Today is the birthday of West Hollywood’s openly gay, openly HIV positive Mayor John Duran. It is also the 20th anniversary of the AB 101 protests over Gov. Pete Wilson’s veto of that gay rights bill, which Duran wrote with Assemblymember Terry Friedman and Wilson had promised to sign. The weeks-long street protest that erupted over that betrayal was a benchmark in LGBT history in which many activists who soon died from AIDS participated, such as artist Cory Roberts. To commemorate both, I’ve re-posted a piece Duran wrote two years ago marking the date.
Musings from WeHo: The Last Time We Took to the Streets
By John Duran
(Karen’s Note: Most people know John Duran as a smart and flirtatious West Hollywood City Councilmember. But early in his career as a civil right attorney, John stood up to the rabidly antigay Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. In 1989, John had to be escorted out of the Santa Ana City Chambers after he successfully argued for a permit allowing Orange County’s first gay pride parade and Sheldon and his minions surround John and screamed “Out Satan! OUT!” Later the White Aryan Resistance defaced and tried to burn down John’s law office. It takes courage to defy constant intimidation from bullies whether from the pulpit for the legislature or down the street. John’s story about AB 101, the California gay civil rights bill that was vetoed in 1991, reflects a turning point in the lives of many LGBT people in California at a time when gay men were just trying to stay alive. So thanks – and Happy Birthday, John!)
So my friend Karen Ocamb asked me to join her blog. I guess it was inevitable. We have been sharing history for the past 20 years since we met in 1989 when she asked me to help her figure out Lou Sheldon’s tax records. And I have been threatening to write a book for years about all the good and bad times of the past. But of course – never finding the time to sit down and write because this writer’s mental quill is still recording the events of today. So – this seems to be an intermediate solution. To capture some of the time – bit by bit – on Karen’s blog.
Today, September 30th – is my 50th birthday (gulp!). No. I have not yet opened the envelope I received from AARP. Have I really spent more than half of my life working on LGBT issues? I was having sex while I was a teenager in the 1970′s. I entered my first gay bar at age 18 in 1978 – when Harvey Milk was elected. I came out to myself and others in 1979 – when Harvey Milk was killed. I volunteered on a “Hotline” in 1979 – before AIDS, before most of our current LGBT organizations were in existence. There were a few: the Gay Community Services Center, the MCC Church, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles – but all the others were yet to come. So, I guess my perspective covers the last 30 years of LGBT life here in Los Angeles and Orange County. A perspective that was shaped from a teenager’s mind – to a man at mid-life.
AB 101 and LIFE Lobby
This date is an anniversary date I will always remember (aside from my natal birthday) because on September 29, 1991 – then Governor Pete Wilson (R) vetoed AB 101 – the gay and lesbian anti-discrimination bill. The bill was originally known as AB 1 and carried by former Assemblyman Art Agnos (D) of San Francisco. It was very simple. It would have added the words “sexual orientation” to the Fair Employment and Housing Act so that gay people wouldn’t be fired from their jobs in California. Simple.
The sponsoring organization was the LIFE Lobby (LIFE stood for Lobby for Individual Freedom and Equality) which was headed up by the spectacular Laurie McBride. The LIFE Lobby was formerly called the LIFE AIDS Lobby under the tutelage of Rand Martin and then Laurie McBride – writing the laws regarding the HIV epidemic (more about this another time). But the organization had completed writing the California AIDS model from 1987-1991 and had decided to expand into gay/lesbian issues. AB 101 was the first test.
The LIFE Lobby board of directors was made up of 104 organizations from around the state of California and I served as the Southern California Co-Chair. The organizations spanned from the far left (every chapter of ACT UP) to the far right (every Log Cabin chapter). We had met with both gubernatorial candidates in 1990 – former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (D) and former U.S. Senator Pete Wilson (R). Each of them promised us that if elected Governor, s/he would sign AB 101. We sent a message out to the community that either of these moderate candidates was acceptable to the LIFE Lobby and our issues, though Karen says the community didn’t know Feinstein had agreed.
Assemblyman Terry Friedman (D) of West Hollywood was the primary author of the bill. We worked our asses off trying to get the bill out of the Assembly and State Senate. The margins were always close – passing the bill by exactly the number of votes that we needed in both houses, with Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D) of Santa Ana giving us the 41st vote in the Assembly.
The most difficult time was within our own community. It was almost impossible to motivate the troops to get out and support the bill. There were plenty of other urgent priorities: hate crimes, AIDS, Project 10 for gay teens, and so many more issues. All were critical. Plus we were burying our sick and dying on a weekly basis. Many people said, “Don’t worry. It will pass. It will be signed. No worries.” The same sentiments I would hear 17 years later from so many people about Proposition 8: “Don’t worry. It won’t pass. It will be defeated. No worries.”
Laurie McBride and I caravanned around California trying to excite the community. We went to Fresno, Bakersfield, the Central Valley, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, the Inland Empire, northern San Diego county – places unlike San Francisco or Los Angeles – where there were smaller gay communities who needed support to lobby their homophobic legislators.
But so many of the power hitters in the Los Angeles and San Francisco communities were focusing on AIDS and on President George HW Bush (the daddy, not the son) in Washington DC. Nobody could be bothered about a simple employment discrimination bill. There were more urgent priorities. Besides, “it will pass. No worries.”
On a Sunday afternoon – when the Governor thought no one was paying attention – he broke his promise and vetoed AB 101.
But politically, he miscalculated the response….
A New Surge of Activism
As co-chair of the LIFE Lobby, I first found out the bad news when an Associated Press reporter called me at home (no cell phones, kids) to ask me for comment about the veto of AB 101. I told her I would call her back. I called Laurie McBride in Sacramento. She had just received the same phone call from the press. Just one week earlier, the Governor’s staff assured us that he intended to sign the bill. I combed my hair. Put on my lawyer drag (suit and tie) and not sure where to go – headed to Queer Village at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Crescent Heights in West Hollywood.
Queer Village was a rag tag group of tents set up by the late Rob Roberts who went on a hunger strike to draw attention to AB 101. Rob had been a sales person at Daily Variety and had taken stress leave after his boss told he couldn’t have a picture of his boyfriend or a Queen Nation sticker in his cubicle. Even though he was HIV positive, he kept that a secret so the hunger strike would be about the jobs and housing discrimination bill and not AIDS. However, the late Wayne Karr, an ACT UP/Queer National with AIDS who went on a hunger strike in the same spot over AIDS drugs, helped him out on the strike. So did the late transgender activist and “AIDS Diva” Connie Norman and others who fasted for a few hours or a day or slept in a tent overnight to keep Rob company.
Rob hadn’t eaten in what seemed like weeks – putting his AIDS infected bodies at high risk. But everyone expected that he’d be eating again soon since the Governor had promised to sign the bill.
But the political system failed us. All the lobbying. The letter writing. The phone calls. The organizing for more than a year. All of it crumbled under the weight of that veto pen.
From Suit to Street Activist
I showed up at Queer Village to let Rob Roberts and Connie Norman know about the veto. Others had started to gather there also – West Hollywood Councilmember John Heilman, the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center Executive Director Torie Osborn and the Executive Director of APLA – Steve Bennett. We were “the suits.” We were heads of the community’s institutions on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic and our civil rights movement simultaneously. And the system had failed. We had failed. And then it happened……
A young punk with a purple Mohawk haircut and piercings through his nose looked at me and screamed, “Aren’t you suits tired of getting fucked over?” He was a member of Queer Nation. First came the streets activists of ACT UP, born out of the March On Washington on October 11, 1987. They were followed by an even more radical group of gaylings called Queer Nationals – who were not gay, not lesbian. They were “queer” and proud of it! And he was in my face taunting me: “Aren’t you fucking furious and tired of this? ACT UP! FIGHT BACK!”
What AB 101 Came to Mean
You see, the Governor’s miscalculation was on the amount of political kindling waiting to be ignited. It was – and it wasn’t – about the simple employment non-discrimination bill called AB 101. It was about us fighting an AIDS epidemic beyond the scope of what was humanly possible – often by ourselves without the assistance of the Reagan or Bush Administrations. It was about the condemnation of the Pope, religious zealots and bigots who were hurling brimstone at us – instead of providing the compassion and comfort that churches usually offer.
It was about the weekly funerals, memorials, corpses, sick people, gay men abandoned by their “families,” doctors who wouldn’t treat, morticians who wouldn’t bury our dead and a relentless epidemic that had savaged thousands of our lovers and friends over a ten year period.
It was about bashings, hate crimes, bullying. It was about alcoholism and drug abuse as we self- medicated. It was all kindling – accumulating and building in a political fireplace. It was twisted, dry, sharp as thorns and volatile.
So when the Governor refused a shred of decency by vetoing the bill – and in essence, saying that we wouldn’t even be protected in our jobs even though we had sacrificed blood, tears, sweat, mental health and physical well being for 10 solid years – that veto cut deep. It unleashed the rage and anger of every child bullied on the schoolyard. Of every lost soul. Of every ravaged and broken heart who lost a best friend, spouse or lover.
It ignited quickly.
Councilmember John Heilman called the Sheriff’s Department in West Hollywood. He told them we were marching down Santa Monica Blvd from Queer Village. He told them not to arrest us – but to clear away the traffic – and they did.
And we stepped off the curb at Queer Village on Santa Monica Blvd and Crescent Heights – onto the metaphorically blistering hot asphalt of the street. Not many of us. About 50 people: young “queers,” Rob Roberts, Connie Norman, Torie Osborn, John Heilman, Steve Bennett and me among them. At that moment, there were no longer “streets” and “suits” – just an angry tribe. And we marched down the boulevard, we were raucous and visible. Lambda rainbow flags. The piercing shrill whistles that we used at ACT UP – where I sometimes served as a lawyer. The yelps of hurt, angry new street activists.
And as we passed along the mid city section of West Hollywood – people who were just enjoying a Sunday late afternoon stopped and said, “What is going on?”
“The Governor vetoed AB 101 – the employment bill”, we replied.
And former walking pedestrians joined the march. By the time we had reached La Cienega, our little motley crew had doubled in size and our voices were growing stronger. We approached the lesbian Palms bar just west of La Cienega. Some young queers ran into the bar shouting “Out of the bars! Into the streets! The Governor vetoed the gay rights bill.” And within 30 seconds, 3 of the angriest short- cropped hair “dykes” came barreling out of the Palms in red tank tops and fists raised in the air. They scared me.
Then we were nearing the Sports Connection – where on the 2nd floor of the building you can see rows of “gym bunnies” on stair masters and treadmills observing the street below. The young queers hopped over the counter rails and dashed up the stairs as they were pursued by startled gym employees. I saw all the treadmill heads turn and look as if listening to shrieking voices. I thought, “Ha! You will never get the gym bunnies off their cardio routines”. But I’ll be damned if about 10 hot gay sweaty bodies came bursting out the gym door into the procession. They took the front of the pack and we quickened, if not doubled, our pace. (NOTE TO SELF: never allow young adrenaline-filled 20 year olds lead the pack in a march when they are fresh off a treadmill!).
Our voices grew louder and louder. And then I saw something which still brings tears to my eyes when I recall it. Down the gentle slopes of West Hollywood’s Boystown streets – down Westbourne, Hancock, Palm, Larrabee and San Vicente – steady streams of our larger community – leaving their rent controlled apartments and condos, pulling neighbors off lawns and porches, pulling along dogs, tricks and boyfriends. Streams of angry people rolling down the hilly streets in unified columns – joining us.
By the time we hit San Vicente Blvd and passed Mickey’s, the Tango Grill, the Revolver and the (coincidentally) Rage bars – our numbers had swelled to over 500 people. Taking the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and San Vicente, in the heart of Boystown – we took the corner. This major corner was now ours. It would become the future sight for candlelight vigils, demonstrations, marches, speeches – for history. From that night forward – we had christened that corner to be “our gathering space” where, without question, we would instinctively gather when we needed to bolster one another.
Demonstrations Around California
There were hours of raging against Wilson and everything he had come to stand for. Speeches from a flatbed truck. Burning Wilson in effigy. All with cameras rolling. Fox 11’s Christina Gonzales went “live” with an interview with Rob Roberts, who she had interviewed before.
I don’t remember whether it was that night or the next when someone said, “Let’s find Wilson!” He was staying at the Century Plaza Hotel so people marched leaderless through the streets of West Hollywood, into Beverly Hills and on into Century City where the LAPD was initially caught off-guard and some of the “suits” tried to prevent violence from erupting.
The next day – September 30th – on my 32nd birthday – thousands of people gathered at our sacred corner and marched to Century Plaza to find Wilson. And no one – not Terry Friedman, not LA Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky could talk us out of our anger. For 3 weeks we marched, got arrested and incurred some police brutality. All across Los Angeles. From downtown to Santa Monica. In Beverly Hills midday during prime shopping time – past the Beverly Wilshire Hotel featured in “Pretty Women.” In Woodland Hills where a number of people were arrested. In Orange County where there were more arrests. Marches and demonstrations and incidents of police brutality. Until that fateful night three weeks later, when the LAPD on horseback charged the crowd sending so many of our brothers and sisters to emergency rooms and hospitals.
What I saw in newspapers across the state empowered me further. You see – because all those trips that Laurie McBride and I made across the state paid off. There were protests on September 30th in San Diego, in Garden Grove, in Riverside, in Los Angeles, in Fresno, in San Francisco, in San Jose, in Santa Cruz, in Laguna Beach…….and even 3 angry lesbians clanging pots with wooden spoons at Bakersfield City Hall.
Yes. Our bill had been vetoed. But the mighty Phoenix, which we had become – rose from the ashes of destruction. And one week later, at the home of the late Dr. Scott Hitt – a group of us met with then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary as he asked us to support his run for president. The next day he told a reporter – without prompting – that he had been Governor of California, he would have signed AB 101.
But that, dear ones, is best reserved for another day of musings from Weho……..