The atmosphere was festive at the Wilshire Ebell Theater Sunday, April 29, as AIDS Heathcare Foundation celebrated a remarkable 25 years of service. Over that time, co-founder and President Michael Weinstein has grown the organization from a small group of feisty AIDS activists in 1987 to its current status as the nation’s largest provider of HIV/AIDS medical care in America and a global leader in providing medical and advocacy assistance to more than130,000 people in 22 countries.
At the core of AHF’s astounding success is a laser-like focus on the simple fact that healthcare is a right and access to treatment should not be denied anyone based on income, national origin, or any other means used to disqualify people from getting help.
Weinstein, who has been an outspoken gay activist in Los Angeles since the mid-1970s, is tirelessly aggressive in his mission to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But his fearless challenge to the pharmaceutical companies to lower their drug costs, to the federal and state government over AIDS budgets cuts to ADAP and other AIDS programs, and to local governments such as West Hollywood where he pressed for condoms to be made available in jars in every bar has made him enemies over the years. During that HIV prevention push in 2000, some anti-AHF protests got ugly – with one sign calling Weinstein a “Condom Nazi.” But AHF continues to press for condom use – often using what some consider controversial education techniques – such as putting a condom on a huge billboard in the City of Industry and simply asking: “Why not?”
In an effort to “normalize” HIV testing and find the roughly 250,000 HIV positive people who are unaware of their status (and therefore more likely to spread the disease), on Friday, April 27, Weinstein was in Washington DC calling for Congress to pass Rep. Maxine Waters’ bill – the Routine HIV Screening Coverage Act (HR 4470) – that would require health insurance plans to cover routine HIV tests under the same terms and conditions as other routine health screenings. Weinstein said:
“By requiring insurer coverage of routine HIV screening, this bill should go a long way in helping to break the chain of new infections by making HIV testing — and linkage to treatment, far more readily available. We applaud Congresswoman Waters for reintroducing and carrying this lifesaving public health measure.”
I’ve covered Michael Weinstein and AHF over the years and have been amazed at how effective they have been in achieving their goals. AHF started out as AIDS Hospice Foundation when Michael, and fellow AIDS activists Chris Brownlie and his partner Phill Wilson felt the dire need to help people with AIDS who’d been kicked out of their homes or apartments, had no medical treatment and were literally dying on the streets. In December 1988, the Chris Browlie Hospice became the first licensed HIV/AIDS facility for the terminally ill in California. Ironically, it was located not far from the LAPD Police Academy. The hospice provided treatment and care for a number of people, including AIDS Diva Connie Norman.
In July 1990, AHF changed their named from AIDS Hospice Foundation to AIDS Healthcare Foundation, as I remember it – in large part because of complaints from smaller people of color AIDS activists that the bigger AIDS Project Los Angeles refused to give them grant money from their successful annual AIDS Walk. In the local gay press, it was often posited as a “pissing match” between APLA Executive Director Stephen Bennett (ED from 1989-1992) and Weinstein, who created his own grassroots AIDS march. The first one was kicked off downtown by actor Edward James Olmos, who had just completed the film “American Me” (1992) about the Mexican Mafia in California prisons. Given the gangs’ murderous reaction, it was courageous for Olmos to put in an appearance. AHF pressed hard for legsilation to get condoms and AIDS treatment in jail – a position publicized by Weinstein’s friend Bill Rosendahl, then VP of Century Cable and host of the must-watch political show Week in Review.
At the end of 1990, AHF opened its first Out of the Closet Thrift Store in Silver Lake. They have become so successful, they now have 20 stores that also include HIV Testing one-stop-shops and an AHF Pharmacy. (Full disclosure: I have donated items to Out of the Closet).
Wesintein, Phill Wilson and others joined ACT UP and other AIDS activists such as openly gay Judge Rand Schrader in advocating for 5P21, the AIDS Clinic that was part of LA County USC Medical Center where PWAs could get check ups, medications, food, and care. After Schrader’s death in 1993, the clinic was re-named for him.
In October 1992, AHF opened the Carl Bean House in the historic West Adams district and three years later opened a third hospice, Linn House, in West Hollywood. Both have since been closed with the advent of the AIDS drug cocktail.
Weinstein also used fancy fundraisers with tuxedoed politicians and stars to help raise money.
In November 2000, AHF officially teamed up with Magic Johnson and the Magic Johnson Foundation to open the Magic Johnson Healthcare Center in Oakland, starting a long collaboration.
Last year, AHF made history at the Rose Bowl by creating a tribute to AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor, promoting HIV Testing and AIDS awareness worldwide.
Some of those in attendance at the AHF 25th anniversary (all photos by me):