing the struggle for marriage rights," she says, is exciting. But "that's also the frustrating part: because this area is so different from the rest of the country it's clear how far we have to go as a nation."

That tolerance, though, is a huge asset, says San Jose lesbian Tamera Love: "The biggest advantage to living in the South Bay as a lesbian is that it's OK to be gay here. It's OK to tell your boss you're gay. It's OK to tell the guy hitting on you at Jiffy Lube, too. It's OK to hold hands and kiss in public."

On the Business Side

For a city of 850,000, queer nightlife in San Jose and the surrounding cities is surprisingly small but vibrant and steadfast. What's changed most is that the LGBT bars and clubs are no longer the shadowy back alley operations they once were in bigger cities.

It's easy for a few bars and clubs to parse out the crowds by type: hot Latino guys at Sunnyvale's monthly Salvation; rugged leather folk at Renegades. Mountain View's tiny King of Clubs touts itself as all gay (gay-owned, gay-operated, heck, even the DJs are gay), but even it is mainstream enough these days to partner with the Ramada for special events (like Feb. 11's Black and Blue Ball).

While San Jose's oldest neighborhood gay bar, Mac's Club, brings in a friendly Cheers-like crowd (think darts and beer), Santa Clara's oldest and busiest gay bar, A Tinker's Damn, has survived its 35 years in business by continuing to grow with the times. On a weekend night now, Tinker's is balls-to-the-wall (no pun intended) from the bar to the dance floor with young queer revelers and their out-for-a-good-time straight friends.

The same is true for Splash, the area's most mainstream (and some say most exciting) club where straight women are as likely to show up to see sexy go-go dancers as the gay boys who writhe on the dance floor.

Even Club Savoy—that little dyke bar that opened the year that New York's Stonewall Riots occurred—is a bit more mainstream these days, hence the barely legal, rapping karaoke star. But it's still a girl-girl haven, staying largely outside the co-option that has affected queer dance clubs elsewhere.

Just as the club scene has grown and mainstreamed, so too have local gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses that are, today, too numerous to recount. The local LGBT business group, the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce, boasts members that range from architects to waste-management firms (and everything in between).

Most notably, the largest exclusive distributor of lesbian and gay entertainment in the country, Wolfe Video, has been headquartered in tiny New Almaden for 20 years now. Sales for the company today are a hundred times what they were 10 years ago, and the company's offices along the town's celebrated main drag are centered in a growing collection of restored historic and adobe homes. It's become a sort of lesbian Hewlett-Packard type success story. Founder Kathy Wolfe, who started the company in her house long before lesbians were chic and gays were mainstream, says her location in the South Bay made it all possible.

"It's astonishing to see how far we've come," says Wolfe. I'm sure that's what most of the South Bay's early activists are thinking too.

Diane Anderson-Minshall is the executive editor of 'Curve' Magazine.

* Some names have been changed. Mostly just my single friend.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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