R.I.P. Aristide Laurent: Pioneering L.A. Gay Activist Co-Founded The Advocate, Fought LAPD Harassment
Artiside "A.J." Laurent, 70-year-old writer and activist, died at his L.A. home on October 26 "after a long illness," the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News reports today.
Choosing to spend his young adulthood in Los Angeles, Laurent was thrown into a culture of hate and segregation. Carving out a gay-friendly community in largely conservative Southern California was not an easy task in the 1960s and '70s: Unlike in San Francisco, where the co-existent flower-power movement lent some peace and love to the struggle for sexual equality, Los Angeles proved a bit more hostile.
If not for activists like Laurent, co-founder of LGBT newsletter The Advocate...
... we might never have bloomed into the proud, flaming hub we are today. Case in point: the city of West Hollywood, where -- this very eve -- almost half a million revelers will gather to celebrate drag queens, sequins, the "Time Warp" and more wonders of gay nightlife culture.
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But this story starts on the dark side, with an LAPD raid on New Year's 1967.
The Black Cat Tavern, a gay favorite
along the Sunset Strip in Silver Lake, was targeted by several plainclothes officers on the hunt for homosexuals. After arresting multiple same-sex couples for kissing as the clock struck midnight, the cops began beating other patrons and bartenders, inciting riots on the Strip at Sunset Junction.
It was in the angry aftermath of this LGBT crackdown that The Advocate was birthed.
"The founding purpose of the early Advocate was to unite and inform the gay community of what was happening in their closed society," Laurent noted on the paper's 40 anniversary.
Most interestingly, though, he also blogged on the way gay activism has changed since then:
The fact that The Advocate had gone from being an advocate for gay rights to a commerical success was evident in the dominating presence of corporate sponsors, from a s representative of Southwest Airlines who addressed the crowd, to a shiny Saturn convertible for on-the-move gay couples. Sky Vodka provided the [free] pink "advocate martinis" which helped me keep smiling and hob-nobbing with the I'm-more-faboo-than-you crowd.
There were video greetings from a number of celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres, Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien and a host of others. I guess that is, indeed, progress as the stars of old, such as Liberace, Rod Hudson, Merv Griffin, et al., would never, ever have acknowledged the existence of those of us on the fringe of society back then.
While I stood there and downed one advocate martini after another, Stuart did what real cocktail partygoers do and worked the crowd. He shook hands with L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa and handed him a business card which read: STUART TIMMONS, HOMO HISTORIAN. That cracked the mayor up, though I'm not sure he understood what it meant. The present editor of The Advocate assured Stuart & me that we "must get together and talk about the early days of The Advocate" ... hug, hug, kiss, kiss .... "Oh darling, there you are..... so good seeing you..." hug, hug, kiss, kiss. It wasn't actually phoney ... it's just what people do at cocktail parties. It's also why I try to NEVER go to cocktail parties.
As we left the gathering of the truly fabulous, I thought to myself: My job here is done. Let the young and the beautiful take it from here.
(On the other hand, we have noticed an active small-media circuit in West Hollywood still striving to create the same unity today as the vintage Advocate: A glimmer of Laurent's legacy can be glimpsed in the recent WeHo Confidential series that quickly spread news of three gay bashings to nearby residents.)
Laurent moved with the sold-off Advocate to the Bay Area in 1975, but was soon drawn back to his glitzy hometown down south. And thank god for that. From the Gay & Lesbian News:
In 1975 Laurent was one of 40 arrested during a charity "slave auction" benefiting the Gay Community Services Center held at the Mark IV Bathhouse in Hollywood. The raid, which deployed more than 100 officers and cost a reputed $150,000, became a public relations disaster for the police and a rallying point for the gay community. Felony slavery charges against those arrested were later dismissed.
Thanks in no small part to his persistence, the gay-rights situation at Laurent's time of death has much improved. But glaring inequalities remain -- in the chapel, in the history books and in these small acts of violence (with big connotations) that go ignored.
"We'll get through this,"
Assemblyman Senator Mark Leno, a big gay advocate from San Francisco, told us last week, speaking on opposition to his gay-history bill. He said that the LGBT community is the last big slice of the population to be denied basic American rights -- but, like for women and minorities in the past, those injustices won't be sustainable forever. "All will unfold in due time," said Leno.
Props, today, to an Angeleno who made that optimism possible at all.
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