Lesbian community leader Gloria Nieto dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Tuesday September 13, 2022
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Gloria Nieto, left, and her spouse, Jo Kenny, were honored at the 2014 Diversity Center's Trailblazer celebration. Photo: Courtesy Terry Teitelbaum
Gloria Nieto, left, and her spouse, Jo Kenny, were honored at the 2014 Diversity Center's Trailblazer celebration. Photo: Courtesy Terry Teitelbaum

Gloria Nieto, a lesbian and longtime community leader in Northern California and elsewhere, died September 6 at her home in Ben Lomond near Santa Cruz. She was 67.

The cause was complications from cancer, which Ms. Nieto battled for many years, her spouse, Jo Kenny, said in a phone interview September 12 with the Bay Area Reporter.

"She was fighting cancer for four years minus a day," Kenny said, adding that Ms. Nieto went on hospice care July 4.

Ms. Nieto was the first Latina lesbian to address a presidential nominating gathering, when she made remarks at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. She served for eight years on the Democratic National Committee, including stints as secretary of the DNC's LGBT Caucus.

"She talked about her family," Kenny said of Ms. Nieto's convention speech. Her dad came from New Mexico and identified as Hispanos — Hispanic United States residents descended from the original Spanish settlers in Mexico and New Mexico — while her mom was from Texas. Both of Ms. Nieto's parents are deceased, Kenny said.

Kenny said that what was important about Ms. Nieto's life was her ability to create community with larger communities. When she was involved with the DNC, at that time there were no trans people affiliated with the committee or close to anyone on the committee, Kenny said.

"Rather than her trying to talk to people she deliberately invited trans people to the table and put people in the DNC in contact with trans people," Kenny explained. "The people most intimately involved needed to be at the table. It was something she was really proud of."

Gloria Nieto loved dahlias and attended dahlia shows. Photo: Terry Teitelbaum  

Kenny said that Ms. Nieto loved dahlias, grew them, and often helped friends grow them.

"When she was dying the last couple of weeks I was inviting people over to say goodbye and all of them brought dahlias that they grew," Kenny said.

Ms. Nieto was a member of the 13-person gay and lesbian contingent that met with President Bill Clinton in the White House in the late 1990s.

Gay state Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) knew Ms. Nieto for more than 30 years. He first got to know her when he was on the Santa Cruz City Council and she was organizing around low-income housing there. Kenny was Laird's predecessor at the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, he added.

"Glo was a force of nature," Laird said, using a nickname Ms. Nieto was widely known by. "If it was health care, civil rights, or social justice, she was at the forefront for decades."

Locally, Ms. Nieto served as executive director of what was then known as Lyon-Martin Women's Health Services in San Francisco in 2005 at a time when the clinic serving women and trans patients was recovering from a personnel shake-up, as the B.A.R. previously reported. (It is now known as Lyon-Martin Community Health.)

Most of Ms. Nieto's work was in the Santa Cruz area and her native New Mexico. In Northern California, she served on the board of the Santa Cruz Women's Health Center and was outreach director for the Santa Cruz AIDS Project. She was a grand marshal of the Santa Cruz Pride parade and was twice chosen Woman of the Year in Santa Cruz County. In 2014, she and Kenny received the Trailblazer Lifetime Achievement Award from the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz County. According to an obituary in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, she was recognized in 2019 as an LGBTQ Trailblazer at the Queer Youth Leadership Awards.

Ms. Nieto's close friend, Terry Teitelbaum, nominated Ms. Nieto and Kenny for the Diversity Center Trailblazer Award. "Everything Glo sets out to accomplish is done with passion, love, humor, and tenacity," Teitelbaum wrote in her nomination. "For Glo, the political and personal are inseparable. ... Her sensitivity, compassion, intelligence, and wit make her an extraordinary activist, artist, friend, and sister."

Ms. Nieto and Kenny were married in their backyard in August 2008, becoming one of the couples who wed before the passage of Proposition 8 that November. The same-sex marriage ban put an end to the marriages until ultimately it was found unconstitutional by a federal judge and that decision was upheld by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand in 2013, allowing same-sex marriages to resume in the Golden State. (A later high court ruling in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.)

Kenny said the couple had also married in Boston in 2004 shortly after that year's DNC convention.

Gay former San Jose city councilmember and Santa Clara County supervisor Ken Yeager called Nieto "a tough fighter." Although they were not closely aligned politically, Yeager told the B.A.R. he got to know Nieto via her work trying to defeat Prop 8.

"It was sad to hear about her passing. She was a longtime South Bay and Santa Cruz advocate, certainly for lesbian rights but for LGBTQ rights as well," said Yeager, who now leads the BAYMEC Community Foundation and is documenting the South Bay's LGBTQ history via the Queer Silicon Valley initiative. "She was a strong supporter of same-sex marriage and worked tirelessly down here to defeat Prop 8. Santa Clara County did a little better in voting against it than it was statewide though it still lost here. She will be very much missed."

In New Mexico, she was a grand marshal of the Santa Fe Pride and Albuquerque Pride parades. She was a lobbyist for Equality New Mexico, getting state-level Employment Non-Discrimination Act and hate crimes laws passed by the state Legislature and signed by then-governor Bill Richardson. She served as executive director for the People of Color AIDS Foundation in Santa Fe.

The Sentinel obituary noted that Ms. Nieto graduated with a degree in journalism and broadcasting from California State University, Chico in 1976 and was one of the first female sports writers for the student newspaper. She was inducted into the journalism Hall of Fame at Chico State in 2009.

Ms. Nieto was born October 31, 1954. Kenny said that a memorial is planned for next spring at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz. Ms. Nieto had only asked that hula dancing be performed at her memorial, Kenny said, and that request will be fulfilled.

In addition to Kenny, Ms. Nieto is survived by her sister, Anna Nieto, her husband, Bruce Frambach, and their children, Heather and Ryan Frambach; and her sister-in-law Tammy Nieto and her children Tara, Andrea, and Benjamin. Ms. Nieto's brother, Joseph Nieto, died two years ago, Kenny said.

Kenny, who fought back tears toward the end of the interview, said that Ms. Nieto loved the children in her neighborhood and those she had in her life.

"She trusted in them to keep it going on," Kenny said. "That was her hope."

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