L.A.'S NEW GAY MUSCLE : WITH BIG BUCKS AND CONNECTIONS, THE LOCAL GAY COMMUNITY IS CHANGING POLITICS NATIONWIDE
ON A RAINY SUNDAY LAST DECEMBER, A CROWD OF NEARLY A thousand people gathered around the corner from Frederick’s of Hollywood in front of a bland ‘60s building. They were there to mark its transformation into something that could have barely been imagined three decades ago, a $7-million center for the gay men and lesbians of Greater Los Angeles. Nowhere else in the country is there an institution quite like it--nothing so big, so rich--dedicated to serving the social-service needs of gay people. A staff of more than 150 oversees everything from a youth shelter to artist-in-residence and mediation programs, serving thousands of clients a month. All the more ironic that the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center had bought this particular building for its new home. For it was here that the agency’s founders came 22 years ago to ask the startled bureaucrats of the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status, one of the first such requests ever made in the nation for an explicitly homosexual organization.
Now 1625 N. Hudson Ave. is claimed by gigantic gay pride banners. Impossible to ignore, the center is an apt metaphor for the local gay community, which is asserting itself as never before, defying cherished stereotypes and, in some ways, upstaging the traditional gay power centers of New York and San Francisco.
Whether raising millions of dollars for AIDS in the grip of the worst regional recession since the 1930s, nipping at Hollywood’s heels, taking to the streets by the thousands for raucous protests or raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Clinton campaign, the gay men and women of Los Angeles are shaping the national agenda of the gay rights movement and forging a new sense of themselves.
In doing so, they are rattling long-held perceptions that Los Angeles is gay playland and, outside of a handful of people, not to be taken very seriously.
“L.A. to a New York queer was nothing but a great place to visit and party and was considered to be politically off the map,” says Peter Staley, a New York City AIDS activist whose group, the Treatment Action Group, is known for installing a giant replica of a condom over the home of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
No more, Staley says. “I think the change has been very dramatic.”
These days, no national gay organization would dare ignore Greater Los Angeles. The major groups are establishing offices here, cultivating membership and tripping over themselves to dream up Hollywood fund-raisers.
“I think that Los Angeles is sort of the jewel in the gay and lesbian crown today,” says an appreciative Urvashi Vaid, who until recently headed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), a Washington-based lobbying group that broke fund-raising ground with a 1991 dinner that drew unprecedented support from mainstream Hollywood, raising $100,000 for the organization.
Clearly, there has been a lot going on in a place where the typical gay has usually been more interested in developing his pectorals than his political power.
When Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a gay rights bill in 1991, it was Los Angeles, not AIDS-weary San Francisco, that boiled over into weeks of roving street demonstrations. ANGLE (Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality)--a small, exclusive group of L.A’s major donors, including David Mixner, an intimate FOB (Friend of Bill)--took the lead in raising the $3.4 million in gay dollars donated to the Clinton campaign nationally, bringing in $1 million on its own. ANGLE and Hollywood mega-mogul David Geffen recently pulled together a national coalition to build support for the President’s plan to lift the military ban on homosexuals. And it was Los Angeles to which the gay and lesbian task force turned when it chose Vaid’s successor, Torie Osborn, former director of the community services center and the first from the West Coast to head the task force.
The entertainment industry is showering its largess and cachet on AIDS and gay-rights events in a manner unheard of not so many years ago. AIDS Project Los Angeles scooped up nearly $4 million in a single evening of Hollywood glitter last November, one of the most successful AIDS fund-raisers ever. In a town where major filmmakers have persistently ignored AIDS and generally preferred their gay and lesbian characters to be twisted, or at least limp-wristed, Warner Bros. and TriStar Pictures are now bankrolling movies with gay heroes and AIDS themes. Outside of Hollywood, Highways in Santa Monica is a hothouse of politically charged gay performance art, part of a vibrant cultural scene shaped by both the obscure and such nationally known and politically active figures as author Paul Monette, winner of last year’s National Book Award for nonfiction.
At the same time, much of the dramatic membership growth experienced in the last few years by two of the best-known national groups, NGLTF and the Human Rights Campaign Fund in Washington, comes from Southern California, according to Sean Strub, the direct-mail guru for gay causes. Southern Californians constitute half of all the donors listed on Strub’s national database who have ever made a contribution of $1,000 or more to the major gay organizations. And every year, lipstick lesbians by the hundreds get out their heels and tight black and plunk down $150 each to attend a fund-raising dance for the L.A. community center. Says Strub: "(Los Angeles) is the only city in the country where they can find 300 women to pay $150.”
Beyond such obvious signposts, a greater political and social awareness is insinuating itself into gay identity in Los Angeles--and at some level in every state. Decades of activism and growing social tolerance, and years of AIDS deaths have whetted the gay appetite for a life without persecution.
Few politicians can ignore these developments.
“In 1992, the big story was that it was the Year of the Woman,” says Duane Garrett, chairman of Dianne Feinstein’s Senate campaign. “But in California politics, I think the emergence of strong, public, widespread gay and lesbian support was a critical difference in close races . . . . I don’t believe that any politician seeking statewide support in either party would be foolish enough to ignore the potential support of the gay community. I think the days are gone when you can run . . . even for a nomination for the Republican Party, bashing gays and gay lifestyles.”
Addressing a group of gay and lesbian attorneys in Los Angeles last month, Sen. Barbara Boxer paid tribute. “I could not have won my election without the support of the gay and lesbian community,” stressed Boxer, who was involved in one of those tight races. “Rest assured, I will not forget you and your issues.”
In Orange County, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a pro-family lobbying group, balks at the gay connections to the White House even while using them as an organizing tool. “He who pays the piper plays the tune,” Sheldon says. “As George Bush very deeply wanted to be the education President, Bill Clinton is the homosexual President.
“Right now, the homosexuals are on a big roll,” Sheldon laments. “But when Mr. Average American realizes the homosexual power base has a very clear hidden agenda, which is to overhaul straight America . . . . When this really becomes known, I want to tell you, I almost feel sorry for the homosexual community. They’re going to have to go into hiding.”
Meantime, though, the gay community “is an extremely potent force politically and is taken extremely seriously,” says Wilson aide Dan Schnur. So seriously that Schnur called the “misperception” of Wilson’s motives for vetoing the gay-rights bill “one of the single biggest frustrations of our first two years.”
IT WAS ASUNDAY INSEPTEMBER OF 1991 WHEN WILSON, INSISTING that the bill would hurt small business by burdening it with more regulation, rejected legislation that would have outlawed job discrimination against homosexuals. As word spread, so did anger. To everyone’s amazement, BMW professionals poured out of hangouts, and the tank-top crowd abandoned the gym to join hard-core activists with rings in their noses. Attorney and activist Carol Anderson got off a plane from San Francisco and headed straight for the intersection of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards, where a crowd of about 250 was milling about. “People were in tears, literally standing on the sidewalk crying, because they couldn’t conceive that the governor would say we didn’t have a right to work,” recalls Anderson, who kept sticking her head inside bars along the Santa Monica strip, yelling at stool-sitters to get out on the streets.
The protests continued for the next three weeks. Every night, hundreds taunted police, ran afoul of nightsticks and hopped around the L.A. Basin screaming their fury in one demonstration after another. Plans were laid for a pro-gay initiative drive and, in the following months, membership in gay and lesbian activist groups swelled.
“It definitely felt like the baton moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco in terms of who was calling the shots, who was framing the issues, who was doing the organizing,” says then-community center director Osborn, who had shouted exhortations to the demonstrating pink brigades from the back of a flatbed truck.
“The bulwark of middle-class gay culture finally stood up and said: ‘We are oppressed and we’re not going to take it,’ ” says Steve Martin, an attorney and leader of West Hollywood’s Stonewall Democratic Club.
The veto of AB101, as the job-protections bill was designated, slapped awake a lot of comfortable, semi-closeted professional gay men and lesbians, many of whom had associated middle-of-the-road conservatism with assimilation. For some gay white males in particular, the rhetoric of social victim has never been very appealing. They may be homosexual, but, by God, they are still white males. In many gay circles, talk about activist politics was, well, almost in poor taste. “You talked about the gym, Madonna, shopping, The Industry,” Martin says. People have for decades gone to San Francisco to be gay , but they’ve come to Los Angeles to make it, and their lives reflected that.
The governor punched a hole in that complacency. A fellow Southern Californian, he had courted them, taken their money and their votes and then mooned them. He reminded them that they weren’t as assimilated as they thought they were, and they took offense.
Of course, it didn’t last. Many of the newcomers drifted back to the bars and their Madonna CDs, and the initiative was deemed too risky to pursue.
“It was like a big marching party,” scoffs Cyndy Crogan, a member of the small but influential AIDS activist group ACT UP/LA, and a self-described “radical militant lesbian.” As for the gay men who surround her in West Hollywood, she says: “I think they’re lazy, and I’m really pissed at them . . . . I don’t see any groundbreaking gay and lesbian activity going on here at all.”
Still, things are changing. For one thing, Wilson signed another version of the gay rights bill last year. (This one, he said, imposes less of a burden on business.)
Then there are people like Stephanie Sautner, a former New York City police detective who came to Los Angeles to go to law school 13 years ago and stayed. She became a deputy city attorney, joined a gay and lesbian bar group and gave money to AIDS and gay organizations. She also toyed with the idea of becoming a local judge. “I had thought about running, and every time I thought about it, it seemed like an overwhelming task,” says Sautner, 45, who lives with her partner of 10 years, Pam Albers, in the View Park area of the city. Wilson changed her mind. “The veto made me so angry and pushed me over the edge.” Far from being overwhelming, her judicial bid proved relatively easy. Sautner won a three-way primary last year as an openly lesbian candidate and in January became a Municipal Court judge.
IN WHAT IS SEEN AS A MILESTONE IN LOCAL POLITICS, THERE ARE ALSO three openly gay candidates running for the L.A. City Council in the 13th District, which winds from Atwater Village to Hollywood. Their emergence comes 15 years after San Francisco elected its first openly gay supervisor and two years after a gay man won a seat on the New York City Council.
The lag is partly rooted in the region’s suburban allegiances, which have robbed Los Angeles of a concentrated gay ghetto such as San Francisco’s Castro district or, to a lesser extent, New York City’s Greenwich Village. West Hollywood, which elected several openly gay council members after incorporating as a city in the 1980s, is about as close as it gets. Politically, that dispersal has made it harder for L.A. gays and lesbians to translate their numbers into local electoral clout and put their own into office.
They have consequently poured much of their effort into building their own institutions outside the system, doing pioneering organizing along the way. One of the first gay churches (the Metropolitan Community Church), the first enduring gay political organization (the Mattachine Society), and the first gay political-action committee (the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles) were established here. Now, attention is turning inside the system. “We’ve done everything we can do depending on the kindness of strangers or friends,” insists council contender Michael Weinstein, who is heavily playing the gay card to win community support. Until there are open gays and lesbians in high-profile positions, Weinstein says repeatedly, “We have an absolute glass ceiling; we cannot go any further.”
Closeted gays and lesbians are no strangers to office in Los Angeles, but the activist community’s tolerance for their closets is fast fading. “There’s now a sizable body of people in the gay community who feel that it’s unacceptable,” observes L.A. school board member Jeff Horton, who came out several months after he took office in 1991. Worried that his homosexuality would dominate the campaign, Horton chose to wait until after he was elected to publicize it. “Things do change fast. Were it this year, I might not have had the concern,” says Horton.
The issue has flared in the 13th District, where former L.A. school board president Jackie Goldberg was more or less pressured into being more public about her sexual orientation by press questions spurred by an undercHurrent of sniping within activist circles as well as the explicit openness of the other two gay contestants.
“I still feel that people need to make their own decision, but I don’t agree if they’re in the closet, especially in these times,” says the third gay candidate, Conrado Terrazas, a onetime farm-labor organizer, who recently quit his program-development job at Fox Broadcasting Co. to campaign full time. He walks precincts wearing a GLAAD button and explains to anyone who asks that it stands for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog group. “I gladly embrace everything about me. . . . If I lose votes for it, so be it.”
Goldberg says she has never hidden her homosexuality. She just didn’t broadcast it out of deference to her teen-age son, who had hoped to graduate from high school this June before his mother was publicly identified as a lesbian. “That was not to be,” says Goldberg, adding that now, her greater openness “can only help me politically. . . . Anybody who was homophobic wasn’t going to vote for me anyway” because of her record on gay issues.
In the mayor’s race, City Councilman Michael Woo, a leading contender with a history of support for and from the gay community, has also recognized the pressure for openly gay officials with promises to appoint a gay or lesbian to the Police Commission, a key city panel.
The gay political muscle flexing--and its recognition by mainstream politicos--is “a matter of the time being right,” says Mayor Tom Bradley. “There’s been a significant segment of activist gays and lesbians in this city for a long time. What has really changed is that there is a growing awareness of the issue of fairness and what is just. As people have become more informed about the facts of discrimination . . . the perceptions, the myths that have abounded--all that has begun to fade away.”
Outside of the local political arena, gay men and women who had barely bothered to vote for much of their lives suddenly developed campaign fever last fall. “You had to have a Clinton bumper sticker and had to show up at every $50-a-drink fund-raiser,” recalls Adam Devejian, a 28-year-old financial manager who “wrote checks and checks and checks” to the Democrats.
Boxer’s Hollywood campaign office sometimes felt like Gay Central. And the state Democratic Party’s first-ever campaign office in West Hollywood emerged as the premier headquarters in Southern California, churning out volunteers, phone calls and precinct walkers. Of its 2,000 volunteers, about 40% were gay or lesbian, according to Susan Grant, a regional field director. Voter registration tables dotted Santa Monica Boulevard and some 14,000 people signed up to vote in less than three months.
THE ANGLE CROWD GOT BEHIND CLINTON EARLY ON--WHEN HIS political viability was very much in question--funneling money to the upstart Arkansas governor and helping him stay afloat at a crucial time. “They were very helpful,” says James Carville, the maverick political consultant who steered Clinton to the White House.
“Two things make the L.A. gay community particularly critical,” Carville goes on. “No. 1 is David Mixner. He’s a savvy political guy. He understands politics. You can deal with him in a forthright manner. He has a superb reputation as a political strategist. I like dealing with him. No. 2: They’re very wealthy. It helps that they write checks.”
Four years ago as well, Mixner and some of his friends were ready to write checks. They approached the Michael Dukakis team with an offer to raise $1 million--and were turned down as too great a political liability.
Clinton had no such qualms. “He said all the right things,” remembers Mixner of Clinton’s October, 1991, meeting with ANGLE. “He made us feel human. He treated us as his peers.” Los Angeles thus became Clinton’s home base in the national gay community, a fact that is bound to translate into continuing influence during the next four years. “Los Angeles, more than any other gay community in the country, has the ear of the new Administration,” observes Carol Buell, a New Yorker and board member of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national gay rights organization that opened its western regional office in Los Angeles a few years ago.
A corporate consultant who became friends with Clinton in 1969 doing anti-war work, Mixner is a big man with a healthy opinion of himself and a determination to “grow political power” for gays. Like the late Sheldon Andelson, a wealthy lawyer who helped establish a gay tradition of serious political giving in Los Angeles, Mixner has long recognized the power of money. He was one of the founders of the gay PAC, MECLA, in 1977.
Mixner, 46, speaks eloquently of the pain and isolation of being gay in a society that doesn’t much like homosexuals. Every week now he gets a few hate calls. “Is this Clinton’s faggot? Gonna beat your brains out.” His standard retort: “Are you registered to vote?”
Until he was 30, he hid his homosexuality. When his first lover in college died in a car accident nine months after they met, “I thought he was killed as punishment for what we were doing.” He couldn’t talk to anyone about the loss. “For years I told people I was engaged to a girl and she died. . . . Still, I feel my homophobia 16 years after coming out.” His activism was fired by “a realization that we didn’t have to live the way we were living or be persecuted. We could do something about it.”
The ceaseless gnawing of AIDS on his circle of friends has also left its scars. He keeps track of the toll in the back of his journal. “Sort of my own quilt.” The dead number 192, including Peter Scott, his business partner and best friend. After Scott died in 1989, Mixner says, “I made a personal commitment to myself that if I had anything to do with it, no gay or lesbian child would have to go through what we went through.”
Mixner’s ego and checkbook activism draw their share of scorn from people who don’t care for either. “There’s the people who love him and the people who despise him,” Martin says. “But David has proven himself in the long run to be one of the true heroes of our community. He’s one of the few people who actually came through and delivered on everything he promised in 1992.”
Mixner’s latest project, the Campaign for Military Service, stirred up turf battles and grumbling about a “California invasion” of the national gay-rights organizations in Washington. A national coalition of gay groups and mainstream liberal organizations such as People for the American Way, the campaign was hastily called to life last month to counter the fever-pitch opposition of the Pentagon and the religious right to Clinton’s plans to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the armed forces.
Primarily conceived by ANGLE and David Geffen, the coalition was seen by some as a Mixner power play, underscoring the ambivalent emotions he can evoke. “Does he sometimes say more than he can accomplish? Yes,” remarks one activist. “Does he exaggerate his influence? Yes. But we all want him to succeed because a lot of hope rides on his shoulders.”
Music mogul Geffen, who came out of the closet at last fall’s APLA benefit, is directing his philanthropy to AIDS and gay-rights causes in an increasingly visible manner. He has made million-dollar gifts to APLA and Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, paid for full-page New York Times advertisements urging an end to the military’s gay ban and wrote a $25,000 check as seed money to help start the military coalition. “I’m simply doing what I think is appropriate,” Geffen says demurely.
Others in Hollywood are tiptoeing forth. Wounded by AIDS and badgered by rowdy activists as well as the more genteel GLAAD for relentlessly nasty screen portrayals of gays and lesbians, Tinseltown is beginning to take note. Former Fox Inc. chairman Barry Diller and MCA Inc. president Sidney J. Sheinberg organized Hollywood Supports more than a year ago to fight discrimination against gays and people with AIDS in the entertainment industry.
“I see very important people sitting in rooms, both talking about these issues and listening to other people, in a way I’ve never seen before,” says a slightly amazed Alan Hergott, an entertainment attorney who has helped line up unprecedented Hollywood backing for the gay and lesbian task force’s fund-raising dinners.
Not everyone is impressed. “Hollywood Supports’ congratulating itself on being in existence for a year is laughable,” growls actor-activist Michael Kearns. “They should try to hide the fact. . . . David Geffen should not make a point of coming out of the closet in 1992. He should have had the guts, the balls, the courage to come out (earlier).”
FOR ALL ITS CLASHING STYLES AND EGOS, the L.A. gay community is not nearly as riven by infighting, factionalism and political correctness as those in San Francisco or New York. The simple fact of the L.A. Basin’s sprawling geography may explain much of that comparative harmony. “I think it’s because we’re all so scattered and we’re not in complete communication with each other,” muses ACT UP member Crogan. “It’s a blessing and a curse.”
Jokes veteran activist Jean O’Leary: “We don’t meet here. We have assignments.” O’Leary, who was executive director of National Gay Rights Advocates, a now-defunct group that was based in San Francisco, groans at memories of that city--"the community purer than thou. . . . Everyone tries to be more politically correct than the next person. It’s brutal.”
Ah, but just wait, Martin says. As the L.A. gay community makes “further gains and we have spoils to fight about, you can be sure the fighting and the divisiveness are going to increase exponentially.” Sure enough, negative campaigning has reared its head in the 13th District race. Fighting over spoils is, after all, a large part of politics. The baggage of growing up gay in a straight world adds another edge. “You really come from a place of self-hatred and it’s . . . a battle to get over it. I think that impacts our politics,” says Thomas K. Duane, who became New York City’s first openly gay council member after winning a bruising primary fight with lesbian Liz Abzug.
“Also, we come from so many different places,” Duane adds. Race, class, gender--all are thrown together under the gay banner to a degree absent from many other movements. They don’t always blend that well. Indeed, L.A.'s gay politics in many ways remains chiefly the province of affluent Westsiders, more often male than female and mostly white.
“It is changing, but it’s basically a white person’s game,” council candidate Terrazas notes.
Says J Craig Fong, Lambda’s L.A. director: “My feeling here in Los Angeles is that every time communities of color have wanted a place at the table, they have had to fight their way in.” Both the community center and APLA, for example, have been criticized in the past for paying insufficient attention to minority needs.
In the end, the very media glitz and money for which Los Angeles is often derided are helping propel the city to the forefront of the national debate over gay rights. The merger of politics, media and money makes for a game that Los Angeles knows how to play.
“If there is a place that seems like home and heart, it’s San Francisco,” says John D’Emilio, a gay movement historian at the University of North Carolina. “New York is mind, and Los Angeles is politics and power.”