Karen Ocamb

John Duran's Moving Summation of a Generation

Filed By Karen Ocamb | August 09, 2009 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media, Politics
Tags: Connie Norman, David Mixner, Diane Abbitt, disco music, Equality California, HIV/AIDS, Jeff LaTourneau, John Duran, Karen Ocamb, LGBT politics, LIFE Lobby, Lou Sheldon, Pat Callahan, Prop 8, Scott Hitt

At first glance, someone 49 years old seems too young to be receiving a "Lifetime Achievement Award." But openly gay and HIV positive West Hollywood City Councilmember John J. Duran has been fighting for civil rights since he was 18.

On Aug. 1, Equality California presented Duran with its Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. There was an introductory video that included comments from such longtime friends as David Mixner and Diane Abbitt and highlights from his long career as a civil rights attorney. He successfully sued the county of Los Angeles in the 1980s to get access to medications for HIV prisoners, for instance, and he represented ACT UP in criminal court. And he co-chaired California's first LGBT and HIV/AIDS statewide lobbying group - LIFE Lobby - out of which grew Equality California, which he has also helped lead as co-chair.

I first met John Duran in 1988/89 when I was reporting for Frontiers on a lawsuit filed by congressional candidate Brad Sherman challenging the tax-exempt status of Rev. Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition. I was new to LGBT reporting and asked Duran for help in understanding the antigay Religious Right fervor of the late 1980s.

I had absolutely no idea about Duran's encounter with Sheldon and his scary followers when Duran petitioned the Santa Ana City Council for a parade permit on behalf of an Orange County Pride group. Sheldon and his groupies surrounded Duran, placed their hands over his head and yelled, "Out, Satan, Out!" Duran had to be protectively escorted out of the council chambers by police. The White Aryan Resistance subsequently tried to burn down his law office.

Stories abound about this period in time, but suffice it to say, I was profoundly impressed by this obviously frightened young man who nonetheless refused to be intimidated into silence and inaction. Duran was courageous when no one was looking.

Duran was introduced at the gala by his parents, Gloria and Eddie Duran, who talked about how proud they are of him and what an inspiration he's been to them.

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(Gloria and Eddie Duran introduce their son.)

Duran did not speak from prepared remarks. Instead, he spoke from the heart to try to share with his 20-something friends what it was like to be gay in the 70s, 80s, and 90s - before there were medications to mange HIV/AIDS. A popular and respected leader in Southern California, he was greeted by a minute-long standing ovation.

Here is what Duran said in accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award:

"This was the best kept secret of the month. I had no idea my parents were going to do that. I haven't seen the video you all just watched. They wouldn't even let me get off stage to eavesdrop so I'll have to watch it later. Thank you, Chris Verdugo for keeping it a big secret from me.

Every year I come to this dinner and I do that pitch and talk about the gay rights movement and talk about why we're raising money and I told [EQCA executive director] Geoff Kors - I don't know what to say this time because I'm not really comfortable talking about me. It's that Catholic upbringing. You just - that's not what you're supposed to do. And so I was at a [12 Step] meeting this morning and got some very wise suggestions from friends about talking to a newcomer. So I'm going to talk tonight as if I'm talking to a 22-year-old gay man or a 21-year-old lesbian or a tran kid or a bisexual kid because that's the only way I'll be able to talk at all.
duran_kors.jpg

Thank you to my parents, first of all. I also want to thank Mark Morris for being my longtime companion, my sparing partner, my inspiration, a pain in the butt - all these things for the last ten years. (Applause)
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(Duran and partner Mark Morris)

When I was 18 years old, I was living in Santa Fe Springs. I was born in East LA and raised in Santa Fe Springs - and I was convinced my homosexual feelings were going to send me into an eternal lake of fire. And that's what I believed in my little old 18-year-old head. And at the time, my 18-year-old solution to this problem was that it was living in this city. I was living in LA and LA was corrupting me and I needed to go someplace where the kids were all American, clean, wholesome - to save me from my homosexuality. And I got a job at Disneyland (laughter) - not realizing that I had just thrown myself into the hotbed of homosexuality in Orange County. (Applause)

This is a true story. Within three months I was dating Peter Pan (laughter) and thus began my activism as an 18-year-old kid at Disneyland living in Orange County.

Back then - and I have so many dear friends in their 20s who are seated right over here. You know who you are. It's hard to explain maybe to you what it was like back in the late 70s and early 80s but when I walked into my first gay bar - gay bars didn't have windows because we were afraid of people looking in and we didn't want to look out. They were dark and dingy and smoke ridden and they never had a name. There wasn't a name on the bar. There wasn't a front door - there was certainly no Abbey. There was no Here, there was no East West Lounge. There was nothing open about it. It was one room where you go into the bar through a back alley. And you parked your car as far away as possible and you walked into that door. And I have to tell you - even though I describe it that way - that was my entrance to heaven. It really was paradise to walk into those one-room bars in the 1970s. (Applause).

And then I walked into West Hollywood. Sorry, mom. I had the fake little ID (laughter) so I could get into Studio One - and I walked into the back lot and it was 1979 - my dear friends Janet and Juanita are here - we used to do these bars together all the time. And I walked into the back lot and there was Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde and Madam the Puppet and Waylon Flowers (laughter) and it was such a surreal moment to suddenly see something that I didn't expect to be there.

And then when I walked through those doors of Studio One - it;s the Factory for you 20-year olds (laughter) - and I walked in and those disco balls were twirling and there were hot, shirtless Marlboro Men dancing (laughter) and Gloria Gaynor was groaning and Donna Summers was oooo-ing (applause, laughter) and I was in heaven. This was long before there were circuit parties. There was no circuit back then - there wasn't even a filament. There was nothing! (Laughter) But it was heaven.

And of course that game ended shortly thereafter when AIDS hit within a few years and the disco balls, for me, stopped. (Long pause as Duran chokes up.)

Pat Callahan and Diane Abbitt and Karen Ocamb, Jeff LeTourneau - some of those folks on the video - I could hear their voices - they were my family back then. And if you encounter gay men and lesbians who are 45 years and above - again, I'm talking to my little 20-year olds - I hope that you'll revere them (chokes up) for the sacrifices that - (chokes back tears) - sorry - for the sacrifices that were made in that period of time.

It's very rare to be a 49-year old gay man - there's not a whole lot of gay men my age here. But they're always here. And these gay men - and, I do this every time I speak - those lesbian women who were unaffected by AIDS who just picked up their gay brothers and (applause) carried us through that struggle...(sustained applause).

To my cute little 20-year olds - just so you know - when you see lesbians in our community - just realize what an important and vital role they've played and contributed to our community - often in positions of leadership when your gay elders, your gay uncles weren't able to do so.

And Lou Sheldon did call me the "principality of Satan." That's a whole city of Satan, just so you know. (Laughter) I wasn't just a little Satan. I was a whole city of Satan.

And my mother and father - I'm incredibly blessed to have such a family. My nephew Anthony is here and his girlfriend Angela (applause).

(Duran, Morris, Anthony, and Angela)

Today is my grandmother's birthday. My grandparents have all passed away but it is her birthday. And my grandmother when she was hospitalized once with cancer - they told her she had maybe a few months left to live and she said something in Spanish that I'm sure was not nice (laughter) and she pulled the IV out of her arm and she went and sat out in the hospital waiting room, and she called my mother and said, "Come pick me up. Take me home - I have work to do."

And in 1994 [before triple combination AIDS medications] when I had 69 T-cells and the late Dr. [Scott] Hitt told me I didn't have more than a couple of years to live, I remembered that and I had work to do. There was so much left to do. (Applause)

I would tell my 20-somethings that I used to think that it was anger that motivated me - because anger is a very important emotion. Look at the Prop 8 babies in the streets today. They are angry - and I LOVE it when you're angry. They are angry - the Prop 8 babies - and they're in the streets and good - take that and use that and hold it tightly.
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(Two of the 20-somethings Duran is talking to)

And at some point I realized it wasn't anger that was keeping me going - it was labor. The labor of doing the work. Now that I'm - and this gets me, I'm going to be 50 this year - (someone shouts: "and looking good!") and now that I'm going to - and looking good (laughter).

Now that I'm going to be 50 - I don' think it is the anger or the labor that keeps us going year after year. It's the love. (Duran chokes up). It's the love of Connie Norman, and Bob Craig and Niles Merton and Shelly Andelson. It's the love of people who are still here in this room tonight like David Wexler, Diane Abbitt and activists who have been doing this a lot longer than I have.

And it's the love of the little 20-year olds sitting right there. I love that you know who's dancing with the stars and who's dancing their ass off - that's what I keep hearing in conversations with you. (Laughter) But you're here tonight and I hope you'll take what you experience here tonight and you'll hold it tightly and you'll realize that the next 20 to 30 years - it's your turn. (Laughter, applause). Your turn.

Thank you very much.

(Sustained standing ovation)

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(Full slide show below)


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John Shields John Shields | August 9, 2009 10:54 PM

Great job Karen, I know it was a lot of work. I met John a few years after you first met him (sometime in the early 90s), and he's as wonderful as tireless as when I first met him.

Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

While living in the LA area, I worked with John Duran in LIFE Lobby during the mid-80's --- he was one of the leaders and I was one of many far less noticeable foot soldiers. At the time, my politics were quite a bit to the right of his (and I was hardly alone in that group), but John instinctively knew the rules for keeping a group with a wide spectrum of individuals moving forward and making progress. John, Rand Martin and Diane Himes were three powerhouses who I remember kept LIFE Lobby in gear and on target. John was also a major figure in the fights against Prop 6 and later LaRouche's Prop 102.

John richly deserves this award. Congratulations, John!