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Her Mission: Directing Outreach to Gays and Lesbians

Times staff writer

* Torie Osborn, 41, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center, 1213 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood.

* Claim to fame: Presides over a service network for gays and lesbians, which combines advocacy, education and community organizing with nine direct social service programs and has an annual budget of $7.3 million.

* Background: A graduate of Middlebury College and UCLA’s John Anderson School of Management. A veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement who later became involved in the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement.

Q: What services does the center provide to the gay and lesbian community?

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A: We run the largest youth services program in the country for young gays and lesbians. We also have the largest HIV test site and early medical treatment center in Los Angeles County, as well as a host of AIDS education, legal services and counseling services. In addition, we have other social service programs like addiction recovery, vocational services and our new targeted lesbian recreational and educational program.

Q: How many people does the center serve each year?

A: We have a staff of 140 people who serve over 50,000 people in person and 220,000 on the telephone. We’re the largest AIDS service organization in Los Angeles in terms of number of clients served.

Q: When you say serving them, what do you do?

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A: We do everything from rap groups for people just coming out of the closet to legal advice for lesbians fighting for custody of their children to general public forums on gay and lesbian issues.

Q: Tell me about the services for runaway teens.

A: There’s an estimated minimum 10,000 homeless, runaway or what we call throwaway kids. Kids who have been kicked out of their homes either because they’re gay or because of other social problems at home. In data that’s been collected by Childrens Hospital, approximately 30% to 35% of those kids self-identify as gay or bisexual. They’re at very high risk of HIV transmission. A lot of them exchange sex for shelter or food. It’s what they call survival sex. And a lot of them are drug addicts or alcohol abusers.

Q: How do you serve them?

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A: We do street outreach where we send people out on the streets both with condoms and bleach kits for actual AIDS prevention education. They’ll get to trust the people who work here and then eventually they might come in for services. We have our own medical clinic where people are served, and we have a 24-bed youth shelter that’s part of a broader system of care for the street kids that’s been developed under the leadership of Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles along with the center, which are part of an innovative high-risk youth consortium composed of 22 agencies all serving street youths so we can collaborate, collect data and respond to the ever-evolving need.

Q: Where are the kids coming from?

A: About 70% of them are from the broader Los Angeles area, and about 30% to 35% of them come from out of town. The center is like the gateway into getting help.

Q: How traumatic is it for a gay or lesbian teen to have to face their families over this issue?

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A: It’s very difficult to confront being gay in a homophobic culture. Teen-age suicide rates among gay or lesbian teens are three times the national average. Gays and lesbians are three to four times more likely to have drug or alcohol problems.

Q: Do you have very many success stories in trying to help these teens?

A: Seventy percent of the kids who complete our Citrus House program end up staying off the streets. We recognize the whole range of needs. It’s not just a quick fix to get them off the streets.

Q: What do you find most challenging about your job?

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A: It’s the extraordinary challenge of responding to such a diverse community with so many needs. I’ve had to stretch so many new muscles to do this job because we respond to the women’s community, the men’s community and people of color communities. We’re the only minority that has all the other minority, as well as majority, cultures within it.

Q: Lesbians have been so active with the whole AIDS issue, but they have probably been least affected in terms of numbers, as compared to men. What has spurred the lesbian community to take such an active role?

A: First, for reasons I do not know or understand, there are a lot of lesbians in the health-care profession, and a lot of lesbians have gay male friends. Lesbians also have a history of social activism.

Q: U.S. Sen. Bob Kerry was recently caught telling a joke, which involved a description of a lesbian couple, that some people found offensive and derogatory toward lesbians. How did you feel about it?

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A: What was more interesting to me was the response of the media and the broader community because it told me that our movement is coming into its own, because he couldn’t get away with it. It told me it was getting less acceptable to make fun of gays and lesbians.

Q: In light of the AIDS crisis, would you agree that lesbian issues have been submerged in gay male issues?

A: No. I see it actually the exact opposite. By men and women working together closely for the first time in the 20-year history of our movement, in fact what’s happened is lesbians, by working with gay men, have raised their consciousness on all kinds of broader issues that women face.

Q: Why do you think the gay men could relate with women?

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A: Part of homophobia is attacking gay men for not being like the traditional macho man. So although they may never suffer sexual harassment on the job, they can identify with that kind of one-down position.

Q: So the male gay community and the lesbian community have been united, so to speak?

A: Well, I think we’ve gone a long way. Lesbians have learned to appreciate gay male culture, and gay men, in turn, have adopted longtime lesbian issues as their own, such as health advocacy and fighting for the rights of the alternative family. The AIDS epidemic and those 10 years of working together against an uncaring government have really united us.

Q: Then are the issues the gay and lesbian community are working toward separate or are they combined now?

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A: I think there’s some separate issues. I think gay men suffer more gay bashing, for example. We’ve had a 43% increase in violence against gay men on the streets in the last year alone. That kind of overt gay bashing, I think, is a male issue in and of itself.

Q: Are there other separate issues?

A: The separate gay and lesbian issues have collapsed into one agenda for the ‘90s. The only thing that is separate is that lesbians still have to fight sex discrimination and violence against women, which is, however, paralleled by gay bashing.

Q: What are some united issues?

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A: You have a broader base of people within the entire gay and lesbian community who have now experienced a failing health-care system. Women have actually probably been more cognizant of that than gay men because we’re poorer, we have children, and we have had to access an uncaring and sexist health-care system. But now a whole contingent of gay men have also experienced either the impoverishment that comes with AIDS or have tried to get health insurance or have had their insurance cut off.

Q: What’s another shared issue?

A: The family policy issue. The fact that our relationships are not validated in society. We cannot get married; we cannot have community property; we do not have the basic rights that heterosexual couples do even though most gay people live in couple relationships.

Q: Do you know what the gay population is in Los Angeles County?

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A: No. We estimate about 10%, so maybe 1 million people.

Q: The announcement by Magic Johnson that he tested HIV-positive stunned the nation. Did the gay and lesbian community find the public’s reaction offensive?

A: Nobody in our community could deny the impact and the grace with which he made his announcement and the power of this extraordinary person. But it was a bitter pill to swallow. It was a bitter pill to know that over 120,000 gay men have died and for not one of them has there been this kind of extraordinary public outcry. It was painful. There was an ambivalence in our community.

On the one hand, we welcome any help we can get to promote the AIDS agenda. But on the other hand, when we have been to funeral after funeral after funeral and had a government that has verged on genocidal neglect of our people for 10 years to suddenly have Magic get this kind of attention, it’s as if we didn’t exist. It’s sort of this cultural denial. It’s as if for 10 years there wasn’t a gay and lesbian response to AIDS.

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Q: Do you believe there is a scarcity of public role models for the lesbian community?

A: That is a major problem. Lesbian invisibility is our major issue that gay white men do not face as much. You could probably name five or 10 gay men at this point, after 20 years of the movement, who you know to be gay. Could you name 10 lesbians? Probably not and yet they’re out there.

Q: What’s causing the shortage of role models?

A: I think the lesbian community because of suffering the same oppression that women face has greater obstacles just in daily life to coming out of the closet, and since the women’s movement just began 20 years ago lesbians have a further way to go.

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Q: Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed legislation that would have outlawed job discrimination against homosexuals, which sparked protests from West Hollywood to Sacramento. Would you characterize the veto as a political watershed for the gay community?

A: With one stroke of his pen, he sparked a response that had been waiting to explode. It was so derisive, it was such an insult, and it added to the injury of AIDS. I think it marks a new era in gay and lesbian activism. This is a community that is dealing with multiple loss. People are losing their friends, their lovers, their role models.

Q: Do you agree with planned civil disobedience as a method of protest?

A: I think it’s an honored part of civil rights tradition. When the system shuts you out, you have no choice sometimes but to go into the streets. To involve more and more people in planned civil disobedience shows a level of maturity and commitment to social change that is part of every civil rights movement. It’s what Gandhi did, it’s what Martin Luther King did, and it’s what we do.

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Q: What does the future hold?

A: The next 10 years are about changing public opinion: putting our case to the world as individuals just in our daily lives or as political issues so that the world never forgets we’re a legitimate minority along with other minorities.

Q: Do you predict you’re going to have a difficult struggle?

A: We have come so far that I’m actually very optimistic. I think in 10 years we will not just overcome the prejudice against us, but I believe we will unite with other minorities and women’s groups and see the end of the right wing in this country.

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