A Movement Sees Its Leaders Fall : Ravages of AIDS Force Gays to Shift Priorities

Times Staff Writer

Eight years ago, Los Angeles County Human Relations commissioner Morris Kight vowed never to forget his fallen friends. After each death, he planted a tree in back of his McCadden Place home in Hollywood. He dedicated a flowering eucalyptus to the memory of Truman Capote. A magnolia marked the passing of Tennessee Williams. Today, his small garden has become a veritable forest in which 22 trees battle for sunlight.

Cried Behind His Arboretum

When yet another acquaintance of long standing, Sheldon Andelson, died two weeks ago from the effects of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Kight, 68, walked out to his arboretum and quietly began to cry.

"A brother is dead and I've run out of land," he said with a sigh. "Perhaps I can find space for a vine. Shelly deserves so much more."

For more than a decade, Andelson was the oak around which the city's emerging gay and lesbian community sought shelter. A successful lawyer and businessman whose friendship with former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown lead to his appointment as a University of California regent in 1981, Andelson was one of the first civic leaders to openly acknowledge his homosexuality.

In 1971 he helped found the Gay Community Service Center; he organized opposition to a 1978 initiative that would have prohibited homosexuals from teaching in public schools, and in subsequent years he became a major political fund-raiser whose contacts spanned the gulf between Hollywood Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Though his wealth helped finance a variety of gay-oriented support organizations, his primary value to Los Angeles' gay community was that of facilitator. His Bel-Air home was neutral ground where politicians from Washington, Sacramento judges, even local police, could informally meet gay leaders to exchange views on pressing problems and pending legislation.

In the gay and lesbian community, Andelson's visibility was regarded as a major victory, if only because it showed that it was possible to readily accept gay rights issues and still maintain one's professional standing in Southern California. Politicians found him an invaluable conduit to a rapidly organizing block of voters of undetermined size and political orientation.

"People who make political contributions are the ones who end up sitting next to the mayor and police chief," says Peter Scott, 49, founder of the Municipal Election Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), a gay-oriented political lobby. "That's the way the system works. We all went to his home and wrote big checks to ensure Shelly retained his visibility, since his influence was a measure of the gay movement's access to established political leaders."

Many of the politicians who courted Andelson, and were in turn befriended, were conspicuous at his Sunday memorial at UCLA's Royce Hall. But not even the emotion generated from testimonials by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Rand Schrader, and Andelson's brothers, Sherman and Arlen, could entirely overcome the concern of those mourners whose strength was diminished by complications of AIDS.

In his eulogy, Schrader touched on this concern: "Sheldon's fate was to die of this plague that is taking the lives of a generation. Some fear that the civil rights gains of gays and lesbians will be a victim of AIDS as well. During Sheldon's illness and at his death, I felt this despair. Will we lose our freedoms as we lose our friends and lovers?"

The degree to which AIDS has crippled the gay-lesbian movement is arguable. To a varying degree the disease has thinned the ranks of gay political leaders throughout the country. "Of my 15 closest friends, 12 have tested positive for AIDS," says David Mixner, the Los Angeles gay leader and peace activist who organized the abortive 1986 Great Peace March for global nuclear disarmament. "Over the past 2 1/2 years 70 close friends between the ages of 35 to 45 have died."

For Mixner, the AIDS plague has reinforced his determination to achieve political equality for the gay-lesbian community. "Once AIDS becomes the main priority in your life, you work 10 times harder educating people," he explains. "That's why a movement that once thought itself lucky to raise $500,000 now collects between $10 (million) to $20 million a year."

Money, however, does not always determine the fate of gay politicians. Peter Scott had organized a support group and was accepting contributions when a pernicious form of pneumonia common to AIDS victims shattered his presumptive campaign for the California Assembly's 46th district. "My first reaction--sheer terror--turned to anger by the time I left the hospital," he remembers. "AZT had prolonged my life, but now I knew elective politics was not the answer."

The increasing number of AIDS deaths have not prevented significant political gains. Gays are a driving force behind the attempt to impeach Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham. Last March, Boston police announced their intention to actively recruit more homosexuals. In California, however, many gays believe that, notwithstanding the election of sympathetic former assemblyman Art Agnos as mayor of San Francisco, the drive for expanded political guarantees has stalled.

"Gay political strategists are being forced to reevaluate their capabilities," says Robert Craig, publisher of Frontiers, a West Hollywood-based gay biweekly. "The movement still is coming up with new leaders, but over the next few years there will be a definite void."

According to Craig, political disruption resulting from AIDS-related disabilities has been averted because lesbians are assuming responsibilities formerly held by men. Stonewall Democratic Club president Ivy Bottini provided the leadership to defeat the 1986 mandatory AIDS testing initiative proposed by Lyndon Larouche. Lesbians also took the lead in organizing the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights that attracted 500,000 marchers to Washington, D.C., last October. Though she has a male counterpart, Diane Hines directs the Lobby for Individual Freedom and Liberty, a gay political action committee created last year to lobby for positive social legislation in Sacramento.

Ironically, Craig's doubts about the vitality of the gay community's leadership coincide with record political contributions. Gay political action committees are flush with cash.

"In addition to taking people from us, AIDS forces others out of the closet and into the fold," says Larry Spengler, a MECLA director currently serving on the L.A. City-County AIDS Task Force. "Historically, financial support from the gay community raises in proportion to the level of adversity."

Increased contributions from the gay community have not advanced its legislative agenda as rapidly as some had hoped. Originally sponsored by Bella Abzug, the Gay Civil Rights bill still falls far short of majority support in Congress. Neither have cash surpluses resulted in the coordinated effort needed to repeal anti-sodomy statutes still existing in 26 states.

In California, 63 AIDS-related anti-discrimination bills were introduced in the Assembly last year. All, save one, were defeated, vetoed or buried in committee.

Gay leaders in Los Angeles concede a certain loss of political momentum. But giving medical research priority over job discrimination is a decision easily made after visiting a terminal AIDS ward.

Brings Scrutiny

"The wasting process will never be appreciated until American television brings the same scrutiny to AIDS that it brought to Vietnam," says Human Rights Campaign Fund co-chairman Duke Comegys.

"Effects of the Ethiopian famine are mild compared to the grotesqueries inflicted by the AIDS virus. Since the drug that saves your eyesight negates the effect of AZT, your first choice is whether to go blind. No matter the decision, you continue to lose strength. When a 19-year-old looks 60, the end is near. You die of asphyxiation, your throat clogged with fungus growth."

Until recently, Comegys was chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Service Center, a $3-million agency responsible for administering health clinics, job training and substance abuse programs throughout Los Angeles. A viable political organization promoting increased civil rights for gays was the goal for which he labored. Then, last spring, Comegys tested positive for AIDS.

Dependent on AZT, Comegys today advocates civil disobedience instead of consensus building. Politics seems less compelling once life expectancy falls below two years, he admits. "I don't do much long-range planning anymore. My civil rights I'd trade in a minute in return for a treatment for AIDS."

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