Their ranks have been thinned by the AIDS epidemic. One of their most popular political leaders was recently toppled by an embezzlement conviction. And their very right to assemble has been threatened by rising insurance costs. But on Sunday the Los Angeles gay community marched on, determined to show strength in the face of adversity.
Organizers said the 16th annual Gay Pride Parade drew an estimated 150,000 people to Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, a hub for gays in Los Angeles. Groups of people five deep stood in the summer heat and cheered wildly for parade groups such as Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians, Dykes on Bikes, AIDS Project Los Angeles and the Third World and White Lesbian Marchers.
The theme of the 1.5-mile parade was "Forward Together." And the spirited crowd seemed to take it literally as they donned T-shirts, waved placards and sported stickers in support of AIDS research, community leaders and other political causes.
Several parade goers wore stickers that said "I Love Me." Others held hands and hugged as they gathered under cobalt blue skies. Many even brought their pets along for the outing, which rivals major gay pride parades in New York and San Francisco.
"It's great to see this," said West Hollywood Mayor Steve Schulte. "People need something to lift their spirits. There has been an awful lot of anguish recently. So this is really a good time to rally together. It's an up time."
It was an especially up time for many of the parade's wilder participants. The Gay Pride Parade has always attracted a mix of the ordinary and the outrageous, and this year's event was no exception.
Several cross dressers, including a number of Marilyn Monroe look-alikes, walked through the crowd and blew kisses from passing cars. Macho men in leather rode motorcycles. The ever-popular Silver Foxes of Long Beach, a group that marches in mirrored hard hats and silver lame running shorts, were also out in full force.
More than 180 groups participated, some of them on elaborately decorated floats. Michael Rude, a Long Beach resident, said the parade gets bigger and better each year. "It has gone beyond gay and proud," said Rude, who was wearing a lime green T-shirt that said Gay Father. "The major support groups are behind this event, despite all of our problems."
Impact of AIDS
The community's biggest problem is AIDS, a deadly disease that most commonly strikes gay men. A recent survey showed that more than 100 new cases of the disease are being reported in Los Angeles County each month, bringing the total number of known AIDS cases to nearly 2,000. Health officials predict that there will be 15,000 to 20,000 reported cases of AIDS in Los Angeles County by 1991.
Now gays are confronted with a statewide initiative, sponsored by supporters of arch-conservative Lyndon LaRouche, that would permit forced testing of suspected AIDS sufferers and limit job opportunities for AIDS victims. Supporters are close to collecting the 394,000 signatures needed to qualify the proposal for the Nov. 4 ballot, according to the secretary of state's office. Opponents are organizing a campaign to defeat the measure.
Political setbacks have also battered community morale. Former Mayor Valerie Terrigno, an acknowledged lesbian and a charismatic political leader, was forced to step down from the West Hollywood City Council earlier this year when she was convicted of embezzling about $7,000 in federal funds.
And even the Gay Pride Parade and weekend festival was not immune from problems this year. Christopher Street West/Los Angeles, the sponsors of the event, filed suit earlier this month when the City of West Hollywood and Caltrans demanded $5 million in liability insurance. The parade received a last-minute reprieve when the two government groups agreed to lower the fee.
With so many setbacks, Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, honored for his support of gay causes, said he did not know what to expect this year. Wachs said he was pleased to see that the community's spirit is still strong.
'Need for Awareness'
"It's more important to have this parade now than ever," Wachs said. "There's a need for awareness. There are no hopeless situations."
Actress Patty Duke, president of the Screen Actors Guild and a participant in Sunday's parade, sounded a similar theme as her vintage convertible turned onto the parade route.
"It's important to cross barriers," Duke said. "My main concern is to promote information about AIDS to straights as well as gays. Meanwhile, I'm having a great time."
Woodie White of San Diego said he was also having a great time. White is the sole baton twirler for the Finest City Freedom Band, a 30-member gay band from San Diego that was participating in the parade for the first time. White called it an exciting experience.
"I'm very proud," he said. "I think we need to get out and show that we're united. And this is our way of showing it."
Sheriffs deputies, who have taken issue with organizers' crowd figures in the past, declined Sunday to estimate how many people attended the parade.