Gay Camelot

I moved to West Hollywood in 1999, after three years of sharing a Craftsman 12 blocks from the beach in Santa Monica. The change of scenery was unexciting, but the move had more to do with my commute to Warner Bros., and the desire to have my own affordable space, something I would be hard-pressed to find in Santa Monica. Initially I didn’t even know I lived in West Hollywood, since my block is awkwardly split between WeHo and L.A., and my mailing address says "Los Angeles."

As a single gay man about to turn 30, the benefits outweighed the negatives — scant parking, annoying congestion, losing the ocean. I was closer to my circle of friends and within walking distance of favorite bars and restaurants.

I had lived in a "gay ghetto" once before, San Diego’s Hillcrest, for just a few months after finishing graduate school. The rainbow flags, natty dressers and funky public art were all familiar to me, thanks to additional trips to the Castro in San Francisco and Chicago’s Boystown. It took me a few years to figure it out, but unlike its fabulous counterparts in other cities, West Hollywood is politically unique. The Castro, for all its bloody and flamboyant history, is merely a neighborhood jockeying for attention within a larger political entity. West Hollywood is an actual living, breathing city, with constituents and elected public officials charged to respond to its citizenry. With just more than 35,000 people in under two square miles, surrounded by the behemoth Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, West Hollywood could easily be considered a charming exercise in letting the gays have their say within a few city blocks of nightclubs and boutiques. But veteran writer and gay political activist David Mixner, who left Los Angeles for Washington, D.C., a few years ago, argues that West Hollywood’s mere existence is significant to an LGBT community far beyond the boundaries of Doheny and La Brea.

"It’s a dramatic part of our political history," he said. "It was a political Stonewall."

The first city election in West Hollywood gave the city not only an out lesbian mayor, but also an openly gay–majority City Council, a first in U.S. political history. This only a year after Representative Gerry E. Stubbs had come out on the floor of the House of Representatives and the first openly gay mayors had been voted into office in Key West and Santa Cruz. The queer majority, besides making headlines and insisting that West Hollywood wasn’t just a "gay city," started passing laws that progressives in other cities had talked about for a long time as a good idea but just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put into writing, chief among them, one of the first city ordinances banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a fledgling domestic-partnership registry program. Those progressive ideals went beyond gay concerns and embraced other constituencies within the city, particularly its vibrant Russian Jewish community: In 1985, West Hollywood became the first municipality in the U.S. to name Yom Kippur an official holiday, besides voting to boycott grapes and South Africa. The city’s financial situation allowed it to do more than just pass proclamations. West Hollywood’s tax base provided a multimillion-dollar surplus its first year, which the city used aggressively to fund things like senior housing, AIDS care and drug-abuse counseling, subjects that would have brought about great debate in most communities but were quickly addressed and acted upon here. Despite the fact that Mayor Valerie Terrigno was found guilty of fraud and embezzlement, the general consensus is that the gay majority, which has continued into the city’s third decade, has done a good job of maintaining the city’s affairs, proving to critics that queens can do more than mount Broadway shows and organize pride parades.

"The city has been run effectively," Mixner said. "It shows we can run cities as well as anybody else."

Ivy Bottini, the co-chair of West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board who got her start in progressive politics in 1966 as a co-founder of one of the first National Organization for Women chapters, thinks the critical mass of activists in the city has made it a key place to raise big issues on a local level.

"West Hollywood is great to organize in, because it is small," she said. "You can turn 500 to 700 people out on a street corner by 3 o’clock in the afternoon."

Recently that ability to organize has been crucial. Since it is a city and not a county, West Hollywood is not able to throw down the marriage gauntlet like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. But within hours of Newsom’s 2004 Valentine’s Day marriage acts and the California Supreme Court’s decision a few months later to annul the same-sex licenses, the city responded vocally with camera-ready rallies, becoming the Southern California center of gay activism.

Bottini is not all smiles when she talks of West Hollywood as "Gay Camelot." She argues that the bar culture that helps drive the city’s economic engine also drives an epidemic of substance use (the most recent flavor of the month being crystal meth) and a stubbornly resilient AIDS crisis. "The city is floating on a sea of drugs," she warns.

Bottini is hardly the only critic. Despite the city’s early ban on the ugly practice of bars’ requiring people of color to show two IDs, a countywide disgrace that went on into the 1980s, as recalled by Ryan Gierach in his 2003 book West Hollywood, the city is still perceived by many to be the white gay place, and an increasingly commercial and prohibitively expensive one at that. But like many others who wish the city did a better job of living up to its expectations, Bottini has set aside her concerns and put her lot with West Hollywood.

"For all its faults, and for all the angers I have on certain things, I would live nowhere else," she said. "It is open to progress. It is inquisitive, creative. If you have an idea, somebody is going to listen to it, and you have a shot of getting it done."


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