Alumnus Becomes First Openly Gay Man Elected to Public Office in Fresno County

"It's an amazing feeling. I still haven't got over it,” says Fresno County Board of Education Trustee James D. Martinez, who graduated from the online Master of Communication Management program in 2018.

USC prides itself on encouraging its students to become trailblazers. A perfect example of that is an alumnus who is now making history: James D. Martinez.

Martinez was sworn in as a trustee for the Fresno County Board of Education toward the end of 2020, breaking ground as the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in Fresno County.

It’s a massive achievement, and one Martinez doesn’t take lightly.

“We weren’t going to not acknowledge [my sexuality]. We knew it was going to come up and we weren’t afraid of it, but I didn’t realize that I was the first openly gay male in Fresno County to win office,” Martinez told USC Online.

Martinez — who worked as a staffer at Fresno City Hall when former mayor Carlos Alan Autry Jr. held pro-Prop 8 rallies “in front of the building” — said he “always wanted a career in politics.”

Today, his win represents not only a personal success, but also a community milestone.

“It really is inspiring for me how many people reach out, especially LGBTQ youth … It’s an amazing feeling. I still haven’t got over it,” he said.

So, how did Martinez get to such a pivotal point in his career?

Born and raised in Fresno, Martinez spent several years in public service, including working for Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a California senator. (“I was just in tears, just tears streaming down my face,” he admitted of the inauguration.)

To aid him in his pursuit of politics, Martinez turned to USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where he obtained a Master of Communication Management in 2018.

“I wanted to broaden my portfolio and aim toward prospective work opportunities. I decided that getting a master’s degree would help set me on that course,” he said.

When it came to deciding which program would best serve him and his career, Martinez sought the advice of his cousin, a USC student. She suggested he study communications because, as she put it, communications is at the core of politics.

“It just goes without saying that [a USC student] is well-trained, equipped and knows what they’re doing.”

That same cousin also steered him toward her alma mater, recommending USC Annenberg’s online MCM program. At the time, Martinez’s mother suffered from multiple ailments, and he needed to stay close to home to help care for her.

His mother, whom he described as “my everything,” raised him as a single parent and provided immense support as he initially pursued higher education, helping him get involved in AVID, Upward Bound and other programs that ready low-income prospective students for college.

Without those programs, Martinez acknowledged, “I would have never probably gotten as far as USC, let alone graduate Fresno State,” where he obtained his bachelor’s in political science.

Aside from the opportunity to earn his graduate degree remotely, USC’s stellar reputation was also part of the draw for Martinez.

“You just get this automatic credibility because people know you’ve worked hard to get to where you are and that USC is not easy,” he explained. “It just goes without saying that [a USC student] is well-trained, equipped and knows what they’re doing.”

Martinez, who initially attended Fresno City College before transferring to Fresno State, told USC Online he “never thought” he would have been accepted into a master’s program, especially one at USC.

“My parents were just happy that I had a job at Starbucks. I went to a community college, and for my parents, it was like, ‘If that’s all he does, we’re so proud of him.’ Because my mom didn’t get past the sixth grade, and my dad didn’t go beyond high school,” he said.

While enrolled, Martinez opted to juggle a career with the full-time program, attending two classes a week with plenty of schoolwork outside of the proverbial classroom.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was so difficult,” he laughed.

To Martinez, however, the career benefits and sense of community have made it all worth it.

“It [has] opened a lot of doors,” he said. “The skill sets that I took away from the master’s program at USC were just invaluable because I use them constantly, whether it be in my professional capacity or when I was running for office and looking at themes and messaging — what the strategic goals are, making a communication plan[.] I would recommend it to anyone, to be honest,” Martinez said.

In fact, Martinez is such a big fan of USC that he stops by the campus store whenever he can and “drops a ton of money,” even buying his dogs USC sweaters to show off his Trojan pride.

Representation at the Board of Education

In addition to serving as a Board of Education trustee, Martinez works as the director of operations at Associated Student Inc. at Fresno State.

On the Board, he’s one of five elected members who “facilitate and foster an environment that’s conducive to teaching and educating students in kindergarten through high school within Fresno County.”

His new tasks include developing the school budget, overseeing charter applications and student expulsions, and dreaming up policy initiatives and proposals.

While Martinez had previously been approached to run for the Board, he was only inspired to do it after his mother died.

“I really did it in her name and to honor her and all the other single mothers and fathers … We suffered from food, housing and transportation insecurities all the time. She worked as an in-home care provider and sometimes went without pay. Sometimes we only had $10 in our bank account and were wondering what we were going to do next. And so, it’s the types of life struggles that a lot of the constituents and students I represent have. I know exactly what that’s like,” he said of his motivation to join the Board.

Of course, Martinez is also now in a position where he can represent LGBTQ needs within the wider Fresno County, which is crucial because, as he noted, “a lot of people aren’t aware what LGBTQ+ or trans students go through in our educational system.”

Although schools are often an environment where students feel supported and can be open about their identities, the education system does not always have the necessary mental health services or teacher assistance — especially if students aren’t getting the proper support at home, he explained.

Simply put, Martinez said he “felt like it was incumbent upon me to be the person that I wish I had when I was younger. I felt that my life story and life experience would resonate. And if I advocate for those types of programs that would’ve helped me and help students and families navigate those channels and make it easier for them than it was for me, then I will have made somewhat of a difference.”

While it’s obvious Martinez has a shining career ahead of him and will continue making headlines with his achievements, he said he isn’t focusing on future prospects at the moment.

Instead, he’s looking to what he can accomplish in his current roles.

“I really want to get my feet wet, see what I can do in this capacity and work with community groups and other elected officials — as well as students and schools — and see what initiatives we can come up with to help facilitate a greater learning within our county,” he said when questioned about his upcoming goals.

“Right now, I’m very happy where I am,” he concluded, grinning.

Learn more about the Master of Communication Management online program today.