By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Slobodan DimitrovTHE WORST OF THE AIDS CRISIS MAY BE OVER, BUT THE GAY COMMUNITY IS DEADER THAN EVER.
Nationally and locally, things seem on the surface to be bright: Agencies such as Los Angeles' own Gay and Lesbian Center reign like generous monarchs over flush fiefdoms, bringing services to the community's poorest while rubbing elbows with the rich to raise their millions, providing thousands of HIV tests, legal services, daily mental-health counseling sessions and medical checkups not only to gays, but to everyone. The accomplishments of the Center, and of a legion of other similar groups, have helped ensure that advancements in drug regimens and therapies are reaching the street, where optimism about AIDS rivals jubilation over the Dow Jones as a herald of a new Eisenhower era of ever-rising health and prosperity.
And complacency. At the end of the gay '90s, as AIDS deaths reach their lowest level since the epidemic began, some gay activists are seriously concerned about the slumbering apathy among the gay masses, the virtual blackout of gay political analysis in the mainstream media, and the direction in which powerful service providers like the Gay and Lesbian Center have chosen to lead the community. "I think the community is in the lowest ebb in the entire time I've been here, which is 20 years," says ACT UP founding member Peter Cashman. "Gay and lesbian leadership is an oxymoron in L.A. County."
The concern is not just a local one. When the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's gay political-action committee, endorsed Alfonse D'Amato for re-election to the U.S. Senate over the Democratic challenger, Chuck Schumer, last year, critics in New York decried the decision as yet another example of the people's power being sucked away by arrogant and wayward national institutions.
But within that national fight to resuscitate grassroots gay activism, Los Angeles is shaping up as an early and bloody battleground. Over the last half-year, hostilities have broken into the open, engulfing Cashman and other local gay leaders such as Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and Terri Ford, a lesbian health-care activist, and institutions such as the newly formed OUT LOUD, whose members, in a public letter distributed last fall, accused the Gay and Lesbian Center of "cowardice" and were called "misguided" in return. Some of the fierce divisiveness may be attributed to personal and professional rivalry. But on a deeper level, the war between grassroots activism and service provision reflects an age-old philosophical disagreement in the gay-rights movement between consumerism and radicalism, between checkbook activism and street activism, between corporate culture and people power, between fitting in (gay assimilation) and maximizing differences (gay pride), between being "normal" and being "in your face." In that sense, the fight isn't just a disagreement over the tactics of the gay movement; it's a fight for the movement's soul.
GAY ACTIVISM WASN'T ALWAYS OXYMORONIC IN LOS Angeles. The first effort to politically organize homosexuals in North America took place here when Harry Hay started the Mattachine Society in 1951. That unprecedented effort sprouted an institute; an early gay magazine, One Incorporated; and a homophile movement that set the stage for the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City. In the '70s, the Gay Liberation Front took root in Los Angeles; two of its leaders, Morris Kight and Don Kilhefner, went on to co-found what was then called the Gay Community Services Center. The first effort to organize people on gay spiritual terms, which divorced gay self-realization from worship in traditionally hostile religions, took place in Los Angeles, with locals such as Hay, Kilhefner and Mitch Walker birthing the now nationwide Radical Faerie Movement in 1979.
When the AIDS epidemic hit Southern California, it was met with that same revolutionary zeal. Just as the '70s fostered a liberation wherein gays hoped "the love of comrades" would transform society and its ills, the '80s brought a solidarity wherein gays stood up for the sick and dispossessed. Even as they nursed the dying, gays had to fight. The evil of AIDS gave new license to what veteran activist Wendell Ford describes as "the continuous thousand years of genocidal anti-gay suppression rooted in religious fundamentalism coupled to implacable heterosexism." A few pundits and politicians, along with millions of ordinary citizens, equated gay sex with death and damnation, and national petitions and state propositions pushed for AIDS quarantines. So even as demonstrators demanded that the L.A. Timesand then-Governor George Deukmejian pay greater attention to the need for an AIDS cure, they also had to defend themselves against amped-up hatred.
Local activist Weinstein was emblematic of the dual response. In the fall of 1986, even as he was planning the establishment of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), Weinstein organized a protest in front of Michael Antonovich's house protesting the L.A. County supervisor's homophobic comments blaming AIDS on gays. It was a public humiliation for Antonovich, the more so because the media adored the spectacle, and it demonstrated the central ethic of grassroots politics: You don't have to have a million dollars to thwart a county supervisor and even to get your picture in the paper. You just have to be unafraid to shout at him and get arrested during a Board of Supes meeting, and to have a couple of dozen people at your side ready to do the same.