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
The following year, the New Yorkborn group ACT UP opened offices in Los Angeles. A nonviolent but "in your face" movement, ACT UP, or AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, staged "Die-Ins" and "Kiss-Ins," "phone zaps" and other ploys to call attention to society's neglect of those dying with AIDS. In those days, you'd turn on the TV to see thousands of protesters collapsing on the busiest rush-hour streets of New York City or Paris or San Francisco -- even as other ACT UP organizers met with the highest officials from the Food and Drug Administration. In Los Angeles, the group called attention to poor sex education in high schools and to the city's refusal to engage in needle exchanges, and forced the county Board of Supervisors to install a much-needed AIDS ward at L.A. County/USC Medical Center. Their efforts were joined by the even more radical Queer Nation.
Both groups were killed by exhaustion, by internal bickering, by a covert but unintentional racism that alienated gay people of color and by the AIDS-related deaths of their most charismatic members, such as Mark Kostopolous, Connie Norman, Wayne Karr, Cory Roberts, Larry Day and Cary Bobier. But they were also done in by a change of climate. Even as AIDS ushered in a new political radicalism, it fostered a contradictory need for service, service provided by the solicitation of large amounts of money. AIDS, then, helped revive a debate that had characterized the gay movement since its origins in the early '50s. Gay men, along with some lesbians, questioned anew the split between the "grassroots position," dedicated to liberating gay people and attacking homophobia, and the "service position," which seeks financial resources for gays to take care of themselves.
The positions had long coexisted, but uneasily. The Mattachine Society had started off determinedly radical and grassroots, fired by Hay's Marxist origins and his notion of gays as an "ethnic minority." But Hay was ousted by a more assimilationist claque that pushed hand-holding with victims of homophobia rather than a fighting-back attitude. The revolutionary pulse of gay liberation erupted again in the '70s with GLF and the Faerie Movement, but was overshadowed once more in the '80s, as rich L.A. moguls such as Sheldon Andelson and Judge Rand Schrader and the now-defunct Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA) a gay PAC, perfected what would be called "checkbook activism." An entire culture of gay white industry men -- as in "film industry" -- respectably suited and situated on the Westside, found that waving big checks in the air won them a seat at the political table. They even got a city of their own, West Hollywood.
It was this swank coterie (through a MECLA successor organization called ANGLE) that helped elect Bill Clinton, and that lost prestige when Clinton took the advice of one of ANGLE's leaders, David Mixner, and, without consulting a broader range of gay advice, tried to force the admission of gays into the military. And it was this same clique of affluent moguls that built L.A.'s glamorous AIDS monarchy, exemplified by AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), which opened in 1982, soon after L.A.'s first diagnosed AIDS case, and the Gay and Lesbian Center.
Unlike APLA, which is a dedicated "AIDS agency," the Gay and Lesbian Center is considered a broader-service "gay agency." Like APLA, it relies on massive outside fund-raising. The Center's changing regimes reflect the communal to corporate evolution of L.A. gay activism. The previous executive director was Torie Osborn, a woman who could run a board meeting one day and get arrested the next in an ACT UP demonstration. Her successor, Lorri Jean, recalls that when Osborn handed over the reins, "One of the things she said to me was that there really needed to be a focus on professional managerial systems," and Jean, who had formerly served as the highest-ranking openly gay federal employee of the Reagan and Bush administrations, was nothing if not professional. Until her departure last February, she led the Center through six years of unbridled (and, most remarkably, scandal-free) growth. It is now the largest such agency in the world, with the biggest budget: $32 million. Under Osborn, the center had offered limited HIV and AIDS services, "early intervention" programs that monitored people's health until they got too sick, then referred them elsewhere. Now, with millions raised from the California AIDS Ride and other sources, the Center provides primary and specialty care to its HIV clients. Its HIV clinic tests twice as many people (800) each month as the Whitman-Walker Clinic in D.C., the second-largest testing site in the country.
Jean also created Lambda Medical Group, the first ever gay and lesbian health-care program, and the Village, a new building housing cultural and educational programs, and built a permanent multimillion-dollar endowment to pay for it all. "We are," Jean says, "very fiscally sound."
But at what cost?
Activist Cesar Portillo contends that the organization's wealth is "covering up the fact that the Center has never been involved in getting the gay and lesbian person on the street excited about social change and being gay." He adds, "Activism doesn't run in their blood." Portillo is the governmental-affairs director for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, an AIDS agency that, at 12 years old, is ã nearly as flush as the Gay and Lesbian Center, with an impressive empire of clinics and hospices providing some of the finest care in the country to people with HIV and AIDS. AHF never turns a person away due to lack of funds. Its budget skyrocketed from $9.7 million in 1993 to $29.6 million in 1996, because it understood, even before the advent of the protease movement, that medical care superseded the importance the AIDS community had so far put on holding people's hands as they waited to die.