Municipal Court Judge Faces Challenge of AIDS : Disease: Rand Schrader says he’s going public to show that stricken people can live productive lives.
As one of the few openly gay judges in California and chairman of the Los Angeles County AIDS Commission, Rand Schrader has been a ground breaker, an outspoken champion of gay and lesbian causes, a leader in his community.
Today the Municipal Court judge is facing a new challenge, the most daunting of his life: he has AIDS.
Schrader, one of Southern California’s most prominent gay activists, disclosed in an interview that doctors recently diagnosed his disease. Last month, he developed Pneumocystis pneumonia, one of the first signs that the deadly disease is beginning to take its toll.
Speaking frankly and at times with emotion, Schrader, 46, said he decided to go public with the news to show that people who contract AIDS can continue to work and live productive lives.
“It’s tremendously important that people who are suffering from HIV, people who have AIDS, don’t get the message that they have to give up,” Schrader said. “Or retire. Or hide from the world. They can’t feel that others won’t accept them.”
In a world where discrimination and misinformation about AIDS abound, Schrader said he hoped his continued presence on the Municipal Court bench will show people that AIDS sufferers need not be segregated in a corner but that “we are right here in the midst of everybody.”
The disclosure of his illness is yet another sign of how the disease has crept into all walks of life. And Schrader’s announcement, his supporters say, is likely to have an impact beyond the gay community because the judge is active and well known in a number of other circles: local politics, United Way fund raising, the legal profession.
Schrader, in an interview last week in his chambers at the downtown Criminal Courts Building, said his doctor expects him to recover fully from the pneumonia that landed him in a hospital for six days last month. He returned to part-time work last week, and planned to resume full-time duties today.
“As long as I feel that I can do it, as long as I feel I can listen to cases and apply the law and be impartial, then I will continue to do this,” Schrader said.
At its busiest, his calendar can be packed with 20 cases, most of which are felony preliminary hearings.
AIDS takes an unpredictable course. Sometimes those who contract it live in good health for years; in other cases, they struggle from disease to disease.
The pneumonia was the first opportunistic infection to hit Schrader since he tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, more than two years ago. Schrader said he and his companion of nine years, businessman David Bohnett, decided to have themselves tested then as a precaution. Bohnett is healthy, Schrader said.
Schrader said court administrators and other colleagues with whom he has shared the news have been “150%" supportive. These are uncharted waters for court officials because this appears to be the first time in California that a judge has served on the bench with AIDS.
“I commend Judge Schrader’s decision to step forward and announce his AIDS diagnosis,” Municipal Court Presiding Judge Karl Jaeger said in a prepared statement. “He has demonstrated great courage in his willingness to speak out on behalf of all persons with AIDS.”
For the last four years, the Municipal Court has had an anti-discrimination policy that includes AIDS sufferers. Court officials are hoping that the policy, and educational programs provided to employees, will help to prevent any prejudicial or negative reaction to Schrader’s announcement.
Schrader, a thin, slightly balding man who wears glasses, said he hoped his confrontation with the disease will serve as a “learning experience” for staff members, bailiffs, attorneys, police and others with whom he meets daily, but for whom AIDS may still seem a distant, unfamiliar threat.
“Just maybe it will be a little less foreign to them,” Schrader said. “I think it makes a difference to have a picture of someone in your mind who you’ve been connected to in some way, and who you’ve talked to, and I think that makes it more real. . . .
Schrader, a Los Angeles native, has long been active in gay rights causes. He earned his law degree from UCLA in 1973, after an undergraduate career at UC Berkeley, and went to work in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office as its first openly gay staffer.
He was appointed to the bench in 1980 by Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., largely at the urging of Sheldon Andelson, a gay activist with political connections. Andelson and Schrader had developed a lasting friendship over the years before Andelson’s death in 1987 of complications from AIDS.
Schrader describes himself as one of only five openly gay judges in California, all Brown appointees. In the early 1970s, he became involved with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, a leading social service agency for homosexuals, and joined its board of directors in 1977.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman appointed Schrader to the AIDS Commission when it was founded four years ago, and Schrader was chairman of the panel for two years until June. Two other members of the panel have died of AIDS.
As commission chairman, Schrader fought the Board of Supervisors to pay for increased AIDS research and to supply bleach to intravenous drug users.
“When Rand Schrader speaks, you’ve got to listen,” Edelman said. . . . He speaks with an eloquence and sincerity and a persuasiveness . . . not with bitterness.”
Edelman and Schrader have known each other since the 1960s, and the supervisor recommended the judge for his job with the city attorney’s office. Edelman was with Schrader in a meeting at the United Way last month just hours before he went to the hospital with pneumonia. Schrader had delayed his admission to the hospital to attend the meeting, where he advocated greater spending for AIDS agencies.
Edelman said he supported Schrader’s decision to continue working as a way to help educate people.
Schrader credits his ability to remain upbeat to the unflagging support of family, friends and colleagues. Yet, he recounted difficult moments, the brutal reminders that he might not live to see the year 2000, the pain of facing mortality.
“There are a lot of tears when you really first get this information, when you start taking it in,” Schrader said. “It changes your life to feel you’re standing at the edge of the abyss.”
He said he has become more serious, more caring, and more aware that life is a gift.
With his decision to go public, some activists say Schrader is opening himself to prejudice and irrational fears that the disease can be transmitted through casual contact.
“I can’t imagine he won’t face (the ignorance and biases that) most people who have AIDS face,” said Torie Osborn, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. But “the more people who are prominent who come out, the stronger the statement (and) the more we can cut through the myths and the AIDS phobia.”
Schrader said that after his hospitalization last month, the rumors started. He felt it was an “appropriate” moment to begin telling his family and close associates. For months, he had not talked much about having tested positive for HIV; it was another matter once he began experiencing symptoms of the disease.
“You’ve got to accept what it means, and what it means is that you’re moving in the wrong direction healthwise,” he said.
Moreover, Schrader said he decided that being less than candid about his condition would be like building a wall around himself, leading to a double life that gays have fought for years to overcome. It would have left him more alone and isolated.
Finally, he said, he felt an obligation to the men and women who have died of AIDS, and to those who live with the disease.
“It became clear to me that there is a responsibility to other people with AIDS and HIV to not make it look like I’m frightened or ashamed or that I’m going to be intimidated by the consequences of being open about this disease.
“And, ultimately, keeping it to myself somehow suggests that. If it doesn’t come out until you’re dying, or you’re dead, (then) that’s what people are left with.”