Karen Ocamb

LIFE AIDS Lobby and Equality California

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 27, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: CDC, CDC guidelines, Connie Norman, Diane Abbitt, Equality California, Frank Ricchiazzi, Geoff Kors, Henry Waxman, Jackie Goldberg, John Duran, Laurie McBride, LIFE AIDS Lobby, Sheila Kuehl, Tim Westmoreland

Equality California is the grandchild of LIFE AIDS Lobby, which was founded in 1985 out of terrible post-Gay Liberation necessity. Though the Centers for Disease Control published a report on June 5, 1981 about six gay men in the Los Angeles area who died with alarming speed from a mysterious illness, the federal government barely acknowledged what would become known as HIV/AIDS. (See Randy Shilts' important book And the Band Played On for more on this era.)

In March 1983, gay writer Larry Kramer wrote a 5,000- word front-page story in the New York Native entitled “1,112 and Counting.” Kramer, who would create ACT UP four years later, wrote: "If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get."

But in 1980, though the mysterious new disease was starting to show up at STD clinics serving gay men, the political focus was on the push-back against the "counter-culture" movement of the 60s and 70s by the Religious Right that started to dominate American politics.

Democratic President Jimmy Carter had Midge Costanza but his 1980 Democratic Primary opponent Sen. Ted Kennedy had open gays on his staff: West Hollywood-based Steve Smith was Kennedy's LGBT campaign coordinator for Southern California. There were 71 openly LGBT delegates to the Democratic Convention - 17 of whom came from California.

But conservative Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election. Though Reagan's opposition to the antigay Briggs Initiative as governor of California played a significant role in defeating the measure in 1978, once in the White House, Reagan listened to rabid antigays such as domestic policy advisor Gary Bauer.

A more focused federal response was needed and in 1980, Steve Endean and others founded the Human Rights Campaign Fund specifically to raise and contribute campaign funds for "pro-fairness congressional candidates."

In California, voters elected congressional representatives as diverse as liberal Henry Waxman on the Westside of Los Angeles to obsessively antigay William Dannenmeyer in Orange County. Waxman, thanks to a suggestion from his openly gay aide Tim Westmoreland, held the first-ever congressional hearing on the growing AIDS crisis in 1983 at the LA Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center on Highland Avenue, though there was little media coverage. Dannemeyer, on the other hand, developed links with antigay groups such as Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition - which launched a vendetta against Fairfax High School science teacher Virginia Uribe and her new anti-drop out program, Project 10. Dannemeyer, as California version of Jesse Helms, was also ugly in his refusal to grant any federal funding to social services that had anything remotely to do with gays or AIDS.

Women also started coming to the fore, politically. Barbara Boxer was elected to Congress and San

Francisco lesbian Carole Migden became the President of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, a group of more liberal LGBT politicos than the Alice B. Toklas group. Migden went on to become a powerful force in state Democratic Party politics.

Walter Mondale, Vice-President under Jimmy Carter, won the Democratic presidential nomination as expected at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. But there was more focus on internal strife than AIDS. Contender Gary Hart had openly gay delegates and Chicago-based civil rights activist Jesse Jackson from the Rainbow Coalition included "gay Americans" in his speech.

Mondale lost by a huge margin to Reagan and 1, 112 gays dying from AIDS grew into an epidemic. Small groups such as AIDS Project Los Angeles expanded from a help-line to a fledgling organization. Then, with the shocking coming out and death of movie star Rock Hudson, on October 2, 1985 - the world started taking notice of AIDS.

LIFE AIDS Lobby was formed in 1985 in response to the terrible need to have a statewide group representing AIDS and LGBT interests in the state Capitol. There was great reliance on liberal straight elected officials such as Willie Brown, Art Agnos and David Roberti, whose openly gay aide Stan Hadden helped craft legislation in 1985 to encourage a coordinated approach to local AIDS programs and services.

LIFE AIDS Lobby and other groups were challenged by mean-spirited AIDS initiatives in 1986 to quarantine and limit employment for people with HIV/AIDS - such as Prop 64, known as the LaRouche Initiative. However, some religious leaders stood up in protest.

“The threat of excluding and isolating anyone in our society, so as to make that individual a non-person, is totally repugnant to me,” said Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis of the newly formed AIDS Interfaith Council of Southern California, said at a news conference in July. The initiative was defeated in November.

Among those fighting Prop 64 was a 27 year old law student named John Duran, who had transformed from shirtless disco-dancing circuit boy at the Boom Boom Room in Laguna Beach to and AIDS activist after the AIDS-related death in June 1985 of his close friend Scott Fleener.

A law school grad in 1987, Duran volunteered as an attorney for ACT UP in Orange County. He also represented organizers of OC's first Gay Pride event and was surrounded by Lou Sheldon and his religious zealots at the Santa Ana City Council meeting as they tried to exorcise demons out of him. He was escorted out under police protection. Later, the White Aryan Resistance tried to set fire to the building housing his law firm; they left swastikas on walls and doors.

Instead of being frightened into silence, Duran joined the board of the LIFE AIDS Lobby and wound

up serving as co-chair from 1988-1992. He worked in concert with the indefatigable executive director, Laurie McBride and drafted groundbreaking AIDS legislation and the employment and later, housing nondiscrimination bill, AB 101.

Meanwhile, though some religious leaders and Hollywood - thanks in large part to stars such as Elizabeth Taylor - started paying attention to AIDS, getting funding and protections from local government was a different matter, as gay LA Times reporter Victor Zonana pointed out in a frontpage Column One on Dec. 31, 1989:

Finally, the political contours of Los Angeles County may hamper the response to the epidemic. Supervisors, for example, have twice spurned recommendations to fund programs that would distribute bleach to IV drug users–steps New York and San Francisco instituted years ago.

“Under the present political philosophy of the board, we will never have an effective battle against AIDS in Los Angeles,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Hospice Foundation and a frequent critic of the county’s response to the epidemic.

“There’s a definite lack of leadership–and, I would add, a lack of will,” said Mary Nalick, director of the City of Angels Hospice in Hollywood. Although the facility is widely admired for providing excellent care to end-stage patients, to date it has received no government funding because of one bureaucratic obstacle after another.

“We’ve managed to exist with no public money and no client money for a year,” said Nalick, who has been forced to rely on an unsteady stream of foundation grants and private donations. “Basically, I beg.”

Dr. Neil Schram, former head of the City-County Task Force on AIDS, still seethes when he thinks back to his first visit to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors in 1985 to warn of a killer that would wipe out tens of thousands of county residents.

Schram had waited four years since AIDS first appeared to sound the alarm. Here at last was his chance to urge leaders to mount aggressive educational efforts to stem the spread of the fatal disease, to avert panic and to shore up a sagging health-care system to cope with the tidal wave of patients to come.

“As I delivered my testimony, Pete Schabarum stood in a corner and talked to a friend,” Schram recalled. “Ken Hahn and Deane Dana were absent. Ed Edelman listened. And Mike Antonovich sat there and watched me, watching him, while he made calls on his portable telephone.”

Schram, a South Bay physician, was not mollified when people more familiar with the ways of local government assured him that such inattention from supervisors was typical for hearings. To Schram, the episode drove home “the egregious and shameful leadership vacuum” that has characterized the county’s response to AIDS.

County supervisors insist that they have taken the epidemic seriously all along. But Edelman, the only supervisor who consented to an interview, said he feels “lonely and frustrated” when supporting AIDS issues on the board.

Despite years of urging from public health officials, for example, Los Angeles County did not adopt legislation barring discrimination against people with AIDS until February, 1989–after the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Riverside and Pasadena and various California counties enacted similar measures.

The civil rights legislation was hotly contested and was approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors by a 3-2 vote.

LIFE AIDS Lobby, which included members as diverse as transgender ACT UP AIDS activist Connie

Norman to Log Cabin Republican Club co-founder Frank Ricchiazzi (Log Cabin was founded in 1977 to oppose the Briggs Initiative), became simply LIFE Lobby and got involved with civil rights issues, such as AB 101, introduced by Assemblymember Terry Friedman, which became known as California’s gay rights bill. Signing the bill became central to the 1990 governor's race, with many in the LGBT community deciding to sit home or back "moderate" Republican Pete Wilson of San Diego over San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein when Wilson promised behind closed doors to sign the bill. His veto "betrayal" in 1991 caused weeks of protests in the streets and provided dark horse Democratic presidential candidate Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton visual evidence that the gay community in California was politically active.

Meanwhile, the Religious Right was also growing. Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, Jr. and businessman Rob Hurtt founded the Christian-conservative Sacramento-based Capitol Resources Institute lobbying group (affiliated with James Dobson's Focus on the Family) and created a well-funded political action committee called Allied Business PAC that spent $5 million to elect Christian conservatives to the legislature in 1994. Hurtt was elected to the State Senate that year and quickly became fundraising bundler-in-chief for legislative Republicans. 1994 was also the year Democratic House Speaker Richard Gephardt turned over the gavel to the Republican's new leader, Newt Gingrich.

Openly gay attorney Sheila James Kuehl and newly out LA School Board chair Jackie Goldberg bucked the "Angry White Man" GOP tidal wave in 1994 - with Kuehl being elected the first open gay in the California Legislature; she became an ardent supporter of LIFE Lobby's Youth Lobby Day, created in 1996. Goldberg was the first open gay elected to the LA City Council (Joel Wachs was in the closet for much of his term.) Goldberg was famous for standing up to maniacally antigay Lou Sheldon and the Traditional Values Coalition during those vicious attacks on Project 10 and science teacher/founder Virginia Uribe in the mid-80s. Arguing that science and safer sex during the AIDS epidemic trumped conservative religious beliefs and abstinence-only, Goldberg made condoms available in public schools.

In 1998, despite the promising election of moderate/conservative Democrat Gray Davis as governor, LIFE Lobby ran out of money and folded. California Alliance for Pride and Equality (CAPE) emerged from the ashes with longtime San Francisco politico Jean Harris as executive director. Geoff Kors, a graduate of Stanford Law School and a lawyer in private practice, was one of nine members who sat on CAPE's Board of Directors. It was yet another difficult time.

cross-posted at LGBT-POV

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I'm really enjoying all of these history lessons you've been publishing lately, Karen. I'm eating them up.

I lived in Cerritos, California during these years, and for two years I was a member of LIFE Lobby. This is a very good synopsis of the happenings of those years, Karen.

I would only add that any chronicling of Life Lobby would not be complete without mention of Diane Himes who served as board co-chair almost the entire span of years, and was a joy to work with ... plus essential to mention Rand Martin who, along with Laurie McBride in the later years, did much of the on-staff lobbying.

If you carry this writing forward for future use, Karen (and I surely hope you do), I would encourage you to include a quick treatment of the 1988 campaign fights against California Propositions 96 and 102. Prop 96, sponsored by the LA County Sheriff, allowed court orders requiring arrestees charged with sexual offenses to be tested for HIV regardless of their willingness. Proposition 102 would have forced state officials to change their policies in fighting AIDS, mandating the reporting of all those infected or suspected to be infected with HIV. It also would have required the tracing of all of their sexual contacts and repealed state laws forbidding the use of HIV tests by employers and insurers.

The civil rights problem with Prop 96 is that it allowed testing the arrestee without normal conviction following due process of law. Even so, LIFE Lobby and the entire LGBT/AIDS community that year had to concentrate on fighting Prop 102, letting Prop 96 pass, simply because we did not have resources to fight both at the same time effectively. The 1988 California election season was a perfect lesson to future activists of how "political triage" is sometime a necessary evil.

Also allow me to mention two other notable members of LIFE Lobby. [_Phill Wilson_], who later went on to found the Black AIDS Institute; and the late Martin Delaney who had founded San Francisco's [_Project Inform_].

Writer's Note: I was surprised to find that at Wikipedia there is no entry documenting California Prop 96 or California Prop 102. Prop 96 passed in November 1988, and Prop 102 was defeated in the same election. Here's a great opportunity for a fledgling researcher wanting to get their feet wet at Wikipedia.