Sitting in her cramped Camarillo office, Claire Connelly hardly cuts the figure of a civil rights worker.
At 55, she is soft-spoken, and her speech is measured. One imagines her more easily as a kindergarten teacher than someone who would quote Patrick Henry with fervor.
But Connelly's mild manner changes when she speaks about issues close to her heart: "Discrimination is all one story. It doesn't matter if it's against blacks, Hispanics, gays or Third World countries."
As executive director of Gay & Lesbian Resources of Ventura County, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling, as well as referrals to health-care professionals, attorneys and social-service organizations, Connelly says she has witnessed firsthand discrimination's effects.
In the eight years since its inception, the Gay & Lesbian Resources Center has averaged about 150 calls a month. Many, Connelly says, lament job discrimination, loneliness or ostracism.
"People in the community are extremely fearful, especially since the murder of that homosexual man and the brutal bashing a few weeks ago of a homosexual man in Port Hueneme," she said, referring to two recent cases that made headlines throughout the county.
"This is not San Francisco and it's not Los Angeles," Connelly added. "This is Ventura County. You have to value your freedom, but most people I know figure it's better to just keep a low profile."
Connelly believes that anonymity may protect against prejudice, but she says it will do nothing to end discrimination. Only when enough heterosexual people find out "their neighbor, their co-worker or their brother or sister is gay," she said, will the stereotypes end.
That belief has prompted her to speak out about gay and lesbian issues and education about acquired immune deficiency syndrome at schools, community groups and colleges throughout the county--even though no one from the gay community will accompany her, fearing the consequences of exposure.
"She's had a booth at the Ventura Street Fair and was the only one to staff it," said Edie Brown, chairwoman of the Ventura-Santa Barbara chapter of Southern California Women for Understanding, a nonprofit educational organization for lesbians.
"She's very straightforward," Brown said. "And I think she's been very instrumental in making people in Ventura County understand that there are gays and lesbians here, just as there are everywhere else in the world."
But Connelly's outspokenness isn't applauded by every member of the gay community. Several of her board members have reportedly left the organization to work with local AIDS groups, citing "personal differences" with Connelly.
"It's primarily a personality thing," Brown said. "She is rather adamant about how she feels about things. Not everyone agrees with her."
Connelly says she refuses to hide who she is. That is why she is one of the few people in the gay community, she says, who allows her name to appear in print.
But that wasn't always so. Until she was 38, Connelly was married to a college professor, living on the East Coast with her husband and son. It was then, she says, that her life turned upside down. She fell in love with a woman.
"There are stages in coming out," she said. "First, you come out to yourself and overcome the confusion, fear, guilt and shame. Then you can start coming out to others."
"It's not that we are ashamed," said a lesbian woman who asked that her name not be used. "It's just that it seems to be inviting trouble. Most of us have too much to lose."
"There are times when I would like to melt back into the mainstream," Connelly said. "I can't do that. I'm doing this for my freedom, as well as for others'."