Person with spiked yellow and white hair wearing a red jacket facing away from the camera and looking at a mural covering an outdoor wall, depicting an African American man in and out of drag
Gabrielle Antolovich, president of the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center's board of directors, said the center has tried to channel DeFrank's welcoming and generous presence. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Not much is known about William Price, the drag queen whose name adorns the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center in San Jose.

Price, an African American drag queen and activist who performed under the name “Billy DeFrank,” used his performances to fundraise for various causes, according to Gabrielle Antolovich, president of the center’s board of directors. He died of a heart attack in 1980 and details of Price’s life have been lost to time, as most people who knew him died during the AIDS epidemic. When the center opened in 1981, organizers hoped to channel his welcoming and generous presence. Decades later the center still serves to bring people together across all walks of life.

“He loved everyone, and he was actually known as Mr. Love, because he just embraced every single person,” Antolovich told San José Spotlight. “Calling our center after him is really a higher calling.”

Bill DeFrank in a recliner. Image courtesy of San Jose State University Special Collections & Archives Department from the Ted Sahl Collection.

Silicon Valley Pride CEO Nicole Altamirano said the DeFrank center is unlike any other LGBTQ+ space in the region. Most queer safe spaces have historically been bars, like Splash, but Altamirano said the DeFrank center stands out in how it’s accessible to people of all ages.

“If you’re Mexican, you’re Black, you’re Asian, your family is part of that marginalized group. You all stand together,” Altamirano told San José Spotlight. “What’s unique about the LGBTQ+ community is that our families don’t often reflect that part of us and a lot of times we’ve seen that youth specifically get disowned. Their families don’t agree with it, they can’t be themselves.”

Altamirano said local LGBTQ+ history can be overshadowed by more famous figures, especially given Silicon Valley’s proximity to San Francisco, which makes it even more important to highlight figures like Price. She added that learning about local history can empower younger generations.

Antolovich said the center recently started a political organizing committee to discuss and take action on issues that affect the community, such as opposing school book bans or supporting Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 on the November ballot, which will ask voters to remove language in the state constitution that only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman. The amendment repeals Proposition 8, which passed in 2008 but was ruled unconstitutional in 2010.

Ken Yeager, former Santa Clara County supervisor and San Jose councilmember, and executive director of the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC) Community Foundation, said he hopes local LGBTQ+ history can inspire younger generations to continue fighting for their own rights. Yeager became the county’s first openly gay elected official when he was elected to the San Jose Evergreen Community College District in 1992, and has spent a decade in local government advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.

Gabrielle Antolovich, board president of the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center, and Ken Yeager (second from left) former Santa Clara County supervisor and San Jose councilmember, walk across the city’s first rainbow crosswalk to the Alameda. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Antolovich.

The Billy DeFrank center is an asset to the community and city at large, Yeager said, adding that much of the community’s local history has happened at the center. He helped launch Queer Silicon Valley through BAYMEC to document that local history, as well as published books and produced a documentary.

“Minority groups are marginalized by society and our history is lost,” Yeager told San José Spotlight. “Mainstream society just doesn’t see any value in recording marginalized groups.”

The center was founded following the failure of two measures in the county and city in 1980, which would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, and expanded housing and workplace protections. Yeager said opponents of the measures portrayed gay people using out-of-touch stereotypes and the LGBTQ+ community created a refuge from this homophobia in the DeFrank center.

Antolovich said the center’s founding marked the beginning of when lesbians, gay men, transgender people and others in the community decided to continue meeting and organizing together. The spirit of being one’s authentic self and building connections between people are what will help the community center move forward.

“We have a mission of building community, but we don’t know where that takes us,” Antolovich told San José Spotlight. “We need to be open and listening to our community about that.”

One of the ways the nonprofit keeps that mission light burning bright is through a mural depicting Price, in and out of drag, and commemorating the different groups and movements that call the center home. The mural in 2021 was created as part of the center’s 40th anniversary to honor Price and engage the community in conversation.

“Being a community center is like being an organism, it’s different from a regular nonprofit,” Antolovich said.

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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