In Hollywood, they call it counter-programming. But in West Hollywood, it was an amusingly ironic accident that the Gay Men's Forum was held on the same weekend as the White Party in Palm Springs.
Nonetheless, the all-day event on Saturday drew 175 gay men with a range in ages and coming out experiences, all hungry for depth, direction and a sense of community.
"Gay men occasionally need to step out of the LGBT space and focus on the needs of the gay male community," said West Hollywood Mayor John Duran, who orchestrated sponsorship from the city.
The venue itself was haunting: the Fiesta Hall auditorium in Plummer Park where Louise Hay held her "Hay Rides" and offered a safe space for gay men dying of AIDS in the 1980s to come together in a kind of desperate intimacy.
The idea for the event came after a series of forums on the crystal meth epidemic revealed a secret longing for a spiritual, emotional, and psychological connection between and among gay men.
"We have transitioned from dark smoky bars through sexual liberation, an epidemic into weddings and family planning. It's important to stop, reflect and think ahead," Duran said.
The forum - called "Where We've Been, Where We Are, Where We're Heading" - allowed the gay men to honestly share their stories (using the microphone as a "Talking Stick") about their fear of intimacy and how to re-create the sense of community many experienced during the heady days of Gay Liberation and the angry, grief-laden AIDS crisis.
Before the discussions got underway, actor/writer Michael Kearns performed a funny and touching new work with a Rip Van Winkle theme: a young gay man gets clunked on the head by a falling disco ball in the 70s, is knocked unconscious and awakens in today's LGBT world. After a series of sexual misadventures, the hero finds true love in the end.
The opening plenary session, moderated by Duran, featured Dr. Don Kilhefner and Phill Wilson. Kilhefner is a Jungian psychologist who, with the late activist Morris Kight, co-founded the Gay Liberation Front of Los Angeles, the Gay Community Services Center, and the Van Ness Recovery House (the first residential substance abuse treatment center for gays). Kilhefner also co-founded the Radical Fairies with Harry Hay and currently runs the Gay Men's Medicine Circle.
Phill Wilson was involved in the L.A. chapter of Black and White Men Together and co-founded the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum. As a board member of AIDS Hospice Foundation (now AIDS Healthcare Foundation), he helped found the Chris Brownlie Hospice, one of the first AIDS hospices in the nation, which was named for his late partner. Wilson now heads the Black AIDS Institute, which he also founded.
Kilhefner showed clips from his archive of the time before and just after Stonewall when gays in L.A. demonstrated against the discriminatory practices of the LAPD, held liberating "touch-ins" at oft-raided bars, and disrupted a national psychology convention to insist that gays are not degenerates. He also showed footage of the June 27, 1970 Gay Pride Parade down Hollywood Boulevard which included a crucified gay Christ and a Vaseline jar float.
Kilhefner said the gay movement of that time was not so much about making heterosexuals the enemy (unless they got in the way), but about creating and feeling proud about having a unique gay identity.
Wilson agreed, saying "the whole LGBT movement has been about finding our voice" and about "how to find intimacy and feel connected to that..."
But Duran, Kilhefner and Wilson also disagreed at times - and in a wonderfully subtle way, "modeled" how to disagree while also being respectful and civil.
Duran, who is a Latino born in East L.A., said he has often been taken as white with a perpetual tan. He shared about his apolitical, often drunken days in the 1970s (which eventually led to a 12 Step program) at Studio One, the gay West Coast version of Studio 54. Wilson said he had a different experience - protesting outside Studio One because of their "mechanisms to keep folks out" - a no-open-toe-shoe policy against women and three or four pieces of identification for people of color.
And there was much discussion about the era of AIDS, "after ABBA stopped singing and the disco ball stopped," as Duran put it. "AIDS forced us into a conversation that we never had before."
"It was all about the seeking of intimacy, which manifested itself through sex, drugs and alcoholism - which lead to AIDS. The vehicle that we used to connect with each other was the very thing that was killing us. And we haven't really adjusted...[But] AIDS forced us to come out into the light. We were desperate. We had nothing left to lose so the only way to survive was to come out into the open."
Wilson also noted that AIDS "changed the way we behaved politically" - no more campaign contributions for no pro-gay legislative progress - which he said Ginny Appuzo characterized as: "No more free fucks."
Kilhefner, however, noted that the LGBT community actually developed out of the determined strategies of the Gay Liberation Front, which recognized that it was impossible to keep demonstrating and that "true revolutionaries had to meet the needs of the people." That meant creating the gay community center and other organizations that have since become institutions.
"The gay community existed for decades before AIDS. That's why L.A. is different. We developed a community consciousness. The center and the MCC [Rev. Troy Perry's Metropolitan Community Church, founded in 1967] were the nexus. And The Advocate was the only gay newspaper in the country and they reported on the gay liberation here - which went out to the whole country...We were part of the revolutionary ferment [in the country at the time]....That's why it's so important to have intergenerational communication. Age apartheid is deflating us....It is a necessity to remember our ancestors: Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Harry Hay, Jim Kepner, Dorr Legg, Don Slater. We need to talk across generations. We have to get our acts together."
Duran asked the audience to raise their hands according to how long they had been out to themselves. The show of hands ranged from within the past few years to Rick Rickells, who has been out over 62 years, since he was 10 years old.
The cavernous auditorium hushed as Rickells choked up, remembering how he once felt his crippling arthritis was punishment for being gay and how, after his son died from AIDS, Phill Wilson inspired him to get involved and become a counselor who gave gays good advice.
Mark Katz, the longtime AIDS doctor who gave monthly AIDS updates in the mid-80s, also choked up, remembering the shame associated with being gay and having AIDS, even as gay men struggled against the emotional trauma of slowly dying.
Wilson, who has been HIV positive since the early 80s, said he is alive today because of doctors like Katz. And while there are still challenges around race and gender, gays have willingly shared their experience with others. "The world and America is a much better place because of us," Wilson said.
After-lunch panels included "Queers, Rebels, Outlaws: How Our Unique Subcultures Support Positive Self-Identity," moderated by Sister Erotica Psychotica, and "Where We're Heading," moderated by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Darrel Cummings and featuring Lambda Legal's Legal Director Jon Davidson, MTV/Logo executive Brian Graden, and performance artist Tim Miller.
On a personal note - I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the National Organization for Women also held a conference in WeHo on Saturday, which I chose to forego in favor of covering the Gay Men's Forum. I was one of three women there - jokingly identified by Duran as a "scary lesbian."
I was honored and moved to be there, not just as an eyewitness but as a human being. I was one of those women who tended to my dying gay friends when their boyfriends or exes or friends and family were often too afraid to help. They were afraid of "catching" it - in the early 80s, we all were afraid of that - some of us wore masks and gloves when in the presences of a person with AIDS.
Some gay men were afraid of seeing what they suspected would eventually happen to them - the purple KS lesions, the wasting syndrome, the baldness from radiation treatments, the scary sunken eyes and protruding cheekbones. And some gay men were just plain terrified of intimacy. They didn't know what to say or do. And they were deeply ashamed of that fear that kept them from expressing their love and their grief and their own fear of dying.
Gradually, of course, they came around and the love gay men shared with each other and with those of us who were helping them felt like the vanguard of a new spirituality, a new movement of love and hope for change in how we behave toward each other. Tears rolled down our faces when presidential candidate Bill Clinton thanked us for sharing those lessons with some of the very folks who hated us.
But even now, though men hug each other more easily, it is still difficult for many of them to determine what makes a man a man. It is still difficult to grasp that intimacy is a strength, not a weakness. But their very struggle is heartening.
At the end of the forum, the participants signed a pledge that frankly is a good idea for all of us:
"We, gay men of Southern California, pledge to live with honesty, dignity, and courage and expect the same from our peers. We also pledge to educate ourselves so that we can lead healthy and responsible lives; we pledge to serve as positive role models to other members of the communities with which we identify and inspire, and mentor current and future generations of gay men through positive action; Furthermore, we pledge to become change agents to help materialize the change we want to see in the world."