Seldom had a new city grabbed the nation's spotlight the way West Hollywood did when it burst to life a decade ago.
Activists heralded a "Gay Camelot," where the city's large homosexual community would show the world that gays could govern as well as protest--and train political leaders for the next chapter of the gay rights struggle.
Reporters from as far as France and Japan captured the tearful and euphoric inauguration of the nation's first gay majority City Council. Stories featuring lesbian Mayor Valerie Terrigno ran in Asheville, N.C., and Ardmore, Okla.
"I still get chills from it," said Karen Ocamb, a lesbian writer who moved to West Hollywood in time to join the cityhood campaign. "It was like a social revolution. We were going to do all these wonderful things for all the people. Anything seemed possible."
Has Camelot lost its luster?
These days, as West Hollywood marks its 10th birthday, the only cameras at council sessions are from the local government cable channel. Some activists complain that gay residents have become complacent, that they care more about exercising their biceps than their clout as a potential voting bloc--about one-third of the city's 36,000 residents.
AIDS has wiped out potential leaders and plunged the community and City Hall into the grim work of keeping young people alive. And gay and lesbian issues seldom come up in local campaigns anymore--unthinkable to some a decade ago.
"The idea that West Hollywood would be a boot camp and training ground for gays and lesbians--that hasn't happened," said Councilman Steve Martin, who in April became the first new openly gay council member elected since cityhood was achieved. "Politically, it hasn't lived up."
A closer look, however, reveals that West Hollywood's gay revolution is very much alive, though in a far less flashy form than in the days after cityhood was achieved.
Gays and lesbians are represented throughout City Hall and on every city commission, including one credited with improving the uneasy relations between the gay community and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The city's benefits program for its workers' unmarried partners has become a model for communities across the country.
This success in nuts-and-bolts governing has made West Hollywood a national pioneer, many activists say. At a time when homosexuals elsewhere are taking to the streets seeking legal recognition, in West Hollywood they are making the laws--even the boring ones. That is an important new phase of the gay revolution, which this summer marks its 25th anniversary: In 1969, gays rioted after a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar.
"It's a little bit like falling in love and then living your life," said Virginia Apuzzo, a national gay rights leader and state housing official in New York. "There's the moment of revolution--the media and the lights. . . . Then there is the most important element of change. And that is the institutionalization of change."
West Hollywood is the undisputed center of gay life in Los Angeles, replacing Hollywood and, earlier, Downtown. Even on weeknights, the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard called Boys' Town pulses with club-hoppers and boasts dozens of bookstores, coffeehouses, health clubs and other businesses that are gay-owned or cater mainly to homosexuals. The city also hosts the region's annual Gay Pride festival.
By day, the sidewalks reflect another, older face. One in five residents is at least 65. Many are Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union. Organized by the city's dominant rent-control group, seniors are arguably the most potent political force in town and were crucial to the success of the cityhood vote.
The mostly amiable mix of gays and seniors has created a politics of tolerance. Straight politicians strongly advocate gay rights--and most any other cause with a liberal stamp. West Hollywood was the first city in the country to make Yom Kippur a legal holiday, and one of the first to avoid investing in South Africa and to enact a parental leave ordinance. It is probably the only place where a council meeting would open with men vamping to Madonna's "Vogue" in drag.
"It's not just gays," said Robert Craig, who publishes a gay magazine here and coined the term "Gay Camelot" during the cityhood campaign. "This is a human rights city."
It wasn't always so. The two-square-mile area, once a trolley town better known for being on the wrong side of the tracks from Beverly Hills, began developing into a major gay settlement in the 1960s. Homosexuals had earlier gathered mostly in bars in Silver Lake and Hollywood, but an increasingly aggressive policy of raids by the Los Angeles Police Department was landing even well-heeled community members in jail. Gays found refuge in an unincorporated pocket of the county just to the west, a sort of no man's land where hippies grooved to the emerging rock scene on the Sunset Strip and the sheriff seemed to care little if men danced with men.
Gay clubs sprang up, including the big disco Studio One and a host of small gay businesses. The burgeoning disco scene drew so many heterosexuals that one owner had to set aside special gay nights.
"I think it will go down in history in the same category of Harlem in the 1920s with jazz," said Prof. Walter L. Williams, who teaches courses in gay and lesbian studies at USC.
Williams was one of thousands of young homosexuals who fled the bigotry of Main Street America for gay enclaves in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. During his first visit to West Hollywood from Ohio, Williams locked himself out of his car near a gay club. He waited nervously for the tow truck driver, worried that the nearby club and his loud clothes would give him away as gay.
"The tow truck pulls up and out pops this very gay young man," Williams recalled. "He prances over and unlocks the car and says, 'Welcome to West Hollywood.' " Williams was sold. He moved there the next year.
The cityhood campaign in 1984 was fueled by a 50-50 blend of gay activism and fear that the county's rent-control law would be repealed, leaving West Hollywood's heavy tenant base vulnerable to rent increases.
Led by activist Ron Stone and backed heavily by prominent gay businessman Sheldon Andelson, the incorporation movement got a huge publicity boost from a line Robert Craig plugged into a pro-cityhood speech he delivered near Election Day: "I would suggest that if you are gay, Camelot is on the horizon."
"The place went nuts," Craig recalled. "By the time I got back to my office, the phone was ringing" with calls from reporters.
The Nov. 6 vote was overwhelming--two-thirds backed cityhood. Even more dramatically, voters picked Terrigno and two gay men--John Heilman and Steve Schulte--for the first five-member City Council.
No one had to wait long to see what this would mean. At the mobbed inaugural meeting, the council's first official act was to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. The crowd stood to applaud. Some cried. Wielding this new law, council members later trooped to a restaurant--with news cameras in tow--to remove a sign that had long infuriated gays: "Fagots Stay Out." (sic)
In that dizzying first year, the council also enacted rent control and approved a domestic partnership law to allow gay and lesbian couples to register with the city. The developments seemed all the more sensational for bucking the conservative Reaganite tide that had swept the country.
"It was very, very exciting," said Heilman, the only original member still serving. "But also nerve-racking to have that degree of attention."
Then came a shot of publicity the young city did not need.
Terrigno, who had become a media darling and the most visible emblem of the city's novelty status, was convicted in 1986 of embezzling $7,000 in federal funds from a Hollywood job referral agency that she ran two years before.
Terrigno, who served a 60-day sentence in a halfway house, vanished from the city's political scene. In a brief interview, Terrigno, now 40, said only that she lives in West Hollywood and works at a hospital.
Her downfall was an awful heartbreak for a tiny movement that had felt the world's gaze. As a result, gays lost their majority on the council.
"She certainly shot the dream full of holes. What we had looked at as a measure of gay pride suddenly became a gay nightmare--embarrassing for everybody," Craig said.
Then an even uglier menace crept into town: AIDS. By the end of the decade, West Hollywood and surrounding neighborhoods had a higher per-capita AIDS rate than New York or San Francisco. The disease had killed 1,011 West Hollywood residents by last December, a toll that included cityhood leader Stone, many of the best-known activists and nearly a dozen city employees.
West Hollywood poured money into AIDS services. Political action came to a standstill as survivors moved into AIDS organizing, laying the base for what would be the next arena of gay rights activism. Many others tended to loved ones. The struggle goes on.
Signs abound that the thrill is gone from gay politics in a city where the hot issues these days are more likely to be taxes and trash hauling. Though 10 of 11 candidates in a recent election for three council seats were openly gay--providing the first chance for a gay majority since 1986--none raised any gay issues. Politicians, in fact, steer clear of appearing "too gay" in a city where two-thirds of the voters are straight. (In the local election, held April 12, gays boosted their council representation from one seat to two.)
Gays and straights in West Hollywood have been next-door neighbors for decades and get along, even across generations. The all-important rent control issue puts most homosexuals on the same side as seniors, who have learned to shrug off all but the most daring displays of gay pride.
"You've got a few flamboyant ones, but I don't see a problem," said Councilman Sal Guarriello, 75, who is straight and has sponsored council resolutions backing gay rights. "(Straights) have been living with (gays) a good long time. Even before we became a city, we had a good number. And (heterosexuals) socialize with them, especially in the entertainment business. This is Tinseltown."
Yet hostilities have flared at times between gays and Russian newcomers who grew up where homosexuality was a crime. Some longtime residents grumble that the city's gay side dominates its image.
"I'm not down on the gay community. I just don't think the city should be put forth as 'the gay city,' " said neighborhood activist Bill Senigram. "There are a lot of others out here who are not gay."
Daniel Kovatch, an unsuccessful gay council candidate, said callers left messages on his answering machine expressing worry over the possibility of a gay majority. "(There was) a certain sense of fear that the city would be run by all gay people," he said.
All this bothers those who complain that a "lavender ceiling" keeps gay and lesbian staffers from rising far in City Hall. It also riles those who would like to dump the Sheriff's Department over widely held perceptions that it is hostile to homosexuals.
The group of gays behind the 1992 ballot initiative to end the city's $8.5-million contract with the Sheriff's Department and set up an independent police force is aborting a second bid this year.
Gay voters "don't care about West Hollywood. They don't care about the City Council," said John Underwood, who was active in the failed 1992 attempt. "It's pointless."
But the lull in local gay politicking belies West Hollywood's strides in addressing issues of interest to homosexuals. Even critics acknowledge that the city has done virtually everything it can for gay and lesbian rights--so much, in fact, that some consider the complacency one sign of success.
West Hollywood spends generously on AIDS care--nearly $9 million since 1985--and other social services directed toward gays. It has also provided health insurance for the unmarried partners of city workers since 1989.
The city, one of about 15 nationwide providing domestic partner benefits, gets calls almost daily from officials elsewhere considering similar plans. And a separate program has allowed more than 550 unmarried couples from around the country to register their relationships at City Hall.
Many credit the city with forcing the Sheriff's Department to improve its treatment of gays and lesbians in hiring and in handling reports of gay-bashing.
A special city committee of gays and lesbians--set up five years ago to patch up years of poor relations with the department--uses jokes and blunt talk to train recruits countywide to handle everything from same-sex domestic disputes to playful transvestites. Committee members helped keep the peace in 1991 when West Hollywood was "ground zero" for street protests after Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the gay rights bill known as AB 101.
Because of pressure from West Hollywood, Sheriff's Department contracts with the cities it patrols include a clause barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. After receiving complaints that desk officers brushed off reports of anti-gay harassment, the West Hollywood station commander ordered that even incomplete reports be logged in a special notebook at the front desk.
"That little town probably did more to change the Sheriff Department than a lot of other larger communities have done over a longer period of time," said Clarence Chapman, a former sheriff's commander there.
It has also helped to change the public's perception of openly gay government officials--who now number more than 200 nationwide--and of policies rooted in the gay rights movement.
No one murmurs about West Hollywood's council members at state municipal conferences anymore. "Now, because (a proposal) comes from West Hollywood, it doesn't make it outlandish," said Monrovia Mayor Bob Bartlett, president of the League of California Cities. "After you've become 10 years old, you're in the mainstream."
That, experts say, may be West Hollywood's greatest achievement. Its programs, once snickered at as risque, are now routine. And gay politicians in the city, no longer a novelty, are now measured by how well they master business levies and zoning rules--the pothole drudgery of running a city.
The revolution has had to broaden its embrace. Said Martin during his successful campaign last spring: "There's no such thing as a gay or lesbian parking problem."
Some people still fantasize about a return of the original passion--perhaps the seeds were seen on Santa Monica Boulevard during the AB 101 protests. But others say that maybe Gay Camelot was never meant to be a noisy place.
"Here we are 10 years into the city, and you know what? It's everyday life. It's no big deal anymore," said Lee Werbel, who heads the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
"And that's the whole point."
Growing Pains of Cityhood
Key dates in West Hollywood history:
1984: Voters approve cityhood 2 to 1. City Council is the nation's first with a gay majority. In its first act, the council bars bias on the basis of sexual orientation.
1985: City allows "domestic partners" to register relationships. Rent control passes.
1986: Valerie Terrigno, nation's only openly lesbian mayor, is convicted of embezzling from an agency she had run. In the election to fill her seat, gays lose the council majority.
1989: City offers medical insurance coverage to partners of City Hall workers. Committee formed to improve the uneasy relations between gay community and Los Angeles County Sheriff Department.
1990: City's death toll from AIDS nears 1,000. Per-capita rate tops those of New York and San Francisco.
1991: Thousands of angry demonstrators protest Gov. Pete Wilson's veto of the gay rights bill known as AB 101.
1992: Group of gays pushes bid to create city police force. Measure defeated 53% to 47% at the polls.
1994: Steve Martin becomes first openly gay member elected to the City Council since 1984, bringing current number to two on the five-member body. Group seeking city police force aborts its new effort.