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San José City College Centennial: Dr. Joseph King

Just this year, the City of San José designated Post Street as the Qmunity District, a welcoming and inclusive destination for San José’s LGBTQ+ community. San Jose City College has also been growing its outreach to LGBTQ+ students and employees, proposing to create more safe zones on campus. All of this is welcome news in light of the murders in San José of two trans women in just over the past six months.

LGBTQ+ rights in the South Bay have been hard-fought for decades, with just as many persistently fighting against those rights. It hasn’t been easy. And just like every college being a microcosm of the community it surrounds, those same battles were happening within City College.

Joseph King with Lee Merriweather at the Palm Springs Film Festival

In 1991, Dr. Joseph King was hired as a San José City College librarian and stayed for twenty-five years. At first, he was a reluctant leader who, in his tenure, helped bring not only the library into the twenty-first century, but also forwarded City College’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights. He was not only a librarian, but an unwitting therapist for so many LGBTQ+ students on campus. He was actively involved in the Academic Senate, revived the Gay Straight Alliance, and started the Safe Zone program to support LGBTQ+ students.

For San José City College’s Centennial Celebration, we had the opportunity to talk with Joseph, who is now retired and living in Palm Springs, about how he was able to make a difference for so many.

I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in a little town called Somers Point near Atlantic City,New Jersey. In 1969, my mother had a job transfer and came to Los Angeles. After my last year in high school, I joined her in California in 1970. California was wonderful at that time – young people trying to be free. I attended UC San Diego and Chapman University and became a registered nurse. I very much disliked the work, so I went back to college and got a Master’s in Library Science from UCLA and became a librarian. You might think this is an odd choice, but it isn’t really. I love helping people and I particularly love to work with those students who come from marginalized backgrounds.

I worked as a medical librarian. Then ironically, there was an ad in the Los Angeles Times for a librarian position at San José City College. It said, Public Services librarian needed with a background in medical science. I had also published several articles in academic journals and spoke at national library conventions. Everything I had fit perfectly. Life is so strange – it’s by moments that life changes.

I applied to six community colleges. City College was my last interview, and I was really nervous. I studied resume writing, cover letters. I even did mock interviews with friends and got my hands on anything I could to have the perfect interview.

During my interview, they asked, “who do you admire the most living or deceased?” I knew they would ask that question. It had been in all the books I read. The woman who interviewed and eventually hired me was a Black woman named Ms. Del Anderson, then president of the College, and the Dean of Instruction, Martha Kanter. She later became President of DeAnza College, Superintendent of the Foothill DeAnza District, and then Obama asked her to be Undersecretary of Education. When they asked me who I admired, I came up with a person I really do admire, Marilyn Monroe. They were floored, “Marilyn Monroe?”

“I wouldn’t change a single day or anything I did to advocate for those who did not have the platform I had. Those students remain a tender part of my heart and I miss them very much.”

Joseph King reflecting on his time helping LGBT students at City College

I hesitated and raised myself up, saying, “Yes, I do admire Marilyn Monroe.” I said, “she literally came from the streets. She was an orphan. She was told she was nothing and was just going to be a housewife. Yet, she wanted more and dreamed about the stars. So, she focused one-hundred percent on making it, on branding the name of Marilyn Monroe. She broke her contract with 20th Century Fox, went to New York to study at the Actor’s Studio, formed her own production company, and once told Darryl Zanuck that she wanted better material and director approval. This was one of the reasons she became so great. She only worked with the best directors who saw her skill in acting and presence on film. She created legendary status for herself as Marilyn Monroe. This legend as she created it became somewhat of a farce in her mind – a one-dimensional sexpot which she hated. This constant struggle led to drug dependency and a lifelong sense of insecurity.”

After the interview, I went back to L.A. and told my therapist, “I lost this job. I told them about Marilyn Monroe.” He said to me, “You got that job. They know that you’re gay and they probably have problems with some gay students or need to have representation for gays and lesbians at the College. It’s not a minority class, but you are a really strong candidate since you fit that job so well. And this might be something that fits a need they have and enough to get you that job.” I won’t ever know if that’s what happened, but I suspect it was what threw me over enough to get the job. I started at City College in Fall 1991. It was a crazy time and quite a lot happened.

My job first and foremost was being a librarian. In those days, everything was print. We had a card catalog with no real way to know what books were checked out, as the cards were not always where they were supposed to be because of how labor-intensive the process was. We would also go to the Readers’ Guide and try to find magazine articles that students needed. Invariably, we would not have the magazine or journal, or it would be checked out. Then we had to figure out something else. It was very time consuming. You can imagine doing all that work back then, where now on the internet, it takes a few seconds to find.

In 1998, we came out with a bond measure, Measure I. Nancy Pyle, a District Board member, felt that waiting for state funding to build a new campus was not working, and that we needed a building program to replace the old buildings. She proposed Measure I, the beginning of several bonds used to create a whole new campus. About ten of us on campus, including my dear friend, Carmen Castellano (who one of the buildings is named after) stirred up campus support to get this bond passed, and it passed with a vast majority [74.3%].

We ended up using funds from Prop 1A to build the library which got to be the first brand-new building. The Student Center followed and then the Math/Science building, and after that, buildings just kept being renovated or newly constructed.

I had a great relationship with most of the faculty. One faculty member who is still there, Jesus Covarrubias, asked, “what do you think about us naming the library after César Chávez?” I thought that was great. Some people had started to call it the Learning Resource Center (LRC), but it was the library building and LRC was a part of it, not the other way around. I wanted people to think of the library as the seat of learning and the central focus of academics at SJCC. By Jesus helping us, we achieved that. People then knew it as “the Chávez Library,” or even just “the Library.” Semantics were extremely important at SJCC where it was a constant struggle to ensure your program was funded. 

I’ve always been a person who speaks their mind. I got it from my mother, I guess. When you get to a job and you’re not tenured, you’re not supposed to do that. When I first got there, my boss, Russ Fisher, asked me to represent the library in the Academic Senate. He said it was a way I could learn about the college culture. I decided to jump right in and started getting really involved.

Latino Heritage Month bookmark

I realized there were problems for the gay students right from the get-go. Most librarians think of themselves as just librarians, being quiet and finding books. I went to library school at UCLA, and my mentor there thought of the library as an exciting place where we could meet the needs of students wherever they were. He rejected even the physical layout of the library, wanting libraries to be designed with cafés and all kinds of different décor as they are now, a realized vision he had.

Being a librarian and just giving information was never enough for me. I wanted to know what the student was like, because being an educator is far more than just teaching (page 4). It is understanding and meeting the student where they are psychologically, as well as emotionally. I was different that way from other librarians, realizing that for many of these students there was nobody there to care about them, to make them feel good about themselves. To help nurture them.

There were a lot of gay and lesbian kids on campus, and they never, ever talked about it. So, I remember very vividly three young Latino men who were all the “Q” in LGBTQ (questioning) and really struggling with it. So, these guys talked with me about what was going on in their lives, and they wanted to know about me. They slowly would give me a little bit of information. I had to be very careful, though, because it really wasn’t my job, and I was scared they might say something like, “oh, he’s talking about a bunch of gay stuff.” You know, that homophobic line that means I was luring them into the gay life, taking away their innocence.

City College at that time was very homophobic, as was the city of San José. Being a gay man made me vulnerable to the capricious whims of homophobic administrators. I was fortunate that there was another gay librarian and some supportive faculty, particularly one woman, Anne Heffley (page 5), who was a tremendous ally.

“…it’s a safe space for gay, lesbian, and transgender students to know we are here to help them. We want them to know if they have problems or issues that they can come to us. We help support everybody, and we want to help them, too.”

Joseph King describing what the Safe Zone program is for students

The second year I was there, Anne and I decided to ban the military from campus due to their discriminatory practices against gays and lesbians. We had an openly gay Board member, Ken Yeager, and I thought he could help us get this ban through. Since I wasn’t even tenured, it was very risky thing to do, but I hate injustice.

Surprisingly, we did have some resistance from people who were on the progressive side. The president didn’t like the idea, because there were a lot of people who were of color in the military. She felt this would deny them the opportunity to join the military which provided upward mobility for people of color. I said, “yes, but there are a lot of people of color who are gay and lesbian and in the military who cannot serve openly. If you are worrying about people who are of color and, saying ‘if you’re straight, it’s okay if you serve,’ but say, ‘if you are gay and lesbian, it’s not okay to serve’ then I have a problem with that.”

We passed the resolution in the Academic Senate banning them from coming on campus. The government retaliated and passed the Solomon Amendment which threatened colleges with removing federal funding if military recruiters were banned from campus. I pushed back and reminded the Board of its stance on discrimination based on race, limiting their business with companies who only supported equal employment and non-discriminatory practices.

Joseph King with Carmen Castellano, a philanthropist and executive secretary at City College

The Board came up with the idea of having a sign placed next to the recruiters saying something like, The San José Evergreen Community College District, under pressure of losing federal funding for banning recruitment on campus, protest the presence of military recruitment. Whenever a recruiter showed up, I was like a bulldog to ensure that sign was going to be there.

The Career Center counselor where the sign was kept would say rather smugly “Boy, you make sure that sign is up.” And I would say, “Yes, I’m going to defend this. This is discrimination and it is wrong.” So, every single time they were there, I would go out with that sign. To my delight, the recruiters went to a Board meeting to ask that the sign be removed, because it was “having an effect” on their recruitment. I was ready to fight them, but I didn’t have to; the Board ignored their request.

After that, I became the poster boy for gay and lesbian students, which became a bit distressful for me, as I didn’t know where it would lead. Then it started getting strange. Students were being directed by counselors to talk with me . Students might see a college counselor because they didn’t have anyone else to turn to. Whatever the issue was, families upset or the student feeling lost and afraid. Counselors in those days didn’t feel comfortable counseling students with these problems. The more caring ones who had compassion would send them my way.

“I think the really good part of all of this is how much the College evolved, and that the District saw those problems, too. And that Ken Yeager was there to really help move things forward.”

Joseph King on the progression of LGBTQ rights at City College

My name became synonymous with the word “gay,” which was not what I really wanted. I was a librarian with a future ahead of me, but when I saw their faces and when they talked with me, I could never turn them away. I saw fear and sadness in those eyes, and I knew I had to be there for them, if even all I did was listen. I knew what it was like to have someone listen to me when I came out when I was a grad student in a Ph.D. program at UC Irvine. I had to do it.

Because LGBT issues were so hidden, I decided to resurrect the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club Anne Heffley had first created (page 7). It started with a few students and eventually grew over time.

In 1998, there was a report made by my students of violence against LGBT students on campus. The College tried to ignore it. I was called and asked about it by a reporter from a San José gay newspaper. I told more than I should and all of a sudden, there were these headlines, “Gays Being Attacked at City College.” Ken Yeager, the one gay Board member, got wind of it and was very worried that the story would get picked up by bigger media outlets.

A lesbian club member asked me to go with her to talk with the Board of Trustees to initiate changes on behalf of LGBT students. It was scary to bring this to the Board. The entire District was deeply in the closet at that time. Being someone who worked at the College, I didn’t know how this would affect my job. I had some strong support with some Board members but knew others would push back fearing what their constituents would say.

The Board recognized that the needs of LGBT students were not being met. So, they formerly recognized LGBT students as a group – believe it or not, they weren’t before. And I became an advocate for these students on a more formal level. This was the infancy of how things started to turn around at the District.

This was also during a time when there was a lot of upheaval around multiculturalism similar to today’s Black Lives Matter. The District started realizing something needed to be done to address diversity needs on campus. They hired two diversity officers, one for Evergreen and Sam Ho as the City College diversity officer. We worked together to increase diversity on campus, focusing on Heritage Months, diversity in campus organizations, and attendance at multicultural events. Gay Pride was always a problem, because it was in June when the campus was closed. So, I suggested we do it in October during Gay History Month.

Sam was really a terrific fit. He wanted to know as much as he could about the problems LGBT people faced, and he was always thinking of ways we could include them under our umbrella. I am very grateful that he came to work at City College.

During my last years at the College, I moved away

Dr. Joseph King

from LGBT advocacy work. Students were becoming more accepting. Having a GSA on campus was no big deal. I had my own problems in the library and was getting tired. In 2011, we had a wonderful president come in, Dr. Barbara Kavalier. I loved her. She was real and to the point. She did a lot of great things for the College even though she was there only a couple years. She was a very strong woman. I think people feel women like that are – and I won’t say the word – while a man half as strong as Barbara would be commended for their attitude.

She was there during that time when many gay kids were killing themselves. Barbara was a true advocate for the LGBT community, and it really touched her. One day towards the end of her time at City College, she told me about a training she had at Tacoma Community College in Washington for faculty working with LGBT students. She said to me, “I’m leaving, but I want you to start a Safe Zone program.” I asked her what that was. She said it was training for faculty and staff to learn how to communicate with gay, lesbian, and transgender students, because faculty and staff are the ones you want to reach.

She gave me release time, a line item in the budget, and all the assistance she could. I had no idea what to do next, so I called a dean I knew at Napa College who told me about a mental health grant from the State Chancellor’s Office that provided funding for California community colleges to start their own Safe Zone program.

The software program Safe Zone used had four modules, using avatars and short scenes on how to interact and not interact with students. I was trained on how to train others at Cabrillo College, and then gave the training to the college during our instruction improvement day. All of a sudden, I’m finding all these people who want to do it. There was all this support for LGBTQ students. It was incredible!

After their training, they would get a triangle sign (page 3) to put in their window that said Safe Zone, so students knew they had had that training. I am told they are still there in many offices and throughout the campus. I can remember some members of the campus community loved the idea and others not so much.

“That day he visited me and said, ‘you changed my life. If it wasn’t for you and that club you had and what you did working with me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.’”

a former student thanking JOSEPH KING

One day in the library, I was giving an orientation, and a student asked me what the sign meant. I said, “it’s a safe space for gay, lesbian, and transgender students to know we are here to help them. We want them to know if they have problems or issues that they can come to us. We help support everybody, and we want to help them, too.”

I think a really good part of all of this is how much the College evolved, and that the District saw those problems, too. And that Ken Yeager was there to really help move things forward. I have a special place in my heart for Ken. He did a lot for those students and for me.

I remember one of the students who had been in the GSA club many years earlier came to talk with me. He was working in high tech and really had his life together. He was very masculine. Never in a million years if you were stereotyping gay men would you think he was gay. When I met him in GSA club, he told me his family threw him out of the house. He was from a very conservative area near Sacramento and was sort of lost. He didn’t quite know what he was doing and even got into a fistfight with someone promoting something against gays and lesbians. Anti-gay rhetoric was rather common then. I told him, “you can’t do that.” We would talk about what was going on for him. I saw so much potential in him. I just really knew he would become someone with a future.

That day he visited me and said, “you changed my life. If it wasn’t for you and that club you had and what you did working with me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

All 25 years of all that struggle was worth that moment. I was very happy to hear that. I know there were other students where their lives changed because of me. So, that was very rewarding.

I am ill with cancer facing an unknown future, but I can be proud of what I did. And I wouldn’t change a single day or anything I did to advocate for those who did not have the platform I had. Those students remain a tender part of my heart and I miss them very much.

City College SAFE zone Sign