Talking with A port authority who bridges cultures


photo/steven underhill
Robert Bernardo

Name: Robert Bernardo

Age: 47

City: South San Francisco

Position: Port of Oakland spokesperson

You began your career as a detective investigating hate crimes for the district attorney’s office and are now the communications manager for the Port of Oakland. How did one lead to the other?

Robert Bernardo: I was in law enforcement for several years and decided to do a career change. I wanted to go back to my roots in journalism and, more broadly, communications. I saw an opening at the Port of Oakland on Craigslist. My family said, “You’ll never get hired, you know nothing about ships, trains or planes,” but I said I’m going to apply anyway, and I got the job. I’ve been here 13 years.

You’re also in your second term as a member of the San Mateo County Harbor Commission. What does your role entail?

We set policy for the two harbors in the county, Oyster Point in South San Francisco and Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay. We set environmental, operational and financial policy. One example is that we just approved a long-term agreement [to host] the Mavericks surfing contest at Pillar Point Harbor until 2021.

According to your Wikipedia entry, you’re the highest-ranking gay Filipino politician in the country, and, at the 2006 San Francisco Pride Parade, you were the first Jewish Filipino to serve as a grand marshal. What do these achievements mean to you?

I’ve always thought it was important to try and bridge people and cultures as much as possible. So, in a way, I feel that I have helped bridge relationships within the LGBT, the Filipino American and the Jewish communities. It’s all about helping to foster relationships between these groups. That’s become my mission in life and runs through the jobs I’ve had and in a lot of the nonprofit work and political work I do.

You have the “triple threat” thing going — Filipino, gay and Jewish — and appeared in J. in 2005 when you were elected the first Jewish president of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (, in which you shared your journey to Judaism. Do you know any other gay Filipino Jews?

I can think of two others, and they’re both friends of mine.

You’re also a triple titleholder in GAPA pageants. It’s hard to imagine a straight public servant competing in one. Why do you think this is OK in the gay community?

The goal of these pageants is not like a traditional beauty pageant. If they were just about beauty, I would not have won. The main thing is they want to see your creativity in how you extend the definition of gay Asian American beauty, which means different things to different people. You are on stage to redefine what that means to you … what being a gay Asian means. For some contestants, it can mean expressing what it’s like to live with HIV, or being trans, or being outside of the usual binary genders that society uses.

Being Jewish probably doesn’t come up much at work, though it did last October with the “Block the Boat” protests to prevent Israeli-operated cargo ships from unloading at the Port of Oakland. You were quoted in the press quite a bit. Was that situation hard for you?

It’s a deeply emotional issue for everyone, but I had to suppress my feelings about it and just do my job. When I work for any company or agency, I have to have loyalty to that agency, whether it’s the DA’s office or the Port of Oakland, and I need to speak on behalf of that agency. The challenge is to compartmentalize your feelings and do your job at the same time, and put your job first. But yes, it was tough as a Jew, following the footage and watching the videos.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."