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Pride 2017: Martinez advances visibility for South Bay LGBTQs

by Heather Cassell

Maribel Martinez, left, wafts sage over the crowd at City<br>Hall during a recent transgender youth rally, as Santa Clara County Supervisor<br>Ken Yeager, right, looks on. Photo: Jo-Lynn Otto
Maribel Martinez, left, wafts sage over the crowd at City
Hall during a recent transgender youth rally, as Santa Clara County Supervisor
Ken Yeager, right, looks on. Photo: Jo-Lynn Otto  

San Jose native Maribel Martinez is paving the path for how counties across the nation can build comprehensive targeted programs and services to address the needs of LGBTQ residents.

Martinez, a 36-year-old queer woman of color, is the director of the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs. Based in San Jose, it's the nation's first countywide office dedicated to the LGBTQ community.

"I feel very fortunate that I get to go to work every day and my sole focus is to think about ways that I can improve the quality of life for the LGBTQ community," said Martinez, who considers herself a "public servant ... working toward the needs of our community."

If she has her way, the office will be a leader in Santa Clara County, and the nation, by not only being one of a few such government-supported offices, but also producing cutting edge and effective ways to support the LGBTQ community. (Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia have similar offices in their cities.)

"We want to be that net root force, that convener, and that deep thinker," she said about creating the most "innovative" and "effective" ways for government and community organizations to work together.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to create the LGBTQ affairs office in June 2015 at the urging of gay Supervisor Ken Yeager.

Martinez is the office's first director and was hired when it opened in January 2016.

"I marvel at her calmness and the fortitude to try to resolve the issues that are before her," said Yeager. "There's probably very high expectations for her, as you can imagine."

Yeager said it wasn't a slam dunk to establish the office.

"The county took a risk on approving my creation of the office," he said, noting that not everyone might know the need for the office or what Martinez's role is.

Martinez's primary function is to craft LGBT culturally sensitive programs and training within the county's government agencies and services, Yeager said, citing findings from the 2014 report " Status of LGBTQ Health: Santa Clara County, California 2013."

"As we know from the health assessment, LGBTQ people in the county still feel a certain amount of discrimination [and] feel like they are not getting the services that they need," for various reasons linked to their sexual orientation or gender identity, he said.

"It's important that the office is successful. The more successful she is we hope that other jurisdictions will want to create a similar office," said Yeager.


By the numbers

County officials estimate that LGBTQ people account for 4 percent of its population, which totals 1,894,605 people, based on 2014 U.S. Census numbers, the Bay Area Reporter noted last year. A Gallup survey released in March 2016 that looked at LGBT residents of the country's top 50 metro areas found that the LGBT population in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area was 3.2 percent, or 3,368 residents age 18 and older.

"I don't think people fully realize how forward-thinking Santa Clara County is," said David Campos, 46, a gay man who formerly served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and is now a deputy county executive for the South Bay county. "Santa Clara County is really at the forefront of a lot of these issues."

The LGBT affairs office reports to Campos, he said.

The office currently operates on a $538,322 annual budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which includes salaries for Martinez and her three staff members, according to Christine M. Stavem, communications director in Yeager's office. Martinez's annual salary for the same fiscal year is $160,964 and includes her county benefits.

Stavem noted that the budget would change soon due to the county supervisors passing the 2017-18 fiscal budget, which takes effect July 1. Martinez also shares an administrative assistant with the Office of Immigrant Relations. The office has a public allies fellow. Last year, the office had an intern. Martinez anticipates the office will bring on a new intern sometime this summer, she said.

Soon she hopes to have volunteer opportunities available in the office.

This year's budget is nearly a $230,517 increase from its initial budget of $307,805 for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. The increase will accommodate the office's growth as it brings on more staff, including a new public communications specialist and an expert on transgender issues, Martinez and Yeager said.


Getting to know South Bay LGBTQs

Martinez, who is married to Lisa Wilmes, has spent the past year and a half since stepping into her role working to "unpack" Santa Clara County's LGBTQ community to understand it better, she said.

"When we talk about the LGBT community really, really unpacking: Who is it that we are talking about? What do they look like? What do they do? Where do they go? How do they access services?" she said, noting that getting to know the community was a way to be better informed about how to respond not only to LGBT individuals themselves, but also the community that surrounds them.

"We really took this year to really learn and to begin to engage [the] community," said Martinez, who is turning the informative conversations she had into programs for LGBTQs and their friends and families. "We were being very intentional to make sure that when we say Santa Clara County that we really mean ... talking with folks from Gilroy to Palo Alto, the whole breadth of our entire area."

Since beginning operations, the office has launched a partnership with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is a multi-year initiative to create robust support systems for LGBTQ youth wellness. The office is also working on the Safe Place to Learn, a policy approach for addressing inclusive and accountable schools developed by the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments.

The office has several different working groups and action sheets for health care providers to become more culturally sensitive to LGBTQ patients and create a safe environment to allow them to identify themselves to health care providers.

One of the discoveries of the health assessment report – and by Martinez talking to community members – is that LGBTQ individuals aren't accessing services as much as they could. LGBTQ residents echoed the results of the report, telling her they were unaware of the services, were hesitant utilizing the programs, or were using services but not identifying themselves as LGBTQ.

One of the things she learned during the past year was that South Bay transgender residents sought health services at Planned Parenthood in Santa Cruz, the TransVision program at Tri-City Health Center in Fremont, or in San Francisco.

"That is unacceptable. We should be having those resources available and accessible to our community here in Santa Clara County," said Martinez. "We are working on making sure that happens."

Her office is working with the Pay Equity Initiative to make sure county services are culturally sensitive and to communicate the fact that such services are available, she said.

"It's great to have policy. It's even better when that policy is implemented and tracked and we can see those impacts," said Martinez.

She hopes to have a report card by the end of the year so the LGBTQ community can see the impact and progress the county is making toward better serving them.

Visibility has been an issue for the South Bay's queer community. The county stretches 1,304 square miles and includes rural and urban areas. There isn't a "gayborhood" or centralized place for the county's LGBTQ community to gather, Martinez noted.

To help mitigate the spread-out nature of the county, Martinez has been working on creating visibility through the office, she said.

The office was instrumental in the county becoming the first in the nation to raise the transgender flag in 2016 for Transgender Day of Visibility. The office also was there to support people who were mourning the victims of last year's massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Most of the 49 people gunned down by shooter Omar Mateen were young gay Latino men.

Martinez said that both instances allowed the office to increase its visibility.


Continuing the conversation

Martinez and her staff plan to continue the dialogue they started during a recent "listening tour." The meetings will allow community members to meet Martinez and the office's staff as they continue delving deeper into discovering the people's needs, especially for the most vulnerable within the South Bay's LGBTQ community, she said.

"We know that if we really want to hear from people we have to go to where they are," said Martinez, adding that she wants to make sure the resources her team develops "are informed by the diverse perspective and that they are accessible and relevant to the people that use them."

Campos and Yeager couldn't be prouder of the job Martinez has done getting the office up and running.

"What impresses me about her is her level of maturity and her understanding and grasp of the issues facing the LGBTQ community," said Campos.

"I saw first-hand Maribel in action with a local school," he explained, talking about an incident where LGBT students in a rural part of the county reached out to Martinez for her assistance with an ongoing harassment and visibility issue at the school. Campos said that he witnessed how Martinez brought the students, the school community, and the county together to help resolve the issue, not only at the school, but district-wide.

"It's exciting to see and really gratifying to see Maribel ... working with those communities in a very constructive way to improve the treatment of LGBT students," said Campos.

Campos also noted the progress Martinez has made dealing with the county bureaucracy. 

"She, in a very short period of time, has made the issues around the LGBTQ community priorities for the county," he said. "I really believe that as much as she's done already that the best is yet to come.

"It's a very exciting time," he added. "There will be a lot more coming out this office."

Yeager agreed, adding, "I'm just very proud of the office. I'm proud of her and looking forward to all the success that she's going to have."


For more information on the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs, visit


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