The Ultimate Battle : Facing Death, Gay Leader Strives to Make Life Count

Times Staff Writer

For San Diego’s gay community, he symbolizes respectability--an articulate medical doctor who has tapped the force of politics to give gays greater muscle in local decisions.

For much of the rest of the public, he symbolizes the virtues of keeping a cool head in the midst of hysteria. As chairman of the San Diego Regional Task Force on AIDS, he has calmly tried to educate the public on the effects of the deadly disease.

Now, however, Dr. A. Brad Truax stands for something painfully more personal.


The popular spokesman for the gay community has AIDS himself, and he’s battling the full-blown phase of the killer disease with resolve and good will.

The Whole Person

“People only see you as a person with AIDS,” Truax said during a recent interview in his Mission Hills home, which overlooks a sloping backyard and the azure ocean.

“That’s the only mantle they see you wear anymore, once they know you have AIDS. . . . But I work hard to remind people that a person with AIDS is not just a person with AIDS,” Truax said. “He has all sorts of other characteristics, too.”

In Truax’s case, other characteristics--candor, pragmatism, enthusiasm, optimism--have been key in allowing him to become the gay community’s most visible leader, with entree to San Diego’s button-down-collar establishment, say other gay activists.

“I think Brad is probably the consummate ambassador,” said Stan Berry, former president of the gay Log Cabin Republican Club and an AIDS patient as well. “He would go into the worst of situations and go in calmly and make it look like nothing had happened.

“He has dealt with his personal situation in the same way,” Berry added. “He is calm. He is articulate. He doesn’t let it seem to rule his life. You’ve got to know that he is going through a lot.”

The signs of what Truax is going through are upon his body. Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions have darkened his skin, most notably at the end of his nose. He becomes fatigued after an hour of conversation. He has lost weight. He moves with deliberate caution.

Yet in spirit, Truax, 41, says he refuses to yield.

“Just sitting and complaining allows you to ventilate, and sometimes it’s good. But for the most part, for most people, it’s good to emphasize what’s going well,” he said.

“There’s always that glass of water,” he added, referring to the metaphor about how people see life. “You can look at it as half full or half empty.

“I still see it as half full.”

In a sociological sense, the leadership of Brad Truax marked a distinct change within San Diego’s gay community.

Until the mid-1970s, local gay leaders tended to be drag queens--flashy cross-dressers who were at the hub of the social scene in Hillcrest’s homosexual-oriented bars. They organized social functions and raised money for charitable causes.

But there were changes during the social and political upheaval of the Vietnam War. More of San Diego’s gays started coming out of the closet, and they formed several infant institutions that reflected a growing diversity and sophistication: the San Diego Democratic Club; the Metropolitan Community Church; the now-defunct Gay Academic Union; the Center for Social Services; the Greater San Diego Business Assn.

With that change came pressure within the community for new leaders.

Perfect for the Part

Truax was perfect for the part.

“He brought respectability to the gay and lesbian movement of San Diego,” said Nicole Ramirez Murray, a former drag queen who has put away his dresses for business suits in recent years. “He’s a doctor, and it was important to have a doctor. He’s also very politically savvy.”

Truax, a Pennsylvania native, came to San Diego in 1975 via the Navy, where he served as a flight surgeon and diving medical officer at Miramar Naval Air Station. Two years later,

he was kicked out of the service because of suspicions that he was gay.

“Somebody in the Navy had gone to the Naval Investigative Service and said, ‘Dr. Truax is gay,’ ” Truax said. “And so they launched an investigation because they certainly didn’t want--for rather dubious reasons--gay people in the military.”

At times, the NIS had up to six people following him, but they were never able to prove the assertion, said Truax, who has read the military reports on his case.

“It certainly speaks to the incompetency of the Naval Investigative Service that they couldn’t come up with any evidence that I was gay,” said Truax. “I certainly wasn’t leading that much of a subterranean life. I just didn’t take it to work with me. Sure, I would go out to bars . . . .”

Truax said he came to terms with his homosexuality years earlier, while he was serving a medical internship in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1972 and 1973. It was a realization that his brothers--his parents had died--took in stride, he said.

“They said: ‘Oh well, we sort of suspected that. It doesn’t come as any surprise to us. And what else is going on? . . . ' There’s not much of an issue there,” he said.

The military, though, had quite a different reaction, and Truax chose not to answer direct questions from commanding officers about his sexual orientation.

Went Into Private Practice

Bounced from the Navy in November, 1977, Truax opened a general family practice on Point Loma. Later, after developing a large network of gay friends, Truax moved his offices to Hillcrest because an increasing number of gay men and women demanded his professional services.

“It demonstrated that gay men were hungry, so to speak, for good medical care, where they could be open and comfortable with their health provider,” said Truax. “Therefore, the practice became very busy, and took on less of a traditional family practice and more and more of a gay-oriented practice.”

It also led to Truax’s involvement in gay political and business affairs.

“I think simply by nature of the fact that I was a physician . . . and that I was also openly gay, people began to expect certain things of me,” he said. “I didn’t set out with any sort of game plan or agenda or aspirations of being highly involved in the gay community.”

Truax excelled at politics. He was a delegate to the California Democratic Convention in 1980 and served as president of the influential gay San Diego Democratic Club between 1981 and 1984.

It was during that time that Truax helped the gay community make its political mark.

The crucial point came, he said, when he and other gay Democrats decided to switch party loyalties and back Republican Roger Hedgecock for mayor in 1983. With the help of gays and environmentalists--two groups that traditionally support Democrats--Hedgecock eked out a victory over opponent Maureen O’Connor.

“Because we were involved so openly and so visibly, it really put the gay community in San Diego on the map as being a credible, viable and significant political entity,” said Truax. “We could raise money. We could turn out votes. And those are the two big things in politics.”

Hedgecock’s victory also solidified Truax’s reputation as a leader in the gay community. Reporters routinely called him for comment. The new mayor tapped the Hillcrest physician to coordinate and serve on a city task force on AIDS. In 1985, Truax was appointed to the county’s Human Relations Commission. San Diego Magazine listed him as one of 86 San Diegans to watch during 1986.

With aplomb, Truax fielded the questions and discharged his public duties. When the AIDS task force was absorbed by the county in 1986, the doctor became chairman and pushed for anti-discrimination laws to protect those with the disease and ARC, or AIDS Related Complex.

And all the while Truax was keeping a terrible secret.

For some time, Truax had been mildly suspicious about minor changes in his health. Yet it wasn’t until late 1984 that he learned for sure that he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS, an incurable disease that destroys the body’s immune system and leaves it powerless to fight certain cancers and otherwise rare infections.

Truax had volunteered to help a local research firm study ways to diagnose the disease. He sent along anonymous blood samples from his patients but slipped in one of his own. The results showed he tested positive for the HTLV-III virus.

Later, tests also showed HLV positive for a sample of blood that Truax had frozen in 1981, leading him to believe that he may have contracted the disease while on a trip to New York City in 1978 because “the virus was present in that geographical region then.”

At first, Truax said, the 1984 lab results proved to be “unsettling and stressful . . . . It was unexpected to find out I was infected at all.”

But, ever practical, Truax adjusted for the new reality and began making changes in the way he was living. He adopted safe sexual practices and made sure his alcohol intake was always moderate. He exercised regularly and got plenty of rest. In 1986, he began taking AZT (azidothymidine) to fight opportunistic infections and took a six-month sabbatical to travel to Europe and cut down on stress.

Still, he didn’t want to tell anyone.

Afraid of Reaction

“One of the problems would be that my friends would react to me differently,” Truax said. “They would see me as an ill person, not as a healthy person.

“Secondly, patients would see you as an ill person, not as a healthy person, and they would react differently,” he continued. “And third, society would see that and question your ability to contribute and motivations for contributing.”

Those considerations, however, finally gave way to what Truax said were internal pressures to be more candid with his friends and the public.

“It wasn’t that I felt others had the right to know or the need to know,” he recalled. “It was only because I internally had the need to be open and honest about it.”

Truax revealed his condition to a local newspaper reporter in October, as he was departing for an AIDS rally in Washington. It made the front page of the San Diego Union and immediately transformed the popular gay spokesman into a different kind of symbol for San Diegans.

“Because I probably was one of the most openly gay people, it continues that, as people watch what I do and what happens with me, it certainly shapes the perception that people have about AIDS,” said Truax, who has since appeared on television to talk about his diagnosis.

“That is why, in addition to being personally honest with everybody else, that there was some value about me being open about my diagnosis,” Truax said. He added that he believes such candor helps the public “form a more accurate perception about what AIDS is and who has AIDS.”

Since Truax is so well-known locally, he believes the news about his condition has “bought the disease home” to the general community. “They know someone who has AIDS and it puts a human face on it, but it’s one that they know,” he said.

“The unfortunate part is the disease is even going to come closer to home for most people in San Diego when their relatives--their cousins, their fathers, their daughters--develop AIDS, too,” he said.

For fellow gays, Truax said his condition has changed their perceptions that AIDS is “a disease that would just happen to people who weren’t careful, people who were the old-fast-track sort of concept . . . .”

Truax said that, in a larger sense, the sweeping AIDS disease has brought beneficial changes to the gay community, despite the monumental heartbreak and tragedy. More gays are becoming involved in politics or are volunteering to help friends and relatives with AIDS.

“Most significantly, it has changed the way that gay people deal with one another,” said Truax. “There previously was, for many, a tendency to, in social situations, deal with others with sort of a sexual veil over things. Seeing things through the perspective of one’s sexual orientation and sexuality. And certainly, there’s been a big de-emphasis on sex.”

Meanwhile, Truax is approaching life with an optimism tempered by realism.

He still attends AIDS task force or human relations commission meetings, and he even appeared at a stormy county Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this year to testify in favor of closing gay bathhouses. He was heckled at the meeting and the chambers had to be cleared before the session could be resumed.

However, Truax has stopped seeing patients and goes into his medical office during the afternoons only to perform paper work. In the mornings, he directs the remodeling of his house and makes telephone calls to recruit people for political tasks. At night, he sometimes makes dinner for friends.

Truax doesn’t like to be pitied.

“As long as I’m not bedridden--not in a deathbed, so to speak--it’s inappropriate for everybody to put on their nursing cap and come over and treat me as an invalid if I’m not,” he said.

Yet, as San Diego looks on, Truax is realistic about the prospects of his personal battle.

“We’re all going to face mortality issues sometime, and it is as appropriate to face them now as any other time in one’s life,” Truax said. “None of us escape death. We’re all mortal, so none of us are going to live forever.

“And so it becomes not so much a matter of quantity of time that we spend on this earth, but quality of time,” he said. “I emphasize quality, not quantity.”