This week marks the end of Women’s History Month, so the LGBTQ San Diego County News would like to celebrate two local San Diego icons who are true heroines that have contributed to the building of our LGBTQ+ community and city in general through decades of public service.
When the history of the city of San Diego and the LGBTQ+ community is written, it will most certainly tell the story of one of its major Lesbian trailblazers and historic icons, that of course being Susan Jester! She was the first LGBTQ+ San Diegan to receive an official appointment by the mayor of San Diego and the Neighborhood Advisory Council, and she is the founder of the San Diego AIDS Walk, which is now the biggest AIDS fundraiser in the county having raised well over $1 million. She once again made history last week by being inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame. Susan was born in San Bernardino, California, into a very religious and conservative Republican family; in fact, her mother became a leader in the Fundamentalist Christian Movement.
Susan, the only child of the Jester family, knew she was a Lesbian when she was in her teens but got married to a man at the age of 16 and gave birth to her beloved son (and now renowned artist) David Jester. Susan’s husband was sadly killed in a car accident.
In 1961, the Jester family moved to San Diego and Susan attended San Diego State University. In 1983, Susan Jester came out of her closet with a bang — she ran and won the title of Miss Gay San Diego and immediately became a well-known and effective activist for LGBTQ+ civil rights. In the 1960s and ’70s, San Diego was a solid Republican stronghold and for Susan, being a moderate progressive Republican opened doors for her and gave her access to elected officials to discuss LGBTQ+ issues. In fact, at the time, the Log Cabin Republican Club had only about five members, but after Susan’s two terms as their president, it had more than 100 LGBTQ+ members.
Susan Jester and Tony Zampella are given credit for getting Republican elected officials to become pro LGBTQ+ and got many to support AIDS funding. In fact, at the prestigious annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in 2014, Susan was presented the San Diego Republican Party’s Coalition Builder Award. She has always been about bringing people and communities together. Her personal heroes and role models are Abraham Lincoln, Billie Jean King, Harvey Milk, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Senator John McCain. Susan was named Grand Marshal of the 2017 San Diego Pride Parade after serving as the national executive director of Stonewall 25 in New York City. Though Susan is one of the community’s pioneering Lesbian activists like Bridget Wilson, Jeri Dilno, Gloria Johnson, etc., she has been subjected to a long history of negativity and attacks because of her political party affiliation.
Currently Susan is a city commissioner, vice chair of the San Diego AIDS Memorial Task Force, board member of the GLBT Historic Task Force of San Diego and the Sheriffs LGBTQ Advisory Board. She just finished a seven-year term as co-chair of former Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s LGBTQ Advisory Board. Recently, Faulconer said this of Susan: “Katherine [Faulconer] and I are so proud of our friend, Susan Jester for her induction into San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame. On top of her accomplished career, Susan has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community and pioneered San Diego’s first AIDS Walk in 1985. No one is more deserving of this honor than Susan Jester.”
Susan has always been a very spiritual and religious person and, along with Bob Leyh, established a now non-denominational church service at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral during San Diego Pride week. Last year, Susan also re-registered as an independent voter in view of the extreme right swing of the Republican party. Susan Jester is a true patriot and Christian in every sense of the word and a special woman in our community.
In recent years, Susan has found a spiritual home at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Bankers Hill. “Susan blesses our cathedral community and the broader Episcopal Diocese with her commitment, leadership, and experience in dealing with media and government. She is a dearly loved member of our parish family,” says the Rev. Penny Bridges, Cathedral Pastor.
For nearly four decades when you think of Hillcrest icons and allies of our LGBTQ+ community, one of the first names to always come up is Cindy Lehman. This week, she is retiring as senior vice president from the Hillcrest branch of California Bank & Trust. Cindy is originally from Gardner, Kansas, a town of about 10,000 people. When she lived there, she had a close friendship with her Gay brother-in-law and tried her best to protect him from constant harassment and ridicule. In 1984, she moved to San Diego and within weeks got a job as a bank teller at the Hillcrest branch and worked her way up to assistant manager, manager, vice president and then senior vice president. She quickly realized that the Hillcrest branch of California Bank & Trust was in the heart of the LGBTQ+ community and as sure as the saying goes, “Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore,” she quickly got herself involved with the neighborhood and community. She joined the Hillcrest Business Association and Hillcrest CityFest. She made sure that her bank became the first to join an LGBTQ+ business organization as well as have a booth at the San Diego Pride Festival.
Cindy is not afraid to take a stand when it comes to equality and fighting discrimination. She even got her bank to pull their ads from a radio station which aired one program with a homophobic host who regularly attacked the LGBTQ+ community. Soon, her good friends Gary Holt and Dominick Fiume asked her to join the Greater San Diego Business Association, which is now the San Diego Equality Business Association. She was then elected to the board of directors and served for almost a decade.
When Cindy first arrived in San Diego, she was taken aback by the constant growth of our city’s homelessness crisis, and if you know Cindy, she puts her money and action where her mouth is and has served for 25 years on the board of the Alpha Project, which is totally focused on helping people experiencing homelessness. During the early dark years of the AIDS crisis, not only did Cindy get involved but so did her bank. California Bank & Trust’s support of AIDS organizations is well-known but it was Cindy Lehman who went out of her way to educate people living with AIDS on how to financially protect themselves (by adding their partners to their wills and bank accounts) from what she was watching happen — many families and parents of Gay sons who died of AIDS were going into their homes and lives that they shared with their partners and taking everything they could from the surviving partner, especially if the families didn’t approve of their lifestyle.
Indeed, it is also because of Cindy’s community and neighborhood leadership and activism that her bank won “Best Bank” category in the San Diego Union Tribune Readers Best Of poll. In 2010, San Diego Pride honored Cindy with its prestigious Friend of Pride Award and she says it was one of the highlights of her life. There is also a permanent award established by the San Diego Equality Business Association named after her, The Cindy Lehman Lifetime Achievement Award.
When asked about Cindy, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria stated: “There is no better friend of Hillcrest or San Diego’s LGBTQ+ Community than Cindy Lehman. I’ve known Cindy for over 20 years and have seen her hard work first-hand. She is honest, generous, and a true ally. As she prepares to retire from her work at California Bank & Trust, I want to extend the City’s sincere appreciation to Cindy for all that she has done for all of us. Our community is a much better place because of her.”
Cindy Lehman has become a most beloved member of our LGBTQ+ community and has gained a legion of friends and admirers both inside and outside our community because of her legendary acts of personal kindness, be it visiting people in the hospital, taking care of the needs of newlywed LGBTQ+ couples, helping small businesses and social service organizations, etc.
Cindy feels she has not only been blessed with the love and friendship with so many people and our community but especially by her beloved husband Rhett (named after Clark Gable’s character from “Gone With the Wind”).
There will be a big void in Hillcrest when Cindy retires but she will absolutely always have a place in many of our hearts. I think our California State Senate President Toni Atkins put it best when she said: “Frankly, I don’t recall a Hillcrest without Cindy! She was our banker when I was the manager at Woman Care back in 1987. A true civic leader always part of any successful Hillcrest endeavor. But best of all: smart, feisty and with a laser-focused wit and a huge heart to tie it all together. Just a genuinely good person.”