As Richard Zaldivar drove up Hyperion Avenue in Silver Lake last September, he saw police pointing flashlights into the faces of men going into gay bars. "An enormous fear entered my body," he recalls. "I thought, 'Why are they doing this? If I enter a bar, will they do it to me?' "
Zaldivar called city officials, who didn't know what was going on. So, he put together a neighborhood meeting. In the eight months since, the grass-roots movement he started has become one of the most vivid manifestations of gay activism in Los Angeles, with tangible results.
Two city agencies distanced themselves from the multi-agency crackdowns on bars that Zaldivar had partially witnessed. His actions also resulted in a first state audit of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is largely funding the crackdowns. A confidential LAPD Vice Department memo prepared for the Police Commission showed that while gay bars constitute 1.4% of ABC licensed premises citywide, they are responsible for 2.9% of official law enforcement actions, with those actions increasing 50% last year.
City Council President John Ferraro concluded, after attending a recent meeting, that "Because of their lifestyle, [gays] feel they don't get a fair shake from the police department. I agree." City Attorney James Hahn likewise found charges of homophobic misconduct by ABC agents and police "very disturbing."
Interestingly, Zaldivar didn't even come out until seven years ago, at the same time he gave up alcohol. (He still socializes at bars but drinks only nonalcoholic beverages.) His emergence now as a leading activist illustrates some telling changes in the city's sometimes fractured gay community.
Zaldivar says his life hit "rock bottom" in 1990. "I felt morally bankrupt. Suddenly, everything had to change." The native Angeleno had learned City Hall's workings while an aide to Councilman Art Snyder and spent his free time socializing in West Hollywood. But he said he had trouble connecting in what he considered a "fantasy."
"The majority of gay people identify themselves by where they grew up and the ethnic culture they grew up with. That makes them a whole person, not just a gay person." Yet West Hollywood, he noted, is filled predominantly with gay white males from elsewhere.
"The gay ghetto mentality is that we can be free to be gay here, so let's work as one united family. In the real world, though, we're all over the place, and we don't fit into that ghetto niche. I love being gay and on the Eastside. This is real life."
To support gay Latinos, Zaldivar, 44, several years ago founded "The Wall / Las Memorias." "We responded to the issues of an HIV / AIDS curriculum for the Latino community because no one else was doing so," he said. Housed in a small office off Cesar Chavez Avenue, near where Zaldivar lives, the city-funded agency is also raising funds for a $250,000 AIDS memorial in Lincoln Park.
Zaldivar's interests grew from there. He founded the Mayan Warriors, a softball team he coached to a fifth-place showing in the 1996 Gay World Series in Minneapolis. Then he started Monday and Tuesday night men's rap groups at which many once-reluctant men have come out of the closet.
These efforts have been life-changing for some individuals. "On Oct. 1, 1996, I tested HIV-positive and was about to carry out a premeditated plan to take my own life. I am able to write this letter today as a result of the boost in self-respect I have gained from being a member of the Latino Men's Group," Aliyavor Betancourt of Whittier wrote.
Another member, Jose Medina, was proud that "We were the first AIDS awareness group to march in the annual Mexican Independence Day parade in East Los Angeles . . . [Richard] forces us to love ourselves and know ourselves."
Given these accomplishments and the fact that he and younger brother Daniel are providing home care for their elderly parents, Zaldivar could well have claimed his plate was full and ignored what he saw that night on Hyperion Avenue. But, he said, "We teach we have to be proud of who we are, no matter what. It would be hypocritical to run away."
During that first ad hoc meeting, he and the 23 other people who attended weren't sure they could make an impact.
Maurice Destouet was drawn in "because Richard called me. He's exceptionally principled, so when he asks for something, I know it's important." Thus the multiethnic group was joined by a black civil rights attorney.
LAPD Cmdr. Dan Watson started attending, as did local ABC officials. "Richard is the voice of reason in getting people together. He's good at . . . providing honest information to both sides," Watson said. Suddenly, Zaldivar, always present in his uniform of T-shirt and jeans, was at the front and center of events.
A recent meeting at the Micheltorena Elementary School auditorium overflowed with a crowd of more than 500. Bursting out of the traditional bounds of gay protest, that meeting included Latinos, blacks and Anglos, men and women, gays and mothers with their children addressing a panel of city and state officials.
The meeting included testimony from about 20 gay men on their unpleasant experiences at the hands of the ABC and the LAPD. After listening, Fire Department Deputy Chief Jimmy Hill announced that he was pulling his department out of ABC-LAPD joint task forces. So did Bob Martin, chief of inspection for the Department of Building and Safety.
But David Robbins, deputy division chief of the ABC, said in a phone interview that although Zaldivar "has shown he can mobilize a lot of people, there still hasn't been any documentation that we have done anything wrong. . . . There are a lot of accusations of harassment, but nobody has any specific instances."
On another front, Hahn, Ferraro and Hollywood Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg backed Zaldivar's idea for a citywide Gay Liaison Task Force. In what may be a first, the proposed task force will allow gay citizens to approach not just their council person, but an oversight group tailored to their concerns.
Said Goldberg: "Richard has a great deal of political savvy. He knows how angry people are. But instead of allowing people to just vent their anger, he challenges them to channel it into something constructive. . . . The future belongs to people who can cross narrow ethnic boundaries. He's doing a lot of right things."
Zaldivar, in turn, sees the gay rights cause here and nationally as having to become "more of a grass-roots movement, with people in the various neighborhoods speaking up. We can't confine our movement to entertainment moguls and Westside whites. Those of us who live in Silver Lake and on the Eastside absolutely have to speak up for ourselves."