Cover Stories

Identity Shift

cov6 prideHow the LGBT community found its place in Santa Cruz

When I arrived in Santa Cruz in the mid-1990s, the town had a well-established reputation for being an open, gay-friendly place. There were rainbow flags hanging from balconies, Pride was a city-wide celebration, and out-gay men and lesbians worked in every imaginable job, from coffee shops and restaurants to health care, law, city government and public works. A women’s bookstore, Herland Book Cafe, kept me stocked with queer-centric zines and other reading material; the Saturn Cafe was a beacon for gay and gay-friendly vegetarians; Ani DiFranco, Ferron, and Team Dresch performed here regularly; and the Diversity Center was a vital community hub. For a hippie-leaning young lesbian, Santa Cruz was queer paradise. But it wasn’t always this way.

In the 1970s, Santa Cruz was a different place. With one of the largest retiree populations in the country and a conservative City Council, it was not the open, liberal, gay-friendly hub that it is now. In 1975, the first Pride parade drew hecklers, protesters, and threats of violence.

The election of John Laird and the late-Mardi Wormhoudt to the City Council signaled a change in local politics, and in 1983 Laird became one of the first openly gay mayors in the country, marking a pivotal time in the city’s transition away from conservative politics toward a liberal bent. The way Laird tells it, however, he was just the face of a very vibrant and active community.

“When I was elected to the City Council in ’81, there was strong gay support,” Laird says. “Gay people were everywhere—there were doctors, lawyers, child care workers, public employees, people who worked in the visitor serving industry … You couldn’t build a coalition with any organization without there being somebody that was gay or lesbian in it.”

Trying to determine the key players and events that shifted the local consciousness around LGBT issues is like diving head-first down a wormhole of courage, activism and vision, with each community leader or activist leading to five or 10 more people who were instrumental in the movement.

In addition to Laird, those key players include celebrated feminist author, UCSC educator, and activist Bettina Aptheker; famed composer and Santa Cruz resident Lou Harrison; lesbian feminist poet, essayist and activist Adrienne Rich; renowned scholar, activist and UCSC educator Angela Davis, an early supporter of gay rights; prominent LGBT activist and educator Nancy Stoller; and Dr. Jerry Solomon, co-founder of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP).

But the groundswell of queer acceptance and visibility was created by people whose names didn’t appear in any national headlines—people who saw a way they could make a difference, and did it. These people all shaped Santa Cruz into the LGBT-positive place that it is today.

The establishment of UCSC helped lay a foundation of liberalism in Santa Cruz. Women’s Studies and Feminist Studies departments provided safe spaces for people to talk about issues surrounding gender, inequality, health and sexuality. In 1975, the KZSC radio program “Closet Free Radio” began as a queer-content public affairs show, and is still airing today. As students graduated and stayed in Santa Cruz, the local culture began to change, too, which in turn attracted more queer-friendly people. A 2014 UC Campus Climate Assessment Project found that over 11 percent of UCSC undergraduates, nearly 14 percent of graduate students, and 12 percent of the staff, identify as LGBT.

Deb Abbott, director of UCSC’s Cantú Queer Center, describes it as a critical mass.

“Because UCSC was billed as kind of an alternative campus from its inception,” says Abbott, “it drew queer students, even though it took a few years in the beginning to be a visible presence. As critical mass developed and people became more courageous about being out, it began to draw even more people.”

The university also tries to give good cultural competency training, so those students who don’t identify as LGBT have a progressive stance around LGBT issues.

“In whatever work they end up doing, they have a sensibility that’s queer inclusive,” Abbott says.

Crucial to the creation of a queer-friendly environment in Santa Cruz was the women’s movement of the 1970s and ’80s, which brought to light issues of gender, reproductive rights, domestic violence, equal pay, sexual harassment, sexual violence and more. Out of it grew consciousness-raising groups which included a men’s movement and queer-centric publications such as Matrix, Manifesto, the Lavender Reader, and the Rubyfruit Reader. Numerous nonprofits also budded then, including the Santa Cruz Women’s Health Collective which became the Women’s Health Center, WomenCARE, and Women’s Crisis Support-Defensa de Mujeres.

“Some of our earliest nonprofits … were founded by feminists,” says Abbott. “And many of the founding mothers of those organizations were lesbians or queer-identified women.”

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic proved to be a unifying force for the local gay community. Dr. Jerry Solomon, co-founder of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, explains that before the epidemic, many lesbians were forming strong communities away from men, and gay men were either moving to the mountains to set up their own communes or partying in the discos. While gay men and lesbians did get together periodically, it was unusual. During the AIDS epidemic, the two communities started working together.

“Some of the very first people who stepped forward to work with the Santa Cruz AIDS Project were lesbians,” says Solomon. “They just showed up out of care and understanding of how serious this was … Having men and women in the room for a common cause that was really devastating got people’s attention and forged a collaborative situation between gay men and lesbians.”

The Santa Cruz AIDS Project also fostered a bridge between the LGBT community and straight allies in Santa Cruz, including members of the religious community and local retirees who volunteered their time and resources.

“For many in the heterosexual community, this was the first time they had sat down with gays and lesbians to try to do something really important,” says Solomon. “That forged a larger collaborative framework that is still with us today.”

Solomon credits Dr. George Wolfe, Santa Cruz County’s Health Officer at the time, for framing the AIDS epidemic as a public health issue rather than something that affected just one community or group of people. At the time, this was controversial.

SCAP brought awareness of HIV and AIDS to communities throughout Santa Cruz County. The first grant they received was to work in migrant camps in Watsonville. SCAP contacted the older women in the communities and trained them about AIDS. They asked them to speak to other women who would, in turn, speak to the men in their families. It was a model that was adopted nationwide.

“We were one of the first groups to look at minority outreach,” says Solomon. “And how to do it in a culturally sensitive way.”

Back in the ’80s, the Santa Cruz Lesbian and Gay Community Center, which is now the Diversity Center, helped bring queer visibility to Santa Cruz, with its then-downtown location. A hub for the local LGBT community, the Diversity Center is now located on Soquel Avenue, and has over 60 outreach programs, including those for queer Latinos, the transgender community, veterans, youth, and seniors. Leaders of the senior programs are also on the local Seniors Council, giving LGBT seniors broader impact in the Santa Cruz community.

Over the last 40 years, there have been countless queer artists, musicians, writers, composers, actors and others who have contributed to the richness of the local arts and culture. Lou Harrison was world-renowned as a composer. And, although she doesn’t live in Santa Cruz, Maestra Marin Alsop, an out lesbian and first woman conductor of a major American orchestra, has directed the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music since 1992. Event producer Tracye Lee Lawsen brought queer and queer-friendly musical acts to Santa Cruz for decades, and the Nickelodeon, India Joze, and many more businesses have been longtime supporters of the LGBT community and culture.

Politically, in addition to the stellar legacies left by Wormhoudt and Laird, the local LGBT community is an important segment of the local voting population. Organizations such as the LGBT Alliance, ensure that local politicians are responsive to the needs of the community.

The wormhole of LGBT movers and shakers that shaped Santa Cruz is endless. Their combined efforts and collective vision for an open, inclusive town have helped define Santa Cruz.

“Santa Cruz became known as being queer-progressive,” says Abbott. “So folks moved here. Everyone from amazing artists, to political folks, to writers—all created a critical mass that drew even more folks and made huge contributions.”

Top photo caption: A shot from one of the first Pride marches on Pacific Avenue, in the late 1970s. 


Contributor at Good Times |

Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on community, collaboration, the future of work and music. She's a regular contributor to Shareable and her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Yes! Magazine, No Depression, UTNE Reader, Mother Jones and Launchable Mag. More info: Follow her on Twitter at @CatJohnson.

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