Dornan Learns Family AIDS Secret at Debate

Times Staff Writer

In the midst of a heated exchange between Rep. Robert K. Dornan and a gay activist Sunday, the arch-conservative Garden Grove congressman learned that his brother-in-law is dying of AIDS.

The revelation came as Dornan’s wife, Sallie, engaged in a fiery finger-pointing debate before about 200 people at a Town Hall forum Sunday at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove.

Rising from her seat in the school auditorium, Sallie Dornan called activist Jeff LeTourneau a “fag” as her husband and LeTourneau shouted at each other.

At the Republican congressman’s request, a Garden Grove police officer removed LeTourneau--co-chairman of the gay rights group Orange County Visibility League--from the auditorium. But LeTourneau was allowed back in the meeting after promising not to further disrupt the session.


When he returned to the meeting, LeTourneau demanded an apology from Sallie Dornan, who obliged.

“I am very sorry I did that,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “You were all yelling at my husband, whom I love.

“I apologize, but it will not rid the anger in my heart. My brother is dying.

“You know there’s no safe sex,” Sallie Dornan told LeTourneau. “He (her brother) tells me every day; the thinner he gets, the sores covering his body.


“I want you to understand there’s great anger and pain inside of me.”

Sallie Dornan later told reporters that “one of my younger brothers” is dying of AIDS but declined to identify him by name “because of my parents.” She said she has four brothers.

Sallie Dornan said her brother is a homosexual whose lover already has died of AIDS.

“He is loved,” she said. “I am not ashamed of my brother.


“That’s why the anger is intense. They don’t have to die.”

Following the meeting, Robert Dornan told reporters that he had known his brother-in-law to be homosexual but had not known that he has AIDS.

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I didn’t know until this minute.”

As Sallie Dornan joined her husband in the high school yard, the congressman turned to her and asked: “Why didn’t you tell me?”


“I didn’t want to hurt you,” Sallie Dornan said. Then Dornan kissed her.

LeTourneau was among about 26 demonstrators dressed in black clothing who earlier had donned black shrouds and white-face makeup to protest what they said was Dornan’s insensitivity to the gay community. After singing and chanting outside the school auditorium, the protesters removed their makeup and entered the meeting.

Inside, Dornan being was challenged by critics who said he has not been tough enough on the drug problem locally or internationally.

Nativo Lopez, of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an immigrants rights group, complained that the congressman was not doing enough for the crime-plagued residents of the Buena Clinton area of Garden Grove.


Jerry Yudelson, the Democratic candidate for Dornan’s 38th District seat, leveled similar criticism of Dornan’s position on international drug smuggling.

Joining in the high-volume exchange were several others in the audience, including LeTourneau.

Moments later, Sallie Dornan rose and yelled at LeTourneau, adding, “I am his wife! Shut up!”

LeTourneau turned to Robert Dornan, who was standing on the auditorium stage and had become almost incidental to the raging argument.


“Your wife is calling me a fag!” LeTourneau exclaimed.

Wife Joined Exchange

The exchange became louder with Sallie Dornan and LeTourneau separated by about 15 feet of onlookers, some of whom rose to join in the verbal fracas.

Dornan asked a police officer to remove LeTourneau, who left the building without resistence.


“It’s all very unseemly,” Dornan said, summing it up minutes later.

LeTourneau criticized Dornan’s “lack of attention to the AIDS crisis and his bigotry to gay and lesbian people.”

He was referring to a remark Dornan made last week in Congress in which he said the word gay is an inappropriate term for homosexuals.

Dornan defended himself, saying he has donated his last two congressional pay raises to AIDS hospices. He also said he recently joined with several other members of Congress in a letter to pharmaceutical firms urging them to reduce the price of AZT, or azidothymidine, a drug that does not cure AIDS but appears to retard the progress of the disease.


When he was readmitted to the meeting, LeTourneau challenged Dornan to support federal subsidies to lower the price of AZT.

Could Support Subsidies

As tempers cooled, Dornan said he could support federal subsidies for AZT “because it extends this precious thing we have called human life.”

After most of the crowd had dispersed, Dornan and his wife stood outside the school auditorium. The congressman seemed almost buoyed by the experience.


“I’ve got Irish blood,” he said, chomping into a piece of candy. “I love a good battle. I think there were some good battles with words in there.”