Murals and banners honor South Bay queer women

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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Retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell stood in front of the mural of her painted by artist Elba Raquel Martinez, right. At left is a mural of lesbian activist and cafe founder Kathy Cordova, also painted by Martinez. The murals were commissioned by the Womanhood Project honoring women leaders in Santa Clara County. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Francisco Ramirez<br><br>
Retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell stood in front of the mural of her painted by artist Elba Raquel Martinez, right. At left is a mural of lesbian activist and cafe founder Kathy Cordova, also painted by Martinez. The murals were commissioned by the Womanhood Project honoring women leaders in Santa Clara County. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Francisco Ramirez

Rounding the corner from San Jose's Museum of Art on North First Street, lesbian retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell saw a larger than life image of herself.

The tropical, purple-tipped leaves and fuchsia butterflies flying between the scales of justice with a fist at the top frame Cordell. Her likeness stands calmly draped in a judicial robe holding a gavel. Her 2021 memoir, "Her Honor; My Life on the Bench...What Works, What's Broken, and How to Change It" (Celadon Books), rests open to a page on one of the scales. A ribbon of rainbow piano keys flies out of the bottom of the mural.

"I looked up and said, 'Oh my God!'" Cordell, a 72-year-old Black lesbian, said upon seeing the mural for the first time recently. "There's significance to everything in the mural."

The mural is several blocks away from the Santa Clara County Superior Court building where she sat on the bench for 20 years.

Cordell, who is an artist, writer, and musician herself, marveled at how artist Elba Raquel Martinez, 40, an ally who was commissioned to paint the mural, incorporated the details of her life, including her sexuality, into the project.

Cordell was the first Black Superior Court judge in Northern California and in Santa Clara County's history when she was elected in 1988. Prior to that, Cordell became the first Black woman judge in Northern California when former Governor Jerry Brown Jr. appointed Cordell to the municipal court during his first term as governor in 1982. Cordell was 32, she said.

Cordell said she came out around the mid-1980s when she was 35 years old, about three years after being sworn in serving on the bench in Santa Clara County's Municipal Court.

In 2001, Cordell retired from the bench. Since then, she has been an independent police auditor for the city of San Jose, a consultant, and was elected to the Palo Alto City Council in 2004, where she served a four-year term that ended in December 2007, according to the Palo Alto city clerk's office.

Since 2020, she has served on the San Francisco District Attorney's Innocence Commission.

Martinez talked about the process she used in her art.

"Expression is yourself coming out into the world [and] there has to be space for that," said Martinez, about choosing to depict a holistic image of Cordell in the mural.

Cordell said the recognition is a new experience for her.

"I feel humbled and a little embarrassed," Cordell told the Bay Area Reporter. "I've never been recognized in this fashion. I ended up staying down there for a couple of hours. I didn't want to leave."

Honoring South Bay women

Cordell is one of six LGBTQ women who have been honored with a mural in downtown San Jose.

The murals are part of the Womanhood Project, which honors 25 women leaders in the South Bay with banners and murals painted by 13 women tribute artists.

The project was unveiled in March for Women's History Month. Barbara Goldstein, director of the Womanhood Project, said it will celebrate Pride Month with a social media campaign highlighting the queer women in the banners and murals.

"We're trying to include everyone," said Goldstein, who declined to state her age and sexual orientation, emphasizing that queer women are an important part of the community.

Goldstein is also the principal and policy director of Art Builds Community, the parent organization managing the Womanhood Project, that worked with the county's Office of Women's Policy.

Julie Ramirez, an ally who is the interim director of the county women's office, said LGBTQ rights are women's rights.

"The vision was to highlight women who have contributed to the valley and are oftentimes unrecognized," said Ramirez. "We wanted to really showcase folks who have built this valley."

As much as women were "often left out of history books [and] are often unrecognized for their contributions, those who identify as LGBTQ have faced even more isolation," she continued. It is the office's responsibility to include LGBTQ women and "uplift them" by recognizing "their contribution to this community," she said.

Martinez painted the mural of Cordell on a window next to fellow lesbian activist and Recovery Cafe [LINK:] founder Kathy Cordova on First Street at Paseo de San Antonio. Martinez also painted Cordova's mural.

Other queer women South Bay leaders — Gabrielle Antolovich, Adrienne Keel, Wiggsy Sivertsen, and Sera Fernando — were also honored with banners around downtown San Jose.

Antolovich, who is the volunteer board president of the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ Community Center, was painted by artist Maylea Saito. Keel, who is the director of LGBTQ programs at Family and Children Services of Silicon Valley, a division of Caminar, was painted by artist Isabella King. Sivertsen, who co-founded the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee with gay retired Santa Clara County supervisor Ken Yeager, was painted by artist Kathy Aoki. Fernando, who is a transgender woman and interim managing director of the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs, was painted by artist Jess Gutierrez.

The Office of LGBTQ Affairs is a division of the county's Office of Equity and Social Justice along with the women's office.

Like Cordell, Fernando, and Keel expressed being humbled by the honor, adding that they appreciated the recognition of intersectionality by the project leaders.

Keel said having her banner up in San Jose's Qmunity District is "a major career high for me." She is proud to be in the company of the other "powerhouse women."

"I think if teenage me saw a banner of adult me existing authentically, it would have been a huge deal," said the 35-year-old lesbian, saying her younger self "desperately craved heroes who looked and identified like me."

She hopes her banner will inspire younger queer women of color.

"I just love the fact that they acknowledge my work as a woman, but not only just a woman: a Filipino woman, a trans woman, [and] a queer woman," Fernando, 42, said about her banner and the county's vision of "what womanhood looks like."

"Visibility saves lives," she said.


The Womanhood Project was launched by the county's women's policy office in 2018 and came to fruition in 2020 with about $30,000 in funding from the city of San Jose, the city's downtown association, the Abierto Program, and 8 80's Emerging Cities Champion Program, said Goldstein. San Jose mayoral candidate and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez (District 2) also supported the program's initiative and plans for the county to spend $5 million to acknowledge women around the county, reported the Mercury News.

Chavez, who has led many feminist and LGBTQ initiatives around the county and led the founding of the county's Hate Crimes Task Force, was unable to comment for this story. She is now in a runoff for mayor in November.

The murals and banners, which are on a mix of public and private property, do not have a set removal date. They will remain on public display until they are removed by the city or by the building owners, Goldstein said.

"Our hope is that people will recognize the leadership and accomplishments of women from Santa Clara County, both locally, regionally, and nationally," said Goldstein.

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