I transferred to UCSC in my senior year to complete my double major in women's studies and art. I come from a bicultural environment myself, growing up in a family that was half Bolivian, half Caucasian, and definitely not encouraging of my being a lesbian, so I think I brought my understanding of what that is like to my interview with Mercedes Santos. Having spent time in Central America and in Oakland, I was also familiar with the places she referred to. Due to technical problems, the first interview I conducted with Mercedes was only recorded for the first half hour. I went back and conducted a second interview with her, which was actually a great way to deepen the interviewing process. Both interviews were conducted in her office at the EEO/Affirmative Action office at UCSC during her lunch hour. The first interview was February 6, 2002, and the second was March 4, 2002. We had never met or known of each other before these interviews.'Jessie Berg
Berg : The first question I want to ask you is general background information. Please tell me a little bit about your early life, where you are from, and where you were born.
Santos : I was born in 1947, in March, in Oakland, California. My parents are first generation Portuguese American. My father at the time was working as a machinist. Later he drove a truck, and delivered bread to stores, and my mother was a factory worker, primarily making paper bags; for a few years she worked at Granny Goose potato chip factory. That was my favorite job. [laughter] My mother was a high school graduate. My father went to around the fifth grade. They both grew up in Oakland, California. My mother was born in the Hawaiian Islands, and my father was born in Oakland. My grandparents emigrated from the Azores Islands, through the Hawaiian Islands and then they came to California in the 1920s. I have one sibling, a brother three years older.
I grew up in a working-poor family that became a working-class family. Now my parents are middle class. The early years of my life were motivated by economic concerns, and concerns around assimilation. It was really important to my family that all of us assimilate and become 'Americans.' My grandparents spoke Portuguese and very little English. My parents are both fluent in both English and Portuguese, but when we were growing up they didn't allow us to speak Portuguese because they wanted us to assimilate. I grew up in a bicultural environment, but without the benefit of learning to speak the language. My parents had a lot of internalized oppression. There was a lot of racism against Portuguese people in the communities where they were living in Oakland. So I grew up with parents that had internalized that, but weren't aware of racism and oppression or classism.
As a child I inherited the internalized oppression. As a young adult, I began to become much more aware of it and had to work that stuff out. As a child I was very precocious and exhibited a lot of leadership qualities. I was very different from my brother, who was more of an introvert; he liked solitary hobbies; he was very quiet; he was a bookworm. I liked to read. I was smart, but I was much more of an extrovert. I was much more social, verbal, and used that to my advantage.
I was very close to my grandparents. They taught me a lot about both Portuguese and Hawaiian music, and I learned how to play the ukulele when I was four. I used to play the ukulele with my grandfather, and sing Hawaiian and Portuguese music, and dance. It was really a lot of fun.
I taught myself to play the guitar. There was a thing called a hootenanny in the 1960s, and when I was an undergraduate in college, I used to play the guitar in coffeehouses and'
Berg : Is that where everybody gets together and jams?
Santos : Yes, exactly. It was part of the folk music revival that happened in the 1960s. Also, a lot of political protest music was sung at hootenannies. There would be gatherings of activists. You'd have a hootenanny and sing.
Berg : It's a great word.
Santos : I really liked the music. When Elvis Presley first came on the scene I wanted to be Elvis Presley. Probably my first cross-gender identity experience was with Elvis Presley.
Berg : What was it about him?
Santos : He had a certain kind of energy' sensual, expressive, creative, animal. He was famous; he could sing. I thought he was handsome. I had this mad crush on him, but I wanted to be him. I didn't just want to be his girlfriend; I wanted to be Elvis Presley. I used to imitate him a lot. I would close myself into my bedroom. I had this broomstick that I used as a microphone, and this little guitar that I got when I was in first grade. I would sing all of his songs into the broomstick. I'd also lock myself in the bathroom and comb my hair like Elvis Presley. My brother used to use pomade and so I'd use pomade and make my hair look like Elvis's. I just totally loved him. The other performer I really loved when I was a little girl, when I was in first and second grade, was Rosemary Clooney. I'd see her on TV. She used to sing with big bands. She's a white woman, sang jazz and cocktail lounge music. Do you know the movie, Big Night?
Berg : Yes.
Santos : Well, she sings the 'Hey mambo, mambo italiano'' She's old now, but she used to come on television when I was a little kid. I would say that probably my first attraction to a woman was to Rosemary Clooney. I wanted to be Elvis, and I loved Rosemary Clooney'go figure!
I loved music and I loved sports. I loved to play when I was a kid. I was extremely energetic, which was kind of a problem for my family, because they didn't know quite what to do with all that energy. I don't know if I would've been defined as hyperactive, because I was able to focus and learn, and it didn't interfere with that, but I was extremely energetic and expressive and it wasn't always appreciated. My parents were pretty old world.
I was raised Roman Catholic, although I didn't go to Catholic school, thank goodness [laughter]. I went to public school. But I went to catechism, and to church. My father never went to church, but my mother would go with us. I'd go with my grandparents all the time. We'd go to Portuguese mass.
There was something else that I loved. I've always loved to write, ever since I was a little girl, really young. Right now I think of myself as someone who works part time to support myself as a writer. Writing is one of my first loves.
As a kid I liked school. I also loved the outdoors. I loved camping and backpacking. I started backpacking when I was about twelve. There's hardly anyplace in the Sierras in California that I haven't been. It was always my cathedral, the place I went to for respite'to go out and to stay in nature. I still really enjoy spending time outdoors.
When I hit puberty, it was horrible. All of a sudden the rules changed. There were all of these things that I couldn't do anymore. I couldn't play football in the street anymore. I wasn't supposed to have certain kinds of relationships with the boys anymore. My whole gender identity got turned upside down. I think my gender identity before then was very androgynous. It wasn't really linked to my sexuality or my sexual orientation. My identity was much more linked to my sense of agency and self-expression and being a really physical person. Then all of a sudden I'm in a woman's body, or I'm in a body that is going to become a woman's body. I got a lot of pressure both from my family and from my peers to start behaving in certain ways, and I hated it. I hated it. Being a teenager was probably the worst time of my life. And because my family was so repressed around sexuality, and so unable to talk about bodies, I had no way of understanding any of what was going on. They just wanted me to conform, and I didn't feel right. I had a lot of anger. I tried to kill myself when I was fifteen. Not very seriously, I ate aspirin. All I ended up with was ringing in my ears but, but I was that unhappy as a teenager.
Berg : And not really understanding why.
Santos : No, and there really wasn't anybody who could help me with it. I came from a Catholic family, from immigrant parents. One of the worst things you could be was a queer, and I grew up with that word in my family; that was a really negative word. To this day if I use that word queer my mother just bristles, 'Don't use that word!' One of the worst things that I could have possibly been was queer. So I had a lot of confusion about developing a sexual identity. I didn't have any role models. I didn't have anyone to mentor me. I remember being sent to a therapist when I was fourteen. It was a disaster! It was adjustment therapy, how to adjust to being a girl. There were ways in which I rebelled, but because of the strong foundation of guilt and loyalty' Loyalty was a strong value in my family of origin. Historically, people had to be loyal to each other; it was a matter of survival.
Berg : Sticking together'
Santos : Exactly. But because of that loyalty, there were definitely boundaries that I wasn't willing to cross to become my own person. So I had very unhappy teenage years. I went out with boys, and I dated. I still have pictures of myself going to the sophomore hop and the junior prom and the senior ball. I look at myself and I think'ahh! I became anorexic trying to create a body of loving where I could exist. It was difficult.
Berg : When did that happen?
Santos : The anorexia was between tenth and eleventh grade. I was fifteen. I really wasn't fat. I might have weighed 140 pounds. I'm 5'2' and a medium-framed person. I was unhappy, and my parents didn't have a clue about it. They just wanted to snap me out of it'what's a matter with you? So I went to the doctor, and the doctor put me on a five-hundred-calorie a day diet. I lost forty pounds. I got down to a hundred pounds. I had pressure from my family to lose weight; there was a lot of sarcasm about me being fat. But they were so uptight about bodies that it all came out sideways. I hated my body anyway, because I didn't want to be a girl. I guess that I had been lamenting all of this in some way to my mother and she took me to the doctor, and the five-hundred-calorie diet was his solution. So, I went on the diet for a year and I became anorexic. My skin turned blue, and I quit having periods. I was so cold all the time. It totally screwed up my thyroid gland and who knows what else. I wasn't any happier than I was before, and I developed health problems because of it. A year after I got off the diet I got an ulcer, and the same doctor said it was because I ate too many barbecue potato chips!
No one in my environment was able to connect with me about what it was that was going on. Even among my inner circle of friends, we never talked about our struggles with sexual or gender orientation. As it turned out, my very best girlfriend from high school is queer; she's a lesbian! But we never talked about it in high school. We were so suppressed by our environment. Since the early-1960s things have changed. But living in Santa Cruz is one thing. I'm sure if I were to leave this area I'd see a lot of young people experiencing exactly what I did.
My brother went to college, and I went to college. We were the only two people in my family who have ever gone to college, so that was a big deal. My parents, my mother especially, worked really hard so that we could go to school. She saved money from her job so we could go to school. It wasn't that expensive then to go to college. It was about seventy dollars a quarter. My first year of college I went away to school, to Sacramento State College. I almost flunked out. It was like being in summer camp. It was great. All these women and'
Berg : Freedom.
Santos : Freedom. I did eventually graduate, but I had to move back home after the first year, because I almost flunked out. I kind of deconstructed after my first year of college. I remember having this very emotional confrontation with my mother. I told her that I was queer.
Berg : When was this?
Santos : I was nineteen. I had never had a relationship with a woman, and I had never been sexual with a woman, but I had gotten to the place where I could not hold it in. I had told her when I was fourteen that I thought that I was...
Berg : That you were queer.
Santos : Yes. But she sent me to this therapist and then it got put underground again.
Berg : So you actually knew pretty young. It wasn't like you suddenly went to college and discovered you were queer.
Santos : No. Prior to puberty I experienced a heart connection to women, a strong emotional bond and a gender'kind of a male gender identity in some ways, because of my behavior and what I liked to do. When I got into high school and started having sexual feelings, that's when I knew I was attracted to women more than men. But after my first year of college, when I told my mother I thought I was queer, she was like, 'No, it's not true.' She said, 'I'll do anything. We have to fix this kind of thing.' So she sent me to another therapist and'
Berg : And you were willing?
Santos : I was flattened. I didn't know what to do. I had no support around the issue. I actually ended up going to a male therapist. He was really famous at that time. He was a professor at San Jose State University and had developed this technique called rage reduction, which was a kind of somatic therapy, where you did a lot of discharging of rage through different physical things that he would do to you. It was pretty Freudian, but was the best thing for me at that time. I was able to work through a lot of my rage, and had major breakthroughs with him. I was able to begin to disconnect from my mother, to become more independent. That's quite a process. It really wasn't until I was twenty-seven that I had my first relationship with a woman. Oh! Because the other thing is that I got married. I forgot to tell you about that.
Berg : Oh! Forgot about that part! [laughter]
Santos : I did get married! I graduated from college and I was dating this guy that I went to high school with. This was during the Vietnam War, and there was a lottery for the draft. His birthday was like number two, so he was going to get drafted. So he joined the Peace Corps. He was in the Peace Corps about six months, when he wrote to me and said, 'Oh, will you marry me?' I said sure. I had gotten my degree in psychology and was working as a probation officer in Santa Clara County doing juvenile probation work.
So I joined the Peace Corps, went to Nicaragua, and we got married. We stayed in the Peace Corps for a couple of years and then traveled through South America. The day I got married, I thought, what am I doing? But I did it. I was like, okay, I'm going to try and be straight. I'm going to try to follow the rules.
That experience changed my life'not getting married, but being in the Peace Corps. It completely politicized me. There was a way in which I moved away from my narcissism, into being a more community-minded and politically active person. It opened my world up, helped me break through a lot of my fear about different things. I learned how to speak Spanish. I came back, and then we got a divorce. Then I met a woman. Actually it was a woman that I'd had a crush on for five years. But anyway, I did come out when I was twenty-seven.
Berg : Like, to more than just your mom.
Santos : Oh, I didn't come out to her when I was twenty-seven. I didn't come out to my mother until I was forty.
Berg : But you had already kind of told her'
Santos : Well, I had kind of told her, but then I got married. [laughter]
Berg : Yes, so she was like, 'Oh, it was a phase, okay.'
Santos : Whatever'
Berg : It was a small dysfunction.
Santos : That was the thing. We never talked about it. When I told her, it was like, 'Oh my God, this isn't happening.' That's where she took it: 'This isn't happening.' So I didn't actually come out to my mother. Between the time I was twenty-seven and the time I was forty, I didn't have much contact with my parents. It was painful. I couldn't reveal my life to them and they had a lot of judgments about how I was living, so I just kept my distance. I didn't actually have a conversation with her again until I was forty.
Berg : So at twenty-seven you came out maybe to other folks and not your parents?
Santos : I came out to myself. To me, that's my first coming out'where I allowed myself to have a sexual relationship with a woman, and to acknowledge that I was a lesbian.
Berg : Uniting the inner and the outer life.
Santos : Exactly. That's a good way to describe it.
Berg : So where were you geographically at that point?
Santos : I was living in San Jose. But about six months after I got into this relationship, I bought a house and moved here to Santa Cruz. I've been here ever since.
Berg : So was she from Santa Cruz? Is that what brought you to Santa Cruz?
Santos : She was, yes. She was an instructor at Cabrillo at that time, a little bit older than I was. Also when I was a kid growing up, my family used to come to the San Lorenzo Valley all the time. My father was unbelievably creative. He used to buy old shacks in San Lorenzo Valley for a thousand dollars, and then our family project would be to fix them up. I always loved being in Santa Cruz, so that was the other reason why I wanted to live here.
Another thing that allowed me to come out as a lesbian was the feminist movement in the 1970s. I felt validated. When The Feminine Mystique was written, I remember reading it and thinking, finally, somebody's naming all these things that I experienced as a young woman! So getting involved, learning about feminism, being able to develop a life that was built on feminist values and philosophy was important to being able to come out, to owning my sexual orientation. That was key.
I was in and out of relationships until I was forty. Doing a lot of psychotherapy, bioenergetic work, body work, working on becoming a happier and a better person.
Berg : I wanted to ask you about your divorce.
Santos : There was a lot of turmoil in that transition for me, in terms of getting to a point where I could tell my husband that I wanted the divorce. I never told him 'I want a divorce because I'm a lesbian.' It was just, 'I want a divorce because I'm not in love with you anymore.' Even at that point I wasn't able to say that I was a lesbian.
Berg : It was still a little scary?
Santos : It was very scary. Here I had gone down the primrose path to supposedly be wife and mother, and it wasn't working. I remember when I left. We didn't have much. We had a car. It was a Pinto, I remember that [laughter]. And we had a dog. I took the car because it wasn't paid for, and I had a job and he didn't, and I took the dog because I loved the dog. I took the dog and the car and I drove away. I never saw him again and never talked to him again. He was not a bad person. It's not like I hated him. I just emotionally wasn't able to deal with him, to do what would have been needed to have closure. I wasn't able to come out, and so what was I going do with him? It was basically just, let me out of here!
After my divorce I moved into Los Gatos, closer to Santa Cruz. During that time period I rented a room in a couple of houses in the Los Gatos mountains, and I was continuing to see the woman I was in love with, but just as a friend. I was twenty-seven years old, but the kind of tension and awkwardness and fear that I experienced is what you might expect when you are twelve or thirteen. It was that awkwardness of what happens when you're coming into your sense of sexuality.
Berg : So re-doing your whole adolescence.
Santos : Totally! I was drinking a lot, and the woman that I was in love with was too. Being a lesbian at that time' A lot of it had to do with the bar scene. I still wasn't talking to anybody about my sexual feelings for women. But we finally got up the courage to jump into bed together. Then I had to deal with this woman who I had fallen love with, was still in a relationship with a man. And she wouldn't tell him about us. I bought a house in Santa Cruz and she moved in with me. We were living together as a couple and she was still seeing this guy. But it's not like she was identifying herself as being bi. It was like she was straight.
Berg : She was passing.
Santos: She was passing, and it was nuts! The six years that I lived with her were pretty much like that.
Berg : So coming out for you, was not exactly coming out'
Santos : It was not. It was not like, oh here I am. I'm out. Oh no, not at all. It was just more homophobia. Then I developed a lot of guilt. Coming out for me was totally messy! There was a certain amount of relief in finally acknowledging: I'm done sleeping with men. But in terms of self-acceptance, and having an esteemed relationship, it wasn't there.
I had grown up with so much fear about sexuality and about not being straight. It's amazing the power it had over me. This was in the early-1970s. Lesbians were still underground for the most part in the Seventies. There was feminism, which was definitely on the path for me, for really a true coming out'to become a feminist, because I was able to access my sense of power and my voice.
Berg : But there weren't big connections with other lesbians.
Santos : There were some. Most of my friends were lesbians, [but] a lot of them were closeted. They were professional women, and they were closeted. I wasn't out to my family. I didn't come out my parents until I was about forty, so between the time I had my first lesbian relationship at twenty-seven until I was forty years old, I lived a dual life. My life was very compartmentalized.
[Now] I can't think of any circumstance where I wouldn't be out, except where there was a physical danger, like in a community where it was not safe to be out. But there isn't anybody in my life who I protect from the truth anymore, in any aspect of my life. The world is a really different place. People are quite a bit more educated about queer issues.
Berg : I wanted to go back a little bit. How was it when you first came to Santa Cruz? Was there any difference for you in terms of being able to be out because of the way Santa Cruz was at that point? Was it as gay-friendly as it is now? What did it feel like?
Santos : I'm probably not the best person to ask, because I think the restraints that I had were ninety-nine percent self-imposed. In the 1970s there were two local gay bars, women's bars primarily. I never went outside of the bar scene to be out. So I don't know if walking down Pacific Avenue holding my girlfriend's hand in 1972 would have been different than doing it in 2002, because I just didn't do it. I was so closeted, and it's hard for me to sort out how much of my intense need to be in the closet was about my environment, and how much of it was about my own internal landscape. I would guess that if you were to interview other women who were lesbians during the 1970s that their experiences could be really different.
I was on the Title IX commission for Cabrillo College in 1970 after Title IX was first passed, and working to get equal access to athletics for girls at the community college, but I didn't do anything politically around being a lesbian. So in the 1970s and 1980s I was willing to be seen at women's events. [But I was] not so public that people would go, 'Ah! She's a lesbian!' I was just so terrified of coming out, still.
I have had kind of a non-traditional career path. I've been a probation officer, had my own gardening business, and was a tennis and racquetball teacher. Then I got a job at Kmart. I worked there in the fabric department half-time before being hired as the store security manager and the personnel manager. I did that for five years. Then for over fifteen years, I was the personnel director for a nonprofit human services agency in Santa Cruz. That's where I developed most of my human resources skills. And I studied a lot during that time. I tried graduate school a couple of times but I was more of an in-the-world kind of person. I liked doing nonprofit program development, and it fit in with the politicization that happened to me when I was in the Peace Corps, doing grassroots organizing.
Berg : What was that organization?
Santos : It was called Food and Nutrition Services. I think it's called Community Bridges now. It was an umbrella organization that had family services and daycare for children and adults, and lift-line transportation, Para transit, and Meals on Wheels. When I started there I think there were six programs, and when I left there were fifteen. We grew a lot. It was a wonderful experience.
My boss there, the woman who hired me [Karen Rian], was a lesbian, a feminist'she had been a professor here at UCSC'and a really strong mentor. I get all choked up because she died. Unfortunately, about ten years ago she committed suicide. But I had an opportunity in my life to be mentored, not only as a professional and as an activist, but by a feminist and by someone who was a lesbian. It was incredible for me, so'[crying] I miss her a lot.
Berg : So when you met your mentor, did that open things up for you in terms of coming out to yourself?
Santos : Oh! Yes it did. I started working with her in the late-1970s. She politicized me; she really educated me about internalized homophobia. She brought feminism and self-esteem and sexuality all together for me. The other thing is she wrote her dissertation on lesbian sex. She had this great story about when she got her Ph.D. in history of consciousness from UCSC. She sat for her oral exam'she always joked about how sexually repressed the environment was, and someone on her committee actually said to her during the questioning, something about, 'Well, how do you feel, er, in terms of these theories that explain, you know, what goes on, eh, 'down there?'' [laughter] They weren't even able to say the words: lesbian sex, or vagina, or genitalia. They just referred to it as 'down there' and pointed. We used to laugh about that.
Berg : That was at UCSC?
Santos : That was at UCSC. It must've been the early-1970s. She was one of the founding mothers of the women's studies department. She certainly politicized me; she knew a lot about the history of civil and human rights for queer people, and was big on sexuality. She mentored me in those ways. She would give me books to read; we'd would go to events. It was mostly her sharing with me her experiences, what she had learned over the years, and we spent a lot of time talking. She was my best friend. Besides teaching me everything she knew about non-profit administration, she had a fantastic sense of humor and was very funny. I healed a lot in that friendship. I always get emotional when I talk about Karen Rian. She was able to give me a strong sense of unconditional love, while politicizing me. I guess deep down, psychologically, that was the thing that I was afraid of losing, approval, coming from a family where assimilation meant life and death. So her love and respect and loyalty to me were very healing. And she was really, really smart, too smart for her own good sometimes. She was absolutely brilliant. She had a very well-toned mind, very analytical, very insightful, big heart, big emotional body, big intellectual body kind of person. It was after I met Karen and spent some time with her that I was able to come out to my parents. It was with her support that I was able to tell them that I was a lesbian. So in my experience, a single individual relationship can make a huge difference.
Berg : That leads into another thing I wanted to ask you about, spirituality, and your lesbianism, and maybe how that's connected. I could see a connection there in terms of thinking about love, and unconditional love. Like from this person who kind of 'familied' you when you didn't really get that. To me, that seems very spiritual in nature. I wonder how that's carried out for you in terms of your spirituality now, if you feel like you are a spiritual person?
Santos : I've always been a spiritual person. It began for me as a child, and my connection with the natural world. I was raised Catholic, and there were a lot of things about Catholicism that I really liked. Things like the rituals and the colors and the lights'it was all cool. Then I went through a period where I wasn't religious. I'm not really a religious person; I'm a spiritual person. I've never done all that well with organized religion. Karen, as a matter of fact, was an atheist. She had proof that there was no God. That was actually one area where we didn't connect. I remember when she got knocked down with this really bad depression. I had taken training in Reiki'energy healing'and I wanted to give her some energy treatments to see if I could help her brain, and she just thought'
Berg : No way, no faith in that?
Santos : Yes. She was willing to let me do it, but it wasn't in a way that I could connect with her. So spirituality for me often came out of a sense of loneliness rather than any sense of community, and mostly I found it in nature. I always felt that there was some presence that was so phenomenally incredibly loving and clever to have made all of these beautiful and complicated wonders. I've always had a deep respect for living things. Now I am a practicing Buddhist, and Buddhism is really the perfect religion for me. It is much more of a philosophy than a religion. Of course being gay and Buddhist is somewhat controversial. The principles of compassion and much of the Buddhist philosophy rings true for me. I like the tantric practices'the visualizations. Another aspect of my spirituality has been the practice of healing. It's something that I've had experience with since I was a small child. I just seem to have this ability to heal people, whether it's through loving them, or words, or touching them. And animals. I was always surrounded by lots of animals. Animals would always show up at my house, lots of animal stories. If I go backpacking, animals will come. They recognize me all the time, and so I have that connection with other living beings whether they're humans or other forms of life.
Berg : So it was something to you that was less about community and more about being alone, although it does seem like it was about connection to other beings, but maybe just not in like a congregational way.
Santos : Yes, that's where I'm saying spirituality and religion are different. I've always loved to write, and that has been a really wonderful way of connecting with other people as well'exploring with language and through stories the meaning of life. That's been a way of connecting with other women, although I've never been in a writing group that had a focus of spirituality.
Berg : It's there.
Santos : Connecting in spirit with other people. Spending time out-of-doors with other people, other women especially, where the attitude isn't, we're going to conquer'
Berg : So, at this point in your life, do you feel like you've reached a place of feeling whole?
Santos : Oh yes. I feel like my internalized homophobia is very distant. It comes up sometimes. Habituations die really hard. I certainly do get twinges when I'm in certain environments, but I just go, oh, there's that again. It's a nuisance more than a problem. I've healed a lot. And the good thing about being a Buddhist is that at least if I can purify my karma this time around then I'm not going have to do it again next time.
You know it's kind of interesting talking about all this because I realize how parallel lives were going on in this community in the 1970s and early-1980s. When I was doing my underground lesbian thing, other women were' What were other women doing? What were other lesbians doing in this town? I guess I'm going to have to read Out in the Redwoods to find out. I would guess there're a whole lot of different stories. I was so isolated. I think that's the theme of my coming out, that I was really isolated, from the time I was really young, around this issue of sexuality and feeling like I was a lesbian.
Berg : Do you feel like even with your close friends you could go back and understand what it was like? Were they experiencing something similar to you, in terms of feeling isolated? Or were they out in different ways?
Santos : There's one person in my life now who was in my life in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 1960s, and she had to be really closeted too, because of her career, her profession. Not only were there no women in her profession; she was the first woman in her profession, but she was a lesbian. Once in a while I'll have an opportunity; someone from my past, like from my twenties, will show up, and I'll have an opportunity to reconnect with my own history in that way.
Berg : I wanted to ask you about this particular project. What interested you, in terms of being willing to be interviewed and when you first heard about it?
Santos : Well, I come from a family where the oral tradition is what we have. I wanted to support this kind of a project because I think learning about people's lives directly from them in storytelling is a rich way of gathering and archiving history. This is a particular history that's an important one for us to make sure that we capture.
Berg : In terms of becoming involved with the University, you said you had stopped working at Community Bridges. Then, did you come to UCSC after that?
Santos : Not directly. I took maybe a year and a half off, just took a break.
Berg : What brought you to UCSC to work? Did you know other folks who worked here?
Santos : Not really, no. It's kind of interesting. I had lived and worked in this community for a long time, but this place remained a city on the hill. My friend Karen used to be a professor here but left under difficult circumstances. I had minimal connection at the University. I would come up to UCSC for events sometimes. Before coming to work here I was looking at a variety of different employment opportunities. I was thinking about maybe going back to school. A friend of mine who was in my writing group worked at UCSC; she showed me this job description and said that she was going to apply for it. I thought, oh, I should apply for this job too, so I did. But it wasn't like I said, oh I want to work in equal opportunity or affirmative action. I didn't set out looking for that. I have a background that made me suitable for this kind of work, and unless I was going to go back to school and really change paths, I knew I would probably end up doing something that was back in the non-profit world. I did want to get out of non-profit work for a while. I was burned out. It was exciting to think about, wow, I've never worked at a university, and I like the mission of the University.
Berg :: So when you first started to work here, were you thinking, is this a queer-friendly space for me? Or were those considerations there for you?
Santos They were, because I was coming out of a queer-friendly environment. I also knew enough non-discrimination law, and the city and county of Santa Cruz, to know that UCSC was generally going to be a queer-friendly place. My first boss here was straight, but she was queer-friendly. She was a strong ally, and that attitude comes out quickly, in how people use pronouns, and the assumptions that they make or don't make in conversations. I don't think I came out in my interview. I don't think there was an occasion to come out in my interview, but I think I probably would've had there been.
Berg :: Well, you are in the Equal Opportunity Office.
Santos: Yes! I had certain expectations for inclusivity.
Berg :: What is your connection with UCSC in terms of queer issues?
Santos I work in the Equal Employment Opportunity Office. It is illegal to discriminate against employees on this campus because of their sexual orientation, and that's a state, a city, and a University policy. So I come at sexual orientation from the same point of view as I come at religious tolerance and ethnic tolerance, racial tolerance, etc. From 1995 to 1998, I attended the GLBT Campus Concerns Committee. This was prior to the domestic partner benefits being instituted. I was one of the people from that committee who met with the chancellor to present her with information and arguments about why domestic partner benefits needed to be approved by the regents.
Berg :: What was that process like?
Santos I was working on the local campus level with Nancy Stoller, who was working at the system-wide level, and Tchad Sanger. The Campus Concerns Committee had been talking about how we needed to have domestic partner benefits, and how it was coming up for a vote. So we put together a presentation for Chancellor Greenwood which included historical information, national statistics on domestic partner benefits, and information on the climate for GLBT folks on campus.
Berg :: So there was actually a vote coming up; you didn't necessarily have to do with getting that up on the ballot.
Santos No, I was involved with the group of people whose role it was to educate our chancellor so that she could advocate with the requests.
Most of the work that I do is on the individual level. Sometimes I work with groups around issues. I think the first year that Deb [Abbott] was here, I facilitated a retreat for the resource center to get the strategic plan together. Right after Deb Abbott arrived and she was getting the [GLBT] Resource Center started, I extended a lot of support to her and the Center to help get it going. It's been wonderful to see the interest and growth.
Berg :: It has really changed the community in a lot of ways.
Santos It really has. Transformed the campus for GLBT. I don't work with students. That's not a part of my job here. I was thinking a little earlier, when we were talking about mentoring and stuff, maybe my next job I'll have an opportunity to work with younger people.
Berg :: Yes, especially as you reflect on your own youth and think about how valuable that would've probably been, as a teenager having a lesbian mentor. You mentioned a little earlier, that for a long time when you lived in Santa Cruz, you didn't really have a connection to the University.
Santos No, not at all.
Berg :: Do you feel like Santa Cruz is still like that? Do you think there're very separate communities going on?
Santos Well, the University's a lot bigger now than it used to be.
Berg :: Did you feel like there was campus queer stuff, and town queer stuff?
Santos No. But my queer stuff was just my queer stuff. I wouldn't have been a very good barometer. I knew what was going on at the bars, but in terms of'
Berg :: At the bars, did it seem like there was intermingling between folks who lived in town and folk from campus?
Santos Well, I don't remember meeting students at the bar. But you have to be twenty-one to go to a bar, so, unless they were older students... Most of the people who went to the bars were kind of working-class queers. Blue-collar queers.
Berg :: Probably not in-their-twenties kind of queers.
Santos How old was I? I was in my thirties, then. It was before lipstick lesbians and there was still a lot of role-playing. It was changing. It was definitely changing. Certainly not as much role-playing as in the 1950s and 1960s, but I just didn't have an awareness. I was focused on my own thing and my own survival. I couldn't do anything political because I couldn't come out. I was frozen in that place of hiding. I was in the closet.
Berg :: Do you feel like being in Santa Cruz' If you could've imagined yourself being somewhere else?
Santos If I had lived in the city [San Francisco] I would have come out, I think, a lot faster.
Berg :: Really!
Berg :: How come?
Santos When I went to college, I made a choice about where I was going go to school. I almost went to San Francisco State. I think if I had gone to SF State my coming out process would've been really different. I would've had role models and community. Santa Cruz in the 1970s was not an urban environment really; it was the provinces. It still is the provinces! I was talking to Gabriel, the man I work with, and he went up to the city over the weekend. He was talking about how great it was (he's a man of color), what it was like for him. He realized how difficult it is to live in community in Santa Cruz.
Berg : And be out on many different levels'you know, racially, culturally, sexually.
Santos : Yes. So I think if I had lived in a more urban area, well, not any urban area, okay, but had I gone to SF State or if I'd been in San Francisco, I think I would have had a lot more opportunities. Part of the reason that I say that is that I used to spend time, when I was in college, in Berkeley and San Francisco. Some of the most kind of daring adventures and experiences I had were in those environments. When I came to Santa Cruz, I got my house in the mountains and I was able to'
Berg :: Just kind of isolate.
Santos Yes, a more insular life.
Berg :: That's interesting.
Santos Yes, I hadn't thought about that in that way. It definitely would've been different. There is a way in which Santa Cruz is a tolerant' It's a white, liberal community'what can I say? There's always that one level, where you know, hey we're cool, and we accept everything.
Berg :: Like civility.
Santos : Yes. Like good manners, but there are sins of omission. It's often not so much what's done, but what we don't do in this community that leaves people kind of cold. Plus you know, the economic situation here is ridiculous. Housing and' In order to live here'
Berg :: Yes, really it's wild. Is that connected to the University?
Santos No, I think it's more connected to Silicon Valley.
Berg :: It's not really related to the demand for student housing?
Santos I think the demand for student housing is another pressure point for that. But in terms of the cost of housing, cost is always driven up by supply and demand, that ratio, but if Silicon Valley wasn't right over the hill, I wonder what it would be like.
Berg :: Well, it's totally interesting to me that you look back and think, if I was at SF State instead of living in Santa Cruz that I would have' I look at Santa Cruz now, and it seems like there's a pretty lively queer culture here, especially in contrast to some of the other small towns I've lived in. It really is very provincial, and very small, but in spite of that I think there're big connections for queer people here. So it's interesting that I guess maybe not so long ago that wasn't really'
Santos Well, we're talking thirty years ago, at least. There was no Triangle Speakers.
Berg :: There were no rainbow flags out on Pacific [Avenue]. I've totally enjoyed listening to your stories. It's been really educational too, the way that you were talking about how isolated you were coming out.
Santos It's history! [laughter]
Berg : Yes, but it also inspires me because in my work with youth and with community, I know just how important it is to really struggle to make connections, even when maybe it doesn't even seem like it's making a difference. And to really make noise and be visible.
© 2003 - Out in the Redwoods © 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Edited by Irene Reti. Any reproduction of these interviews, including electronic reproduction, is prohibited by United States copyright law.