A top aide to Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said Tuesday that it was “regrettable” that Dornan’s wife, Sallie, publicly disclosed her belief that her brother was gay and suffering from AIDS.
“We admit that was a regrettable mistake,” said aide Brian Bennett. “It’s regrettable that his (the brother’s) privacy was jeopardized and the privacy of the Dornan family.”
The incident, Bennett said, has “caused dissension in the family.”
Bennett also criticized the press for continuing to report the story.
“Where’s the limit?” he asked. He said he thought the story was being pursued “to get Bob Dornan,” who is running for reelection in the 38th Congressional District against Democrat Jerry Yudelson.
Neither Dornan nor his wife, who is the campaign manager for his current race, would comment further on the incident, which occurred Sept. 18 at a town meeting in Garden Grove. At that meeting, during a heated exchange between Dornan and gay activist Jeff LeTourneau, Sallie Dornan angrily called LeTourneau a “fag.”
She later told the approximately 200 people who were at the meeting that her outburst was motivated by anger and concern over her brother, who she said was gay and had contracted AIDS.
“My brother is dying,” an emotional Sallie Dornan told the forum.
Moments later, shouting at LeTourneau about “safe sex,” she said, apparently referring to her brother: “He told me. He tells me every day. The thinner he gets and the more sores he’s covered with.”
But the brother, Douglas Richard Hansen, 51, a landscape architect in San Diego, since has told The Times he is not gay, does not have AIDS and has seen his sister only once since their mother’s funeral in 1983.
“I’m a healthy 51,” said Hansen, who had no visible signs of any illness. He said he is angry with the Dornans over the incident, which he said could damage his business, alarm other family members over his health and hurt his future career prospects.
On Tuesday, gay activists in Orange County pointed to the town meeting incident as an example of discrimination against gays and AIDS victims and of widespread misunderstanding about AIDS and how the disease is spread. These factors, they said, discourage those who are at high risk of contracting the disease from coming forward for testing.
LeTourneau, co-chairman of the Orange County Visibility League, said Tuesday that Hansen’s concerns over what happened at the Town Meeting point to why there is a need for confidentiality and anti-discrimination language in AIDS legislation.
“You cannot drive people underground or they’ll continue to spread the disease, oftentimes not even knowing that they’ve been exposed,” LeTourneau said.
He said that when Dornan says, as he frequently does, that AIDS testing is a medical issue and not a civil rights issue, “he misses the whole point, which is that unless you have an environment where people will come forward and be tested and receive counseling for risk reduction, then you’ll never get a handle on this disease.”
“The most unfortunate person in this whole situation is her brother,” LeTourneau said of his shouting match with Sallie Dornan. “He has been put under this tremendous pressure to deny he’s gay and to deny he’s got AIDS. Whether he does or not is not the point. The point is that at this point in time, in this society, the man is probably going to suffer some pretty severe ramifications from all the publicity.”
Richard Reinsch of South Laguna, vice president of the Log Cabin Club of Orange County, a Republican organization of gay and civil rights activists, said that even if Sallie Dornan’s brother were dying of AIDS, “I don’t know how that would excuse the hatred she showed toward Jeff LeTourneau in calling him a ‘fag.’
“How would people react if there were a black man there questioning her husband’s views and statements on issues and she got upset and shouted, ‘Shut up, nigger!’? How would people react to that? It’s a sign of bigotry and ignorance.”
Frank Ricchiazzi of Laguna Beach, a member of the Log Cabin Club, said that at first he felt compassion for Sallie Dornan, who he believed must be “going through a tremendous amount of pain” to have blurted out at a public meeting that her brother was dying of AIDS.
But when Hansen came forward to deny that he has AIDS, Ricchiazzi said, he asked himself: “What is she in? A fantasy world?”
Hansen at first threatened to sue the Dornans, but Tuesday he said he would not. He would not give his reasons other than to say it was on the advice of attorney Melvin Belli of San Francisco, whom he has known for many years.
After Hansen declared that his sister had not seen him in years and was in no position to observe his medical condition, the Dornans’ daughter, Robin Griffin, told The Times that her mother’s statements about Hansen’s appearance referred to “the natural course of the disease” rather than firsthand observations.
“She does not say he does have it,” Griffin said in an interview Saturday. She means, ‘Is this what I’m going to have to see my brother with, getting thin, having sores? . . . She means future tense, as the disease progresses.”
However, a videotape of the statement made by KTTV-Channel 11 shows clearly that Sallie Dornan was talking in the present tense, implying that she has seen her brother frequently and watched his condition deteriorate.
Sallie Dornan also said after the town meeting that she did not reveal her brother’s name “because of my parents.” Her father died in 1974, and her mother, in 1983.
Times staff writer Mark Landsbaum contributed to this story.