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
For all that, AHF has a far grittier political approach than other AIDS agencies or the Center. Its emphasis on access to treatment over disease management has kept it close to the pulse of the street and responsive to the poor and people of color, and politically pushy and independent. Its outreach has included the development of a cultural phenomenon: a hopping café, WeHo Lounge, situated on Santa Monica Boulevard, smack-dab in West Hollywood's Boys' Town, that offers HIV education and gay cultural events somewhat more sexy than most AIDS community "workshops."
Under founder and director Weinstein, AHF has inherited the disruptive, revolutionary mantle of ACT UP and Queer Nation; AHF is the one organization in the gay and AIDS community that on a regular basis disregards walls and proper decorum to raise more of a ruckus. Its freedom lies in its source of support. Because AHF depends heavily on direct government dollars, it's less frightened to make a fuss than those groups like the Gay and Lesbian Center whose growth and programs require an influx of millions of dollars from donors who must not be alienated.
Like the Center, AHF has its critics: What some call a godsend, others call a monopoly. Weinstein is likewise called either visionary or obnoxious, depending on whom you talk to. The distaste of some gay leaders for Weinstein and Portillo has many causes -- Ferd Eggan, the L.A. city AIDS coordinator, considers Weinstein an opportunist unable to work in a collective way with others -- but at root is a disagreement between in-your-face tactics and making nice. While AHF may offer a boost to incipient grassroots energies, it remains, like ACT UP and Queer Nation before it, an exception to the rule. The blander of the AIDS and gay-service providers still reign supreme, largely because they serve a need -- or did.
DESPITE THE ONGOING CLASH OF styles of AHF and the Center and of other, smaller groups, and despite the seething tensions between money and moxie, L.A. gay activism seemed to have achieved a sort of stable, if uneasy, equilibrium in the late 1990s. That is, until October 1998 and the murder of Matthew Shepard.
The week of October 4, the same week that 22-year-old gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was picked up, beaten and left to die tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, AHF was in the midst of a hard-hitting media crusade against the policies of Mayor Richard Riordan that included a demonstration attended by about 60 people. Michael Weinstein had learned that the Housing Office for People With AIDS was sitting on between $13 million and $17 million in undistributed funds, and he blamed both the AIDS community and Riordan for not releasing the money fast enough, while hundreds, including some AHF clients, died on the street. He and Portillo held an overnight vigil in front of the mayoral mansion in Hancock Park. Supported by foot soldiers such as ACT UP veteran Terri Ford, who knew how to stage a demo on short notice, Miki Jackson (a lesbian veteran activist) and Morris Kight (a co-founder of the Center and now on AHF's board), the cadre got the broadcast media to break the AIDS community's silence about the scam.
The demonstration had been sparked by the plight of a homeless man, Don Hammerich, a 67-year-old retired Marine with AIDS, who was near death and couldn't find a safe place to sleep at night. As Shepard fought for his life in a Colorado hospital, Hammerich fought the same battle on an L.A. street. (He died on January 20.) The parallel was evident to Portillo -- that's what had him sleeping on cold pavement in protest. As he would explain, more than 1,090 anti-gay hate crimes had been reported to the police in the country's largest cities during the preceding year. And that didn't include the toll of more-subtle violence, the homophobia that kept men like Hammerich leading lives in the closet. "The people I'm advocating for are not literally being strung on a fence to die in the snow," Portillo said later, "but there's little difference."
When the news came that Shepard had died, Portillo huddled with AHF colleagues Weinstein and Ford. If they waited for the rest of the gay community to do something, would anything happen? "Gay-movement leaders have become institutional couch potatoes, protecting funding sources as much as, if not more than, the dispossessed," Ford complained. She, along with her film-industry girlfriend, Lauren Stephens, and half a dozen others, decided to challenge the service-over-militancy attitude. On the spot, they formed a grassroots group, OUT LOUD. It had no office, no phone, no constituency and no money. But it took responsibility, together with members from AHF, for staging an action that very night. Ford and others postered, and set up a sound system, and called and e-mailed hundreds of friends and the media to meet up in front of WeHo Lounge.
What took place was spontaneous combustion. Young gays who had never attended a street action in their lives showed up to cry at the tragedy and to warn straight America that the hate ã must stop. But many gay leaders were absent, most conspicuously the staff of the Gay and Lesbian Center.