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S. Bay queer office launches 10-city listening tour

by Heather Cassell

Maribel Martinez, director of the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs, speaks at the first LGBTQ listening tour in Mountain View. Photo: Heather Cassell
Maribel Martinez, director of the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs, speaks at the first LGBTQ listening tour in Mountain View. Photo: Heather Cassell  

In an effort to understand Santa Clara County's queer residents' needs, its Office of LGBTQ Affairs recently kicked off a 10-city listening tour in Mountain View.

At the same time, the Mountain View Human Relations Council also announced the launch of an LGBTQ needs assessment survey for queer and allied residents and people who work in the city.

The survey, available in multiple languages, is being conducted throughout February.

Maribel Martinez and Julie Solomon held the January 27 meeting. The session and the research are fiscally supported through a city and county partnership and also utilizes volunteers, officials said.

Martinez, a queer woman of color, is the director of Santa Clara County's Office of LGBTQ Affairs. Solomon, 49, an ally, is the vice chair and commissioner of the city of Mountain View Human Relations Commission.

"We really want to know what's happening locally in Mountain View," said Martinez.

An estimated 30 people, including state and local elected officials, leaders of community organizations, and residents attended the two-hour meeting to discuss and identify concerns in the city.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents Mountain View, along with other cities in the northernmost part of the county that make up District 5, and Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith also attended.

The officials spoke briefly about their work on behalf of the community, but they said they were there to listen more than to talk.

"I have been impressed at how much we've accomplished over the years and how much we still have to accomplish," Simitian, an ally, told the audience, noting that the Board of Supervisors is unanimously behind the South Bay's LGBT community.

"This area can only be well-served if we can communicate what well-served means," he continued. "What does it look like? What do we need? This is the day to make sure that we communicate that message. I hope that we will use the time that we have today to make more progress."

Lack of services close by
Attendees spoke about feeling disenfranchised and the lack of accessing LGBT-specific and LGBT-friendly services closer to Mountain View as it's difficult to get to the Billy De Frank LGBT Community Center in San Jose. Not everyone knew where to go for services they could trust, particularly youth and seniors.

Miles O'Bryan, a 74-year-old gay man who lived in San Francisco for 35 years before moving into a retirement home in Mountain View eight years ago, expressed the disenfranchisement he felt from losing his LGBT-specific services. The move was difficult, he said, due to a homophobic intake counselor and not knowing where to find support. He lost his partner of 12 years last May and didn't know where to turn to for grief services for gay men.

"Finding a grief group that understands loss of a same-sex partner has been difficult," said O'Bryan, noting that many of the social services were supportive, but there weren't any services specifically for LGBT people. Instead, he was told that he could create a group and space would be provided. Deep in grief, he said that he didn't have the energy to do that.

Furthermore, he hasn't found a new community of gay men for friendship or dating, he said. He has many female friends, but, "I want to be with the boys. I want the boys to be with me," he said.

Other issues brought up at the meeting were preventing anti-gay violence, starting with bullying in schools, and helping people feel safe when they report hate crimes.

People didn't simply raise issues, they proactively threw out suggestions to help solve some of the problems they identified and praised the city's diversity and openness to different cultures.

"I'm really proud that Mountain View was first," Christopher Clark, a gay man who is on the Mountain View City Council, told the Bay Area Reporter following the meeting.

Clark and Solomon both liked receiving the community's input, and said it confirmed anecdotal information they previously heard, identified new gaps in services, and suggested solutions.

"We heard a lot of really good ideas from the group that will help to inform us as we move forward," said Solomon. "I really appreciated that people made very specific suggestions, not just identifying a particular gap but offering specific suggestions on how to address it."

Clark added, "It was really good to hear that we're generally on the right track as a community. It's good to have confirmation of that."

Serving the South Bay's LGBT community
An estimated 76,776 residents, or 4 percent, of Santa Clara County's 1,919,402 inhabitants identify as LGBT, according to a 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the 2016 U.S. Census, the most recent population data available.

The county stretches north to south from Palo Alto to Hollister and east to west from Milpitas to Los Gatos.

Building upon the "Status of LGBTQ Health: Santa Clara County, California 2013," survey conducted and published by the county in January 2014, the listening tour is a joint project between individual cities' governments, community leaders, and the county, Martinez and others said.

The survey was a good starting place, but Martinez said that she learned that the data was "challenging for individual cities to really learn about their local jurisdiction."

"By having events like this [and] by partnering with local agencies, we can get a better snapshot about what the needs are of our local communities and, also, begin to build those partnerships with service providers, the city, or nonprofits that interface with the community directly," Martinez told the B.A.R.

It's unclear if every city will do its own survey and report, like Mountain View is doing, but Martinez will be visiting 10 cities throughout the year to host discussions like the recent one in Mountain View.

At the end of the year, she plans to present the information gathered at the sessions to the public.

One of the key findings in the 2013 health survey was that community members were accessing services they needed, said Martinez. The office's goal is to create pathways for LGBT community members to access services, identify unknown issues, create programs and policies that will be institutionalized for the future, and create a welcoming environment for LGBT people in every corner of the South Bay, she said.

Martinez wants "to really get a clearer and better snapshot about what is happening in our local communities," she said, and set benchmarks comparing local data to national data.

"It's really important to have community input. We want to make sure that the community knows what we're doing and that we're here to serve them," said Martinez. "A big piece is allowing time and space to be intentional about getting direct community feedback," as well as attempt to decrease the sense of "unsureness" about where the county stands with what's happening at the national level, she said.

Once the listening tour is completed, it will mark the first time at a government level that information has been collected about the South Bay's LGBTQ residents.

Ultimately, the goal is "building lasting change ... that's going to live beyond us," Martinez told the audience.

Simitian believes the tour will get better with each stop, "Mountain View was a good start," he said. "I think we'll learn something new from each one of these."

"The pivotal moment will be when the city tours are completed, and we will step back and say, 'What have we learned?' and more importantly, 'What will we do with what we've learned?'" he said.

The survey is available to LGBT and ally adults living or working in Mountain View in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Russian at A separate comment card is available for individuals who don't live in Mountain View but visit the city often. The survey closes February 28.

The next community listening forum will take place in Palo Alto, Thursday, March 29, at 7 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Community Center, 3700 Middlefield Road. Refreshments will be provided.


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