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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.”