Two summers ago, artist Houyee Chow-Jiménez responded to an open call on Instagram. Project MORE—a nonprofit serving LGBTQ+ people in Northern California—sought muralists to brighten a downtown San Jose alleyway.
Funded by the city of San Jose and private business owners, the murals were part of an ongoing effort to redevelop and rebrand the corridor of Post Street between South First and South Market as Qmunity, an LGBTQI+ business district.
On Monday, the South Bay begins a week of celebration in honor of Silicon Valley Pride (held in August so as not to compete with San Francisco’s Pride in June). Many celebrants will pass right by the two murals, in the process picking up an education in South Bay queer history—past, present and future.
In late 2020, Chow-Jiménez’s application was accepted, along with that of her soon-to-be collaborator, Nick Ybarra. Ybarra, a SJSU student and illustrator for the Spartan Daily, has made art since he could hold a pencil.
“I did it to stop fidgeting in class, but also I just lived for the reactions I would get from classmates,” he says. “That’s where I started taking art a little more seriously—just that motivation to make people feel things.”
Chow-Jiménez, then a recent SFSU grad, incorporates photography, painting, and mixed media into her practice. Her family, who own a restaurant in east San Jose, helped bond her deep ties to the region.
“When I applied, I spoke about being first generation,” Chow-Jiménez explains. “I’m also biracial—Mexican and Chinese. I was still trying to figure out who I was as a queer person, especially coming from cultures that are pretty heavy with what you’re supposed to be. When I got the opportunity to be a queer voice for the city I grew up in, I felt honored.”
After months of planning, Chow-Jiménez and Ybarra landed on a concept. From left to right, passersby would scan Ybarra’s work: a black-and-white timeline of panels dedicated to each decade from the 1950s through today. Next, Chow-Jiménez’s rainbow-hued crowd scene would begin, populated by likenesses of local LGBTQ+ people.
“Growing up near San Jose was an encouraging environment,” says Ybarra, who was in elementary school when gay marriage became legal. “You grow up not realizing your history, and it’s almost like you take it for granted.” In designing the mural, he hoped to give young people a chance to look back at “what it took to be open at Pride and in general.”
A roll call of the timeline mural reveals 10 New Yorkers, 10 San Joseans, four people from nearby counties, an Oregonian and a Hoosier. The largest share of people represented—around 31%—are Democratic officials. They occupy the wall alongside drag performers, civil rights activists, a writer, a minister and more.
The New Yorkers are world-renowned: Marsha P. Johnson, Christine Jorgenson, Keith Haring and James Baldwin, to name a few. The San Joseans are lesser known: Rich Gordon, Matt Hayzke, Alex Lee, Evan Low, Nikki Nichols, Ted Sahl, Wiggsy Sivertsen, Natalia Smut, Johnie Staggs and Ken Yeager.
Ybarra pictures how bar-hoppers waiting in line outside Splash, the adjoining nightclub, might reach for their phone to look up one of the mural’s many San Jose references.
“The iconic faces will catch people’s attention. The idea is like, if I know Harvey and Marsha, maybe I should know Wiggsy.”
The timeline’s familiar faces are set against a backdrop of cartoonish faces and body parts. Ybarra calls them “squishy little dudes,” representing the behind-the-scenes humans whose contours are lost to history.
“I wanted to make them squished together to show cohesion in the queer struggle,” he explains. “Even if someone’s forgotten, they’re just as important to the entire piece as Harvey Milk is.”
Chow-Jiménez builds on this notion, reflecting that there are fewer recorded histories of queer and trans people of color from San Jose.
“Nick and I had to think about who was documenting all of this history, and why did they choose to document these kinds of people? It has been historically seen that [people of color’s] voices are the ones that get erased, even though we’re standing next to everyone else.”
As a corrective, Chow-Jiménez focused her mural on her queer contemporaries.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing to see your neighbors, friends and community members in this mural?” she asks.
With Project MORE’s help, she made her mural participatory.
“We sent out these flyers pretty much everywhere in Silicon Valley,” she says, “and we had an amazing response. Everyone who submitted photos ended up being on the mural.”
To inform their artwork, Ybarra and Chow-Jiménez relied on the online exhibit Queer Silicon Valley. With artifacts dating back to the 1970s, the website makes publicly accessible many original documents, photos, recordings and memorabilia from some of the South Bay’s LGBTQI+ communities. It also culls historical research, timelines, essays and interviews tied to queer locals of yore.
Ken Yeager—executive director of the BAYMEC Community Foundation and the first openly gay elected official in Santa Clara County—has spent the past few years curating these archives, with help from student interns and input from an advisory board. He also appears in Ybarra’s mural.
“Ken Yeager gave us a big presentation early on,” Ybarra recalls, naming the region’s history of political organizing as a resonant highlight.
While no archival project is fully comprehensive, Queer Silicon Valley’s scope is expansive. An in-person exhibit chronicling 50 years of queer happenings in Silicon Valley ran at History San Jose last year. A film complementing the archive aired on KQED, the first-ever documentary to focus exclusively on the South Bay queer community. Soon there will be a traveling exhibit, too, composed of 18 large pop-up banners, expected to make the rounds at libraries, city halls and other public locales. Yeager and his colleagues also expect to record a host of oral histories this fall.
“If you haven’t come up with a way to tell the story, the story doesn’t get told,” Yeager says over the phone. “I see the importance of this history and I was able to come up with a way to tell it.”
The first San Joseans in the timeline mural appear three panels in: the 1970s. They are Rosalie Te-le-li “Nikki” Nichols and Johnie Staggs, the publishers of Lesbian Voices. Described on the Queer Silicon Valley site as “the preeminent feminist lesbian quarterly in Silicon Valley,” the publication ended its seven-year run in 1981.
The story of Lesbian Voices begins with a road trip. Nichols and Staggs crossed the mountains and deserts of three states to retrieve their friend Casey Savage from Colorado Springs. Wending back towards California, the three spitballed their dream of co-operating a feminist business.
“It kept changing character and being embellished,” writes Nichols in the magazine’s Winter 1976 issue. “I readily approved their ideas and kept adding an extra room in the back for a printing press.”
The group produced 200 copies of the first issue of Lesbian Voices from start to finish in under a week. The self-proclaimed admirers of Ayn Rand would go on to found Ms. Atlas, a commercial printing operation and bookstore that served as a community hub.
Savage quickly went on to do other things, but Nichols and Staggs kept at it. They made a deal with a book distributor in Berkeley and sold lesbian pulp paperbacks from the 1950s. Meanwhile, they got apprentice jobs with a straight guy who owned a printing press.
Eventually, Staggs and Nichols abandoned the bookshop idea to run the press full time.
The impulse to sire herself the leader of Lesbian Voices is omnipresent in Nichols’ compositions.
“A Knight in Shining Armor,” she writes, “is a woman who has a vision of how things ought to be and takes action to achieve her vision. Few Knights in Shining Armor exist even today. I am one.”
Nichols is a compelling figure despite her bravado, with conflicting identities galore. She calls herself a man-hater; an atheist anarchist female and former national vice president of Libertarians for Gay Rights; the self-appointed first lesbian feminist to be unequivicably capitalist; a Native American lesbian of the Miwok Tribe and great-grandniece of the first elected governor of California, Peter Burnett.
In 2019, locals voted to change a San Jose middle school’s name from Burnett to Ohlone, following the lead of schools in San Francisco and Long Beach that dropped their ties to the legacy of a governor who espoused public policies of enslavement, exclusion or whipping of Blacks, Native Americans and Asians.
This idea of evolving communities consoles me while skimming 12 issues of Lesbian Voices from the UC Berkeley library website. Sadly, alongside its sapphic poetry and second-wave feminist manifestos I encounter trans-exclusionary ideas, bi-phobia and anti-blackness. I wonder which different narratives—from trans people, bisexuals and Black people of the era—have been swallowed by what memoirist Carmen Maria Machado calls archival silence.
“It doesn’t surprise me that seventies politics would be TERF-y,” Ybarra states, expressing that he’d only encountered sanitized “textbook” versions of the Lesbian Voices story. “That seems to happen when we learn about significant people. [The accounts] gloss over the less than stellar bits of them. It’s damaging to brush over the bad stuff.”
Rebecca OBryan, a former colleague of Lesbian Voices who worked with the closely affiliated queer newspaper Our Paper, Your Paper, informs me that Nichols passed away several years ago. The other surviving editors are unavailable for comment.
OBryan says that, over time, Lesbian Voices’ trans-exclusionary politics evolved, chalking it up to the rigid roles—butch/femme, top/bottom—of San Jose in the 1970s.
“Drag queens were not welcome in the bars unless they were performing and trans people were not really accepted anywhere. For a community that screamed so loudly about acceptance,” she writes over email, “the gay community was not a tolerant bunch back then.”
In the Ms. Atlas office, OBryan would thumb through issues of Lesbian Voices. Sometimes she and Nichols would spat over the magazine’s controversial points, Staggs stepping in as peacekeeper.
“Although Johnie lived in California longer than anyplace else, she has the thickest Texas accent you’ve ever heard,” OBryan says. “She was always like, ‘darling, you ain’t gonna get anywhere with her, so you might as well give it up now.’”
As a butch woman, Nichols often experienced hardships, including a violent tangle with the Sacramento police.
“I would describe Nikki as fiercely intelligent, but searching,” OBryan explains. “She was a very unhappy person. She wasn’t really open to new ideas. I think a lot of that stemmed from her life.”
Though today Lesbian Voices might read as dated and, at its worst, close-minded, it contains important glimpses of gay life from 40 years ago. In one article, Mog Duff calls for a lesbian boycott of The Mecca, a Santa Clara gay bar with an exclusionary policy requiring men to wear pants and women to wear dresses. In an Editor’s Note, Nichols agrees with plans for a consumer boycott while invoking the magazine’s lesbian-separatist ideology.
“Let’s boycott them,” she writes, “and then put the rest of our energy into building a space of our own.”
YOUTH OF YORE
OBryan was a teenager in 1970s Santa Cruz when she found an ad for gay counseling in the back of an underground newspaper. She called the number listed and said, “I’m underage. I don’t know where to go.”
The woman who answered discouraged her. No group would admit her, for fear they’d be arrested for impairing the morals of a minor. Before hanging up, she let slip the names of some watering holes.
“I did manage to finagle my way into the gay bars even though I was just 18,” OBryan reflects. “If you hung out at the bars, you would eventually meet everyone. That’s the reason I got hired to be the advertising manager at the gay newspaper. Because I knew everyone.”
The idea that gay teens once had few ways to find each other is a common theme from the mid to late 20th century, one that stands in contrast to what some locals experience today. An icon with firsthand experience on the topic was Felicia Elizondo, who grew up here in the 1960s.
“There was a park right downtown in San Jose called St. James Park,” she reveals in a Vice Magazine interview online. “I met my best friends there, the gay sissies of San Jose.”
In 2018, I found myself at Elizondo’s kitchen table, co-conducting an oral history for Archive408. She offered an impressive introduction.
“My name is Felicia A. Elizondo. I’m also known as Felicia Flames. I am a transsexual woman—male to female. I am an activist, entertainer, a historian, a trailblazer, a Tenderloin queen, a pioneer, a legend, an icon, a diva, a 32-year survivor of AIDS and a Vietnam War veteran.”
Born in Texas in 1946, Elizondo attended San Jose High School, where varsity jocks mocked her in the halls.
“In my junior year,” she said, “I ran for head cheerleader and I won. I was the first male cheerleader to be put in that position.”
Around this time, Elizondo became a sex worker.
“I was walking down Santa Clara Street with my coat draped like sissies used to do at the time, and this guy stopped me,” she explained. Following their transaction, he told her to check out St. James Park. “I’ll never forget that redhead guy who told me where my people were.”
Her crew also frequented the Crystal Ballroom, a gay bar on San Fernando Street. “The kids had nowhere else to go,” she shared. “We had no place to help us because of who we were. It was just word of mouth that everything happened, because [there weren’t] organizations or anything like that to help us or make us understand who we were.”
Other teen oases included the East Foothills home of a lesbian mom and the Around the Clock Cafe on Santa Clara Street.
“[It] was the center of the universe for us,” she says of the latter, comparing it to the site of the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. (This San Francisco uprising in response to police violence toward drag queens and trans people predates Stonewall by three years.)
Elizondo and her friends would journey to the Tenderloin via Greyhound, becoming regulars at Compton’s. She appears in Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, a 2005 KQED documentary about the incident.
“The kids have to know where they came from to know where they’re going,” Elizondo, who passed away in 2021, remarked back then. “Without the history of the San Jose queens or the Tenderloin queens, we wouldn’t be here.”
TRANS ACROSS TIME
Projects like the timeline mural and Queer Silicon Valley can educate us about aspects of local history spanning the last three generations. Still, it’s impossible for any timeline to showcase the true breadth of queer experiences that have occurred here over thousands of years.
I am pondering this when I revisit the book Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in 19th-Century San Francisco. One figure highlighted in the text, Milton Matson, might appear on Ybarra’s mural were it to cover 13 decades instead of seven.
In 1895, the Los Gatos-based Matson was arrested for issuing bogus checks. Locals regarded him as a well-to-do English gentleman, citing his dapper attire. When police discovered that he’d been assigned female at birth, it became the hottest gossip in town.
“I have been constantly in masculine garb for 16 years,” Matson says in an 1895 article in the San Francisco Call. “I was never discovered or even in danger of being discovered before. When I was 26, my twin brother died and at my mother’s request I donned male attire.”
Soon, a San Francisco freak show recruited Matson from the cell.
“I’m getting letters from all sorts of showmen offering good salaries if I will exhibit myself,” he revealed in a Santa Cruz Surf article. “It amuses me very much. I’m beginning to think it pays to be notorious.”
Matson, a minor celebrity, gave long interviews with the press. Though quotes in his own voice are riveting, journalists of the time likely distorted his words for shock value.
“These interviews are best read as a window onto the sensationalism and fascination that surrounded reports on gender-crossing in the late 19th century, rather than a fully accurate account of Matson’s experiences,” confirms Dr. Clare Sears, author of Arresting Dress.
Sears lauds Matson for his defiance in the face of adversity. They point out that Matson was in a long-term relationship with a woman. When arrested, he insisted the judge address him as a man. Despite facing punishment and harassment, he fought back.
“That’s important for us to remember today,” Sears says, “particularly given escalating state attacks on trans communities.”
Taking a cue from historians, Sears encourages people to pause before applying contemporary identity categories to forebears like Matson.
“There were many people, including Matson, who clearly identified with a gender they were not assigned at birth,” they state. “We can be mindful of the terminology we use, while also recognizing continuities in trans experiences across time.”
While the thought that a business district will increase belonging among LGBTQI+ locals may strike some as consumerist, the murals and all they represent are heartening. Together, they’re a visible expression of the fact that queer people—past, present and future—are in San Jose and worth noticing.
Already, the project has been deepening bonds across communities and generations.
“When I came out,” Chow-Jiménez shares, “I was completely terrified. And it did take a beat for my family to accept this new moment in my life. But then this mural brought us together because it was so grand.”
After a conversation, her family even assembled to help out.
“I had my older sisters, I had my dad helping. I had my nieces who are seven and 12 there painting the stripes. That’s what this project is supposed to mean: people coming together with love and accepting each other.”