Rose Greene, L.A.'s early-day champion of LGBTQ rights, has died

Rose Greene, a champion for LGBTQ rights in Los Angeles, died at age 72.
(Los Angeles LGBT Center)

Rose Greene, a petite but mighty LGBTQ advocate who oversaw the creation and launch of one of the country’s largest HIV/AIDS fundraising events — a 545-mile bike ride along the coast of California that became a national model and a lasting symbol of unity, has died.

The cause was bone cancer, said Lorri L. Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Greene, who died July 11 in Duarte, was 72.

Greene helped develop the inaugural California AIDS Ride in 1994 — a multi-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise funds for HIV and AIDS services. Since its launch, the fundraiser, now called the AIDS/LifeCycle, has raised more than $280 million to provide free HIV/AIDS medical care, testing and prevention services to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and bring awareness to the disease.

When Jean and others were brainstorming creative ways to raise more money for services, they landed on an ambitious proposal: get 500 people to raise $2,000 each and persuade them to ride more than 500 miles to support HIV/AIDS resources and causes. “It was a risky thing,” said Alan Acosta, the center’s director of strategic initiatives. “Very few board members believed in it, but Rose was one of the ones who did.”


The $50,000 required for the event’s launch didn’t sit well with most board members, but Greene was a staunch advocate for taking such a risk, Jean recalled. “She helped convince the board that we could do it.”

And they did. They raised $1 million, more than the center ever had, and Greene, among others, successfully completed the bike trek. The fundraiser set in motion one of the most successful LGBTQ fundraising campaigns nationally. Last year, they raised a record-breaking $16.6 million in California.

The bike ride’s success and growth over the years “really changed the face of fundraising for nonprofits,” said Acosta.

Greene twice served as a member of the LGBTQ center’s board of directors, the first from 1989 to 1995 and later from 2006 to 2011. As a board co-chair, she led one of the first LGBTQ capital campaigns to fund the opening of the McDonald/Wright Building, the center’s headquarters in Hollywood.

The campaign’s success inspired others, like the New York LGBT Center and the Human Rights Campaign, to start their own campaigns.

Rose Greene, center, cuts the ribbon on the LGBT Center’s McDonald/Wright Building, its Hollywood headquarters, in November 1992.
(Los Angeles LGBT Center)

Greene also served at the center — one of the largest LGBTQ organizations in the world with 700 employees and nine locations — during a critical time when the community was under attack. In the early 1990s, former Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson had vetoed AB 101, which would prohibit employees from discriminating based on sexual orientation, and Bill Clinton implemented the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy on military service by LGBTQ members.

She was a key leader in opposing those policies, Acosta recalled. “She was directing a lot of our activity around that … she took the board in the direction to be more active and political.”

She understood that “in affecting policy, you can have a huge impact on issues that affect community in a way where we weren’t just provided services,” he said. “She was a real mensch.”

“The center is what it is today thanks in part to Rose’s leadership and vision,” Jean said.

Greene came out in the 1960s, a time when resources for LGBTQ people were scarce and tolerance was thin. When community members were publicly visible, it was usually only when someone was a victim of a violent attack, Jean said. But Greene was always forthright and honest. She wasn’t afraid to be herself.

Greene was born in 1946 in Los Angeles. Her father founded a cement company and later made products for pools. Her mother died from an anesthesia overdose when Greene was 12. She graduated from Cal State Northridge in 1968 with a bachelor’s in fine arts after attending Fairfax High School. She taught photography briefly at Hamilton High School and later became a financial planner.

Greene and her wife, Helena Ruffin, married June 17, 2008, the day after same-sex marriage was legalized in California. “Rose taught me to live my authentic life,” said Ruffin, who was quiet about her sexual identity but with Greene’s encouragement eventually spoke about it openly.

“Rose would tell me: ‘The more we tell people who we are, the easier it will be for us to be accepted,’” Ruffin said. For Greene, “it was always about advocacy and always finding places for people who were cast out, and making sure they could find a home and place to be… she fought for people to be treated as equals.”

And she fought mightily for her own life, beating breast and ovarian cancer twice.

Greene is survived by Ruffin.