When Wiggsy Sivertsen started working at San Jose State University, the Vietnam War was raging and the Bay Area was a hotbed of political activism — especially on college campuses. Back then she also worked as the head teacher of a school for autistic children. Until they fired her for being a lesbian in 1968.
Her boss handed her a pink slip and suggested Sivertsen leave immediately and come back on the weekend, when no one was around, to get her things.
“They wanted me to slink away in the middle of the night but I don’t do that,” said Sivertsen, who was in her early 30s then. Instead, she called a staff meeting and told everyone why she had been fired.
She’s 84 now and technically retired. She left the university after almost 50 years as a professor and counselor in 2016 and broke her hip shortly thereafter. She’s still using a walker to help her get around after her injury — which she said left her nearly incapacitated for two years. There’s no denying she’s feeling her age.
But even as she resists physical therapy for her healing hip — it would be hard to argue she’s missed a step.
She’s a social worker by training, and in 2019 still sees clients in her office just off The Alameda in College Park a couple of times a week. She says they come to her for help with problems ranging from anger management and family conflicts to self-esteem and romantic relationship issues. But Sivertsen is a natural activist, according to those closest to her.
“She goes through life with a megaphone,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who co-founded the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC) with Sivertsen in 1984 and currently serves as executive director of the BAYMEC Foundation, the political action committee’s charitable organization.
“She was a dynamic force even then and she was eager to create an organization,” Yeager said.
“I had been doing gay political stuff for quite some time,” Sivertsen said, recalling her early days at San Jose State. She was fighting to remove the Army’s ROTC program from campus because they wouldn’t accept gay and lesbian students while peace activists opposed the government recruiting American college students for the Vietnam War on any campus. Eventually the battalion was moved to Santa Clara University.
That was before she and Harvey Milk and so many other gay rights activists stood up against the Briggs Initiative in 1978 — which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools.
Sivertsen took to the public TV and radio airwaves and debated then State Sen. John Briggs — a longtime legislator whose support of California Proposition 6 made him its namesake. The debates were widely credited with turning the tide of public opinion against open bigotry aimed at gays in education.
The Briggs Initiative was defeated, and Briggs himself resigned from the Senate in 1981 after an unsuccessful run at the GOP nomination for governor in 1978. By then, Sivertsen said the gay community’s victory over discrimination statewide had inspired her to start a South Bay group dedicated to political organizing specifically around LGBTQ issues.
After Briggs, Sivertsen said some community leaders tried to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance in Santa Clara County and San Jose. Those propositions made the ballot, but were “soundly defeated,” she said.
Around the same time, Sivertsen and Yeager were formally introduced by Terry Christensen, their colleague at the university. Sivertsen credited Christensen with teaching her everything she knows about politics.
He says she’s just being modest, noting that at various times Sivertsen was elected president of both the faculty and the staff unions during her five decades at the university as a sociology professor and Director of Counseling Services. “She learned that on her own,” Christensen said.
And that modesty is typical for Sivertsen. When asked about a recent event honoring her achievements at Cafe Stritch, she told San José Spotlight she doesn’t really like to reminisce.
“I can’t complain,” she said. “Because people do it and I feel honored and privileged. It’s good to know that the work that you do has a positive impact.”
Over the years, various organizations have recognized her contributions to the struggle for LGBTQ rights — but she doesn’t hang up the awards and proclamations in her honor. “My awards and plaques are stacked in a corner on my desk at BAYMEC,” she said.
“She’s never been one to rest on her laurels or talk about past successes — of which there have been many,” Christensen said. “There’s always the next fight ahead or continuing the current struggle.”
Yeager says that’s why they have kept BAYMEC running for 35 years — “to respond when the next crisis hits and the next enemy emerges.”
Without a doubt, the latest enemy is President Donald Trump. In a prescient moment on Tuesday, Sivertsen warned it would be easy for Trump to roll back advances in gay rights the same way he has eroded the rights of other marginalized groups. On Wednesday the Trump administration announced plans to protect government contractors who discriminate against gay workers — reversing Obama-era policy.
“This man is truly devoid of empathy,” she said.
Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.