With new book, Yeager aims to inspire LGBTQ candidates

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 16, 2023
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Former Santa Clara supervisor Ken Yeager. Photo: Courtesy Ken Yeager
Former Santa Clara supervisor Ken Yeager. Photo: Courtesy Ken Yeager

With his new book, gay former Santa Clara County supervisor Ken Yeager aims to inspire other LGBTQ individuals to seek public office. He does so by recounting his own personal journey from being a closeted background player in the South Bay's political scene to becoming a pink-ceiling breaking out elected leader.

Yeager's 322-page book, "RUN! My Story of LGBTQ+ Political Power, Equality, and Acceptance in Silicon Valley," is not only biographical but also includes a chapter with recommendations for how LGBTQ candidates can mount winning campaigns. It is derived from Yeager's own experiences on the campaign trail during his 26-year span of holding elected office.

"I felt privileged to be able to tell the story and am glad I am still alive to do it," Yeager, 70, told the Bay Area Reporter during a phone interview to discuss the book.

Born in Riverside, Yeager first came to the Bay Area to attend San Jose State University, where in 1976 he earned a B.A. in political science and government. He worked on several campaigns, including that of former congressman Don Edwards' reelection in 1982. He briefly lived in Washington, D.C. when Edwards hired him as his press secretary but returned to San Jose a year later.

As he recounts in the book, an incendiary editorial against an LGBTQ rights bill written by the late assemblymember Alister McAlister, a conservative Democrat, in the March 18, 1984, edition of the San Jose Mercury News led to Yeager's coming out publicly. McAlister died in 2010. With Edwards' support after disclosing he was gay to his boss, Yeager wrote his own editorial in response to McAlister's and, in so doing, outed himself to readers of the newspaper.

"I was a 31-year-old gay man, out to friends but not to others. I was well aware of the hatred and persecution faced by queer people, but McAlister's condemnation was the first time I had seen someone express their view so bluntly: You, Kenneth Eugene Yeager, are so despicable that you are undeserving of any benefits provided to others by society," writes Yeager in his book.

Free of the burdens of the closet, Yeager became a leading voice for LGBTQ rights in the South Bay. He co-founded the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, known by its acronym BAYMEC, on August 13, 1984, and set about working with other LGBTQ individuals on electing straight allies to public office, and eventually, LGBTQ people.

"I think people forget how bad things were for the queer community down here," said Yeager about the lack of rights and political representation LGBTQs in the South Bay once had. "When 70% of the population doesn't think gay people should have any rights at all, you know you are in enemy territory. That is the reality happening in many Southern states as Republicans have taken over the statehouses and are passing anti-LGBTQ laws left and right."

Making history

Yeager's winning in 1992 a seat on the board that oversaw the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District marked the first time an out LGBTQ person had been elected in Santa Clara County. Yeager again made LGBTQ political history in 2000 by becoming the first known LGBTQ person elected to the San Jose City Council, and six years later he became the first out supervisor elected in the county.

Along the way there were setbacks, as he recounts in the book, from fights in the 1970s over honoring Pride events in San Jose and the repeal of the city's LGBTQ ordinances to California voters outlawing same-sex marriage in 2008. But there were also successes, writes Yeager, such as his pushing for the creation of one of the first countywide offices focused on LGBTQ issues when he was a supervisor.

By reexamining those victories in his book, Yeager said he hopes it may "give people a little bit of hope that if you can get other people to join you and create your own organizations, you can fight the religious right organizations over time and you can be successful. That is really the story of the book; once you are successful, then what are you going to do with that?"

Published by Atmosphere Press, and dedicated to his partner, Michael Haberecht, this is Yeager's third book he has penned. The paperback version came out on July 19, while the hardcover version will be released August 22. Its release is timed to the annual Silicon Valley Pride celebration that is taking place Saturday, August 26, and Sunday, August 27, this year.

"I will be at Pride selling the book," said Yeager, who is again teaching a local government class for the fall semester at San Jose State.

Yeager now is executive director of the BAYMEC Community Foundation, BAYMEC's nonprofit arm, and is the director of its Queer Silicon Valley archival project. Due to state funding secured by his former colleague on the county board and now a state legislator, Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), Yeager is trying to lease a brick-and-mortar space in downtown San Jose to open an LGBTQ museum. (See related story.)

It is an example of how a former political opponent can evolve into a political ally. As Yeager explains in his book, when he and Cortese were competing in the 1996 Democratic primary for a state Assembly seat, Cortese's campaign sent voters a homophobic mailer attacking Yeager. Subsequent press coverage of it likely sank both men's bids, writes Yeager, as he placed second and Cortese third back when only the top finisher in the intraparty primary advanced to the general election.

"It was perhaps those words that caused me to lose the state assembly race and prevented me from being the first openly gay man elected to the California state legislature," writes Yeager.

He also covers the remorse Cortese and his campaign staff would later express over the hit piece. Yeager first wrote about it in his seminal 1999 book on LGBT political history, "Trailblazers: Profiles of America's Gay and Lesbian Elected Officials."

When he first addressed the incident, "you can imagine how angry I was at the time," said Yeager, who eventually came to forgive Cortese. They would years later first become City Council colleagues before both won election to their county supervisor seats.

It wasn't the only time that Yeager's sexuality had come up in a campaign. As he writes in "Run," Yeager also had to confront a whisper campaign about his being gay during his first San Jose City Council race.

Advice for others

Those experiences partly prompted Yeager to include in the new book Chapter 11, titled "Run, Baby, Run: Planning and Executing a Winning Campaign." In it he offers advice for how LGBTQ candidates can survive negative attacks against them by deploying various strategies to attract voters' support.

"If you really don't like any sort of criticism and it keeps you up at night, running for public office may not be the direction that you want to take," said Yeager. "I think now that there have been enough people who have run and experienced the attacks that new candidates can learn from them and not be taken by as much of a surprise and have a battle plan ahead of time."

In the end, said Yeager, "the slings and arrows, I think, are worth it for the good you can do once you are elected."

The overall theme of his latest book, pointed out Yeager, is why it is so important to have queer people in elected office.

"What I hope I did near the end of the book was to talk about all my legislative achievements so people realize how effective they can be once on a city council or board of supervisors," said Yeager, "and for people to read all of that and say, 'I want to leave a mark in the world, too. I want to make a difference.' Maybe running for office, with all the crap you have to put up with, is going to be worth it."

Several South Bay bookstores are selling the book, including Reach and Teach in San Carlos; the Books, Inc. locations in Campbell and Palo Alto; and San Jose's Recycle Bookstore.

To learn more about Yeager and to purchase his book, visit the website kenyeagerrun.com.

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