Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
One early evening last August, on the day the California Supreme Court declared 4,000 San Franciscomade marriages invalid, more than 200 people gathered on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood to defend the right of same-sex couples to wed. Women stood side-by-side, arms around each others waists, holding marriage licenses blown up to poster-sized placards. Clean-cut men with spectacular dogs held signs saying "Annul This!" under what our president would call a "one-fingered salute" and "Our Love Is Not Invalid." State Senator Sheila Kuehl got up to speak at the emergency event, as did other familiar politicians and clergy from local gay and lesbian congregations.
But the nights most arresting speech was given by a 44-year-old gay Latino man known well within West Hollywood but hardly recognized beyond: John Duran, a first-term West Hollywood City Council member and the citys current mayor (as in a lot of small cities, West Hollywoods council members take turns at the job), spoke eloquently about equality and liberty, freedom of religion and "freedom from religion."
Also in this issue:
ROBERT GREENE on the history of Queerville and the fight for renters.
RON ATHEY, in WeHo Voices, talks to the hardware man, the art dealer, the shoe maker, the book buyer and the design guru.
CHRISTOPHER LISOTTA remembers why he moved to West Hollywood.
JEFFREY ANDERSON checks in with Scott Imler and his battle with John Ashcroft over medical marijuana.
Dark-eyed, with coffee-colored skin and both the short, gelled hair and fitted shirts of his gym-and-fashion-centric culture, Duran invited New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who had just that day confessed his sexual orientation in the glare of a sexual-harassment scandal, to come and get hitched in West Hollywood. (Although, unlike San Francisco County, the city of West Hollywood cant issue marriage licenses to anybody, straight or gay.) He assured the assembled couples that their urge to marry was proof of their good citizenship. Most persuasively, he aligned himself with the goals of the founders and framers: He defended gay marriage in the name of James Madison.
A few months later, Duran delivered another version of his speech to a large crowd at a fund-raiser for Senator John Kerry held at the El Rey Theater. "I saw a man at an anti-abortion rally carrying a sign," Duran told the audience. "It said, THESE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO HELL: Homosexuals. Lesbians as if lesbians arent homosexuals Abortionists. And Democrats. So, welcome to hell!"
A few minutes in, Duran returned to his core message: "What would Hamilton and Jefferson have to say," he wondered to the crowd, "about the Patriot Act? About the prisoners languishing at Guantánamo Bay?" He invoked Lincoln on national unity, Teddy Roosevelt on the environment and Lyndon Johnson on poverty. He cited the First, Fourth and 14th amendments in his case against the Bush administration. It made for a simple message, but a remarkably powerful one: "As a lover of the Constitution," Duran concluded, "it is my duty to remove [Bush] from office."
Durans speech was a variation on a theme hes been pursuing since his early days as a civil-rights attorney in Santa Ana: Reclaim the Constitution, take back the Bill of Rights and compare the ideals of Madison and Jefferson to the modern-day practice of morality. He has a knack for speech-making, honed by decades of experience as a conspicuous activist lawyer in Orange County, polished by years of deferred political ambitions. Says his colleague on the City Council, Jeffrey Prang, "John has the appeal of an old Southern Baptist preacher."
A preacher who knows his Constitution: "The Bill of Rights is a durable document," Duran says. "Though I usually skip the Second Amendment, because I dont want to get into the gun-control debate. And the Third, the one about quartering the military in private houses thats a little too weird. Although," he pauses to think, "I guess it could happen. These days, you never know."
In Durans City Hall office, behind his desk, sits a brightly painted orange-and-yellow sculpture made of three long strips of wood two of them stretch toward the sky, the other plunges toward the ground.
"Its the serpent before the fall of Eden pleading to God to please not condemn him to a life of crawling on his belly," Duran says. "He loses, of course."
Theres a metaphor in there for Duran, a self-described "angry activist" who has spent the last 20 years fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians in both Orange County and West Hollywood. Slogging through the political culture of late-80s Orange County in search of justice for people who had lost their jobs because of their HIV status must have felt a little like pleading to God for dignity. And waking up on this past November 3 to hear that voters in 11 states rushed to the polls the day before to ban gay marriage in their state constitutions must have felt like hearing that plea denied.
"I was surprised," Duran admits, looking uncharacteristically glum. "People voted against their own pocketbooks. They ignored record job losses, disregarded their family finances, all to stop gay marriage. Its bizarre."
But Duran is not one to brood. He has already begun formulating a message to take back the country on its own terms. "We absolutely have to engage them on the issue of values," he says, "on the Bible and on the Constitution. All the values the left stands for are biblically based, but weve ceded the territory to the religious right because were uncomfortable with a religious agenda. We cant be afraid of it anymore; weve got to take them head-on."
Duran is on a roll now; his cadence verging on speechifying. "Its possible to maintain a wall between church and state and still promote spiritual values," he insists. "And thats everything were about: protecting the elderly with strong social security, health insurance to care for the sick, looking after the homeless the people Jesus meant when he said the least of my brothers.
"Im not giving the right wing the Bill of Rights or principles of justice," Duran declares, his voice rising. "Their agenda has nothing to do with patriotism or Christianity. But I understand why they use values, and God. Because how do you advance a corporate-military agenda unless you promise to save peoples souls?"
John Duran grew up in a family of old-fashioned liberal Catholics in Lincoln Heights on Los Angeles Eastside and Santa Fe Springs near Whittier and Norwalk. (He became an Episcopalian, he says, "because I couldnt really stand by the pope.") His father worked for Pacific Bell; his mother, Gloria, a United Farm Workers activist in the days of Cesar Chavez, still serves on the board of the Los Nietos School District, which includes schools in Whittier and Santa Fe Springs and, founded in 1861, is Californias second oldest school district. Despite the influence of his relatively radical mother, Duran grew up apolitical and didnt come out early.
"Like a lot of young gay boys, I couldnt even throw a ball right," he says, "and the things I was naturally drawn to, like music and singing, made me a target for ridicule, so I stayed away from them." (He now sings in the Gay Mens Chorus.) In high school, he struggled to adapt to the customs of his peers by dating girls he imagined that it was L.A.s licentious culture, not his own nature, that was fueling his attraction to men. At 18, he fled. "I picked Orange County," he says, "because it was so straight."
At least that was the plan. Durans first job out of high school was shooting hippos as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. "I thought it would be brilliant to work in an environment like Disneyland," he said. "I thought that I could go there and avoid the homosexual influence altogether." Behind the scenes at the Happiest Place on Earth, however, was the gayest place in California outside of San Francisco, a veritable "hotbed of gay society," as Duran puts it. Within six months, says Duran, "I was dating Peter Pan."
It was the late 70s in Jimmy Carters lust-in-your-heart America, a time of relative social tolerance, Donna Summer discomania and cheap drugs. The nation was at peace, or presumed to be, anyway; no one had heard of AIDS. "It was," says Duran, "one big party. And it was all about sex."
He drank, frequented gay bars and played hard, as did most of the young men he knew, and he was, he admits, "completely politically apathetic." In 1980, while he was working at Disneyland, a 19-year-old named Andrew Exler was kicked out of the park for dancing with another man. Exler sued and won, but Duran barely registered the event. "I knew about it, vaguely," he says. But it wasnt until many years later that he and Exler met (theyre now friends).
Back then, Duran had his sights set on a corporate career. He got his B.S. in business administration from Cal State Long Beach and enrolled in law school at Western State University in Orange County, hoping to get a piece of corporate Americas bounty during the Reagan years. It was in his last year of law school, in 1985, that one of his best friends, Scott Fleener of Ontario, California, died of "HIV disease," as Duran calls it. Fleeners death came suddenly. "I had seen him a few weeks before, and he looked fine," Duran remembers. "Then I went on vacation, and when I came back, there were four messages on the answering machine, the first few saying, Scotts sick, call right away, and the last from his closest friend telling me he was gone.
"Scott was the first person I knew who died," Duran says. "I was robbed of the chance to say goodbye, and at his memorial service I had one of those As God Is My Witness moments when I vowed to find a cure for this disease." At the time he thought that wouldnt be so hard. "I thought, People just need to be aware that theres a problem." When Lyndon LaRouche came through the next year and I got Proposition 64 on the California ballot, threatening to quarantine HIV-positive people in internment camps, Duran took action. "I showed up at the office of Pat Callahan," then the co-chair of the Orange Countybased gay activist group ECCO, "and said, Put me to work. And that was the start of my political career."
Within the next six years, Duran would lose 107 more friends to HIV-related illnesses. He would also watch as people with HIV got fired from their jobs as schoolteachers or locked out of health clubs, and it enraged him. "It completely overturned my sense of the way the world should work," he says. "Everything changed."
In 1988, he became a clerk at a law office run by two activist lesbians and met Joel Loquvam. A year later, the two men started their own law firm in Anaheim focusing on gay civil rights and discrimination against people with AIDS.
Its hard now to recall how hysterically homophobic Orange County was back then, but in a political climate determined by Congressmen Robert Dornan of Santa Ana and William Dannemeyer of Fullerton who proposed legislation to publicize the names of everyone testing positive for HIV discrimination cases brought Loquvam and Duran a steady business.
"We did a lot of employment-related discrimination claims, both sexual orientationrelated and HIV-related," remembers Loquvam. "But we also did quite a bit of estate planning and probate, because, unfortunately, a lot of people were dying." (Loquvam continues independently in estate planning today.)
Cut off from political power as the Christian right floated to the surface in government, gay and lesbian activism grew more militant, even in Orange County. As Orange Countys newsmaking Traditional Values Coalition founder Louis Sheldon observed at the time, "The homosexuals are going for broke these days. The community has got to decide whether its going to accept this repugnant behavior as normal."
Duran could not have picked a better place to whet his activist mettle. "I was forged in fire," he says.
As a vocal and enterprising gay man visible in Orange County civic life, Duran was both admired and controversial. In 1989, the city of Santa Ana approved a plan hatched by a number of gay activists, including the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT-UP (which Duran represented), to hold a gay-pride festival in the citys Centennial Park, an event that would include speakers, a parade and some live entertainment. When Sheldon heard news of the impending event, he mobilized hard and fast against it, organizing 700 protesters almost overnight to demand the event be canceled.
It was not a position with which the Santa Ana City Council and then-Mayor Dan Young were unsympathetic. Young told the Orange County Register that he expected the event to be "very disruptive" and looked hard for legal options to ban it. But as the organizers lawyer, Duran prevailed by invoking the Constitution. After Duran delivered a defense citing the First Amendments right to freedom of assembly, Santa Ana City Attorney Ed Cooper ultimately concluded that if the city revoked the gay festivals permit, it would have to deny the same right to every other group that applied, or the lawsuits would pile in. "The group in this present case has a constitutional right of free speech and assembly, which the [city parks] director is bound to observe," he told the city council.
"Traditional American values have won out the values of freedom of speech and the First Amendment," the Orange County Register quoted "gay civil rights attorney" Duran as saying at the time. "The city attorney has done the right thing in upholding the Constitution. This says that pluralism and diversity in Orange County exists and will continue to exist because of constitutional precedents."
It was important to Duran back then that he was not an activist of the ACT-UP variety; he worked hard to refine his message that gays were "just regular Orange County folks like everyone else," as he told the Register. Shortly after the gay-pride festival happened, a reporter at the Register wrote a story about Durans friendship with militant gay activist Jeff LeTourneau, depicting Duran as a friendly, moderating influence to LeTourneaus rabble-rousing, confrontational tactics. The article described the then 30-year-old lawyer as "given to pinstripe suits, paisley ties and power lunches with politicians . . . a diplomat who works behind the scenes, lobbying state legislators to support gay rights and AIDS research." At a debate in Santa Anas City Hall, Duran famously extended his hand to Sheldon, expecting a civil handshake. Sheldon turned his back.
Duran has given up the suits and ties for a wardrobe of mostly fitted crewnecks and 501 jeans, but he remains, as the Santa Ana council members observed at the time, "unfailingly polite." He smiles constantly even when hes talking about Senator Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum. But Duran does not hesitate to remind you, several times in the conversation, that beneath the pleasant exterior he still seethes. "I keep the list of friends Ive lost to AIDS on the refrigerator door to remind me what Im angry about," he says, "although its not as if I ever forget."
In 1991, after Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a bill that would have outlawed job discrimination in California on the basis of sexual orientation, Duran and Loquvam moved their practice from their Anaheim bungalow to a prestigious West Hollywood office building, in part because Duran wanted to pursue politics.
"The writing was on the wall," says Loquvam. "John had aspirations, and Orange County was not going to elect a gay man to public office anytime soon."
In 1992, Duran ran in the Democratic primaries against Burt Margolin for the Assembly seat in the 42nd District, the largely white, liberal district that includes not only West Hollywood where estimates suggest one-third of the residents are gay but Beverly Hills and the western San Fernando Valley.
"I will be an aggressive and effective advocate for our rightful share of political power," he wrote in a fund-raising letter to the gay community. "We have settled for too little for too long."
Margolin won that primary, but Duran polled at a respectable 35 percent of the vote, and in 1994, he ran again in a field that included current Assemblyman Paul Koretz and Abbe Land, now his fellow City Council member. This time he did worse, coming in fifth out of seven. But on the campaign trail, he made some friends.
"We were always at the same events, always at the same dinners," says Land, who has served on the West Hollywood City Council off and on since 1986. "We all wanted to win, and all wanted to do better, but not at each others expense. And we had a lot of time to talk about what we had in common."
Duran says his emphasis shifted away from gay civil rights because his firm had lost so many clients to AIDS. "I said when we reach 1,000, Im going to do something else, and I did."
But it also might have been because in the mid- to late-1990s, gay rights lost its urgency. In 1992, Wilson signed into a law an anti-discrimination bill much like the one he vetoed the year before. Drugs loomed on the horizon that would prolong, if not save, the lives of people living with HIV, and by the end of the decade, Governor Gray Davis would sign into law legislation banning sexual orientationbased discrimination in housing, employment and public schools. By the end of the 1990s, Duran had found other underdogs to defend, including people accused of sex crimes and medical-marijuana users: In 1998, he successfully defended the Cannabis Buyers Club, the first case in the state after Proposition 215 legalized marijuana for medical use. In 1999, he and Loquvam dissolved their practice. Two years later, he won a seat on the City Council with a little more than 2,000 votes.
As the Latino mayor of a city thats 92 percent white, Duran is one of only four openly HIV-positive officials in the U.S., a factor, along with his eight years of sobriety, he views as a political asset.
"It gives me the ability to talk firsthand about health-care issues," he says. Duran runs again for re-election to the City Council alongside Jeffrey Prang this March, but no longer on a platform of gay rights. In West Hollywood, Prang says, "Everyone just assumes youre for gay rights. If you polled most of our residents on what mattered to them when they vote for local candidates, theyd say theyre concerned about having a place to park, or whether, when they call the police, somebody shows up fast."
Instead of promising to get gays their fair share of access in his fund-raising pitches, Duran shows up at "meet-the-mayor" parties where the conversation turns on issues like affordable housing and population diversity in the city of 37,000, a former sanctuary for the ostracized that is fast becoming a mecca for the sophisticated. Its a "small cosmopolitan urban bohemia," as Duran puts it, "with a really big purse."
At one fund-raiser last month, in a spacious white-tiled photographers studio in a historical building on Fountain Avenue, guests quickly dispensed with post-election rage in favor of long discussions about rent control and the problem of renovating and maintaining rental units in the city.
"Our housing is out of reach for most working Americans," Duran had told me earlier. "The savagery of the market is putting a lot of pressure on tenants, especially the elderly and the Russian immigrants. All the economic activity is wonderful, but do we want to end up like Santa Barbara rich, white and affluent? I dont think so. We want to maintain our diversity, young and old, rich and poor, as our demographics shift. And it can be done. It just really puts pressure on the people in council to set aside and enforce rent stabilization and sustainable development. We never want to be a city of Starbucks and Wal-Marts."
Not everyone on the council is so optimistic. "In my opinion," says Prang, "there are factors beyond the citys control that will continue to change the demographics of the city. I think the public in general still supports those core values, but there are now competing values with people who own property. Sometimes when push comes to shove and their individual property is involved, its much less clear."
But Duran stands firm. "West Hollywood is a great success story," he says, "and the residents whove been here for a while do support our values. The question is, can we explain West Hollywood to newcomers?
"I believe we can," Duran continues. "One of the things we do is bring our local businesses into the process of setting the agenda and make them partners in the community and make sure everyone feels included." Although the Russian and gay communities have "had some conflict over the years," Duran supports creating a Russian business district in the city.
"We have a few gay Russians involved with the council to help us bridge the gap between the Russian and gay communities," he says, as well as people from Georgia and Ukraine who felt disenfranchised under the control of the Soviet Union.
"They can identify with oppression," Duran says confidently.
Both Duran and Prang are staying out of state races for the time being, to clear the field for Land, who will run for the 42nd District seat being vacated by termed-out Paul Koretz. But Duran still dreams of higher political office.
"I would love one day to go fight the right in Washington," he says.
And after the recent election, Washington may need him. Then again, so may some ordinary citizen clients: Loquvam says that since November 3 hes all of a sudden fielding phone calls from gays and lesbians experiencing discrimination in the workplace.
"Im getting four a week," he says. "And that hasnt happened in years."
Duran, however, remains sanguine about the future, and any gay-rights battles that may emerge in it. "Its not the first time the Deep South has coalesced around an issue," he says. "Im convinced well eventually prevail, as all civil rights movements have. Gay rights have only been around for 30 years or so. This year is just a blip."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter