Karen Ocamb

Reflections on the Death of Equality Pioneer Aristide Laurent

Filed By Karen Ocamb | November 03, 2011 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: AJ Laurent, Aristide Laurent, gay history, Gay Liberation, Los Angeles Advocate, The Advocate

My first brush with Gay Liberation was in early May of 1971 when I was among thousands of demonstrators against the Vietnam War aristide_j_laurent.jpgdetermined to shut down the government through non-violent civil disobedience by blocking streets in and around the US Capitol in Washington D.C.

Among the fiercest of protesters were a handful of gay activists who flitted around in chiffon and crinoline during meal time in our camp setting (mine was on the Georgetown campussince my affinity group was charged with blocking the Key Bridge). Many years later, when I told my student-protest story at a 12 Step meeting, a man told me that the gay protester I pulled out from a barrage of tear gas (I had a gas mask) was the transsexual whose surgery was the reason for robbery that inspired the "Dog Day Afternoon" movie.

But the person I met was nothing like the movie version of the frail wife of the bank robber. In fact, he was the last person standing on that campus football field, picking up tear gas canisters with his bare-hands and throwing them back at the cops scaling the hill and circling overheard in helicopters. He raged against the government until he collapsed.

With my attention on the antiwar and student movements and my own perennial Identity crisis - I had no clue about the explosive cultural development in 1969 known as the Stonewall Riots and Gay Liberation. I had no clue that supposedly "limp-wristed" homosexuals were brave warriors - until that massive 1971 protest in DC.

I bring this up as a preface to noting the death of gay equality rights pioneer Aristide "AJ" Laurent because AJ was one of those antiwar protesters in the 1960s who co-founded The Los Angeles Advocate as a way of letting the gay community know about gay protests, LAPD raids and other news you could use in that era.

I knew AJ only through a listserv provided by longtime gay activist Billy Glover. I enjoyed reading his feisty reactions during spirited discussions, some of which he reproduced on Billy's blog. I want to acknowledge him, both as a fellow journalist toiling in the LGBT media, but also as someone who was front and center even before I was aware of the fight for LGBT equality. Below please find an obit on AJ Laurent from his friend Robert Wray, followed by a statement from AJ to be released upon his death, and some quotes and stories, printed here with Rob's permission.

From Robert Wray:

LOS ANGELES (October 29, 2011) - Aristide J. Laurent, a pioneer in the gay rights movement and a founder of The Advocate newspaper, AJ-Laurent--300x219.jpgdied at his home in Los Angeles on October 26, 2011, after a long illness, friends announced. He was 70.

Laurent helped start The Los Angeles Advocate in 1967, working alongside Richard Mitch (Dick Michaels), Bill Rau and Sam Allen, who had taken over the Pride newsletter and renamed it. Laurent, then working at ABC Television with Rau and Allen, helped produce early issues of The Advocate in the studio's basement print shop and wrote a nightlife column ("Mariposas de la Noche") under the pseudonym "P. Nutz."

Everyone on the paper used pseudonyms, he noted. "It was dangerous to be a 'pervert' prior to the liberation movement. You didn't use your real name for fear of reprisals, not only harassment by the LAPD, but the ever-present possibility of losing your day job, family and friends," he wrote in a 2007 blog marking the publication's 40th anniversary.

When The Advocate was sold and relocated to the Bay Area in 1975, he moved with it, but Laurent didn't stay long. He returned home shortly afterward and helped start NewsWest, a Los Angeles-based newspaper intended to fill the void left by The Advocate's departure. NewsWest folded in 1977.

Laurent was at the forefront of many marches and several causes, including the antiwar movement of the 60s and 70s. In 1967 he participated in pre-Stonewall "Black Cat" protests against police harassment of gays. In the 1980s, he was part of the ACT UP movement that fought indifference to the AIDS crisis. In 1993, he attended the historic gay march on Washington. But it was an act of charity that got him in trouble with the Los Angeles Police Department.

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.

Son of the soil

Laurent was born in Magnolia Springs, Ala., in 1941, the son of Duval "Buck" Laurent, a farm hand, and Elizabeth "Betty" Weeks, who tended the family's livestock and garden. He was an altar boy and choir leader at his local parish, St. John's Catholic Church, and taught catechism to younger children. He spent summer months picking and shipping gladiolas at the farm where his father worked.

After graduating from Weeks High School in 1960, Laurent joined the United States Air Force, where he served four years. He was a signals intelligence operator in Karamursel, Turkey, and later taught new recruits at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

AJ-Laurent-2-300x200.jpgLaurent's sexual orientation was an issue during and after his service. He was investigated by Air Force officials during his service in Turkey and questioned by federal agents after his discharge, he recounted. Despite threats, he refused to inform on other gay service members and remained proud of his military service. He held at sign at the 1993 gay march on Washington that featured a copy of his honorable discharge under the words, "I Served My Country! Did Rush Limbaugh?"

In the 1980s, Laurent purchased a printing firm serving the entertainment industry. In 1996 he was diagnosed with advanced prostrate cancer and given two years to live. "Thanks to the prayers and support of friends and family-and some highly qualified medical professionals--I have lived many years past the doctors' predictions," he wrote in a letter released after his death.

Despite his illness, Laurent remained active. He indulged his love of gardening and wrote emails to a wide circle of friends and online acquaintances, providing passionate commentary on the news of the day and humorous updates on his life and treatment. He developed an interest in genealogy and embraced his Creole (mixed race) heritage. Many relatives who identified as white were shocked when they saw their family trees in his meticulously researched histories.

He spent his final months in hospice care with several caretakers and "my loyal band of crazy friends." In his final letter, he wrote, "If you are reading this I'm dead. Deader, as the saying goes, than vaudeville. But don't feel sorry for me, I've had a truly blessed life."

Laurent is survived by his nieces, Tina Weeks and Natalie Dykes of Magnolia Springs, Ala, a nephew, Kevin Weeks of Baton Rouge, La., and hundreds of friends and "cousins" around the country.

Services will be held St. John's Catholic Church in Magnolia Springs, Ala., on Nov. 5. Memorial contributions may be sent to Best Friends Animal Society, www.bestfriends.org.

Here's the statement AJ dictated to be distributed after his death:

"If you're reading this, I'm dead. Deader, as the saying goes, than vaudeville. But don't feel sorry for me, I've lead a truly blessed life.

I was born September 15, 1941at the corner of what is now Laurent and Weeks Roads in Magnolia Springs, Ala. My parents were Duval Laurent and Elizabeth Weeks, more commonly known as 'Buck 'n Betty. I was born in my mother's bed in our four-room house.

Like most farm wives, my mother Betty raised the chickens, hogs, goats and vegetables that sustained us. Despite that, we were often hungry -- perhaps because very Saturday night Buck's paycheck magically turned to beer.

Four years after I was born, I was joined by a sister, Carol Elizabeth Weeks, whom I resented instantly for invading my space. Her sole purpose in life, it seemed to me, was to make my life miserable. When she reached her teens she departed our alcoholic war zone of a home and moved in with Aunt Louise and Grandma Agnes. She lived there until she married Richard

Weeks in 1964. Our relationship grew and became more and more loving until her unexpected death in 2010.

As a child, I was religious and dedicated to serving God. I served as an altar boy and on many a cold morning I walked three miles to St. John's, my parish church, to serve the Lord. I joined the choir and eventually became the chorus leader. I also taught catechism and Bible history to the younger children.

After I graduated from Weeks High School in 1960, I joined the U.S. Air Force. After 18 years of war at home, I wanted to escape into the wild blue yonder and find some peace. I served two years in Karamursel, Turkey, as a signals intelligence operator, keeping the Commies at bay. After my tour overseas, I was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, where I taught new recruits to do the same. Upon discharge, I moved to Los Angeles with a fellow airman. He hated L.A. and left, but I found 'Hollywood' quite to my liking and lived here all my life.

My first real civilian job was at ABC Television, where I helped produce scripts for shows like General Hospital. It was an ordinary job in most respects, but I met a lot of celebrities like Raymond Burr, aka 'Perry Mason,' and Tony Dow from 'Leave it to Beaver.' When my mother, Betty, came to visit I introduced her to the cast; she was thrilled to see her favorite soap stars in person.

My best friend at ABC introduced me to political activism. We fought many battles in the 60s and 70s, and won quite a few.

I traveled the world every chance I got, visiting London, Paris, Rome, Greece, Switzerland, Moscow and the Ukraine, among many places. In 2006 I took my sister Carol on a grand cruise of the Mediterranean, little knowing it would be our last trip together in this life.

From the late 1960s until my retirement in the 1990s, I worked in publishing and printing, writing for several underground publications, and running my own printing company, which specialized in movie posters, headshots and other work for the film industry.

In 1996, I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and given two years to live. Thanks to the prayers and support of friends and family - and some highly qualified medical professionals -- I have lived many years past the doctors' predictions.

I spent my final days in hospice care at home with the help of my caretaker, Noel, and my loyal band of crazy friends, including Peter, Tony, David and Rob.

But the time has come to go home. I leave you with my favorite poem:

Home is the sailor, home from the sea;
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world
Home is the hunter: Fast in the boundless snare All flesh lies taken at his will
And every fowl of air.
'Tis evening on the moorland free;
The starlit wave is still;
Home is the sailor from the sea,
The hunter from the hill.

-A.E. Houseman

AJ wrote in Billy's blog about going to the 40th anniversary AJ-Laurent-at-The-Advocate-party-.jpgparty for The Advocate:

AJ Laurent at The Advocate party (Photo courtesy Billy Glover's blog)

The Advocate celebrated its 40th birthday in West Hollywood last night. Being the last of the Big Four who started The Advocate back in 1967, I was invited to attend ... not by the latest powers that be but by my friend Stuart Timmons, acclaimed author of the tell-all tome Gay L.A.

The Hollywood Cat Lady (a/k/a Jeanne Barney) was similarly snubbed but invited by Stuart to attend as one of the remaining Founding Fathers/Mothers of the gay press movement. She snubbed back and refused to attend. You don't go, girl. For anyone old enough to remember, Jeanne B used to write the advice column, Smoke From Jeanne's Lamp, for the old Advocate.

The hearalded event turned out to be a gathering of the truly fab-boo. For being 40 years old, there were very few people in attendance who who were 40 years old or older. But,.then, maybe I'm the last of the great gay dinosaurs. After all, I was a mere child of 4 when I helped produce the early copies of the Advocate in the basement print shop of ABC TV studios. Cough. Cough.

The Advocate has, indeed, come a long way. In fact, it's come so long a way that Dick Mitch & Bill Rau, the original creators, are probably rolling over in their graves somewhere in the outskirts of Visalia, California. [Note: After their sale of the Advocate to David Goodstein, they bought a ranch outside of Visalia and raised multiplying onions ... really ... no joke here.]

After Dick Mitch was arrested in a bar raid and charged with lewd conduct in the late 1960's, he became a fired-up activist and, with his lover, Bill Rau and friend Sam Allen, they bought the Pride Newsletter and changed the name to The Advocate. Since it was dangerous to be a "pervert" prior to the liberation movement, you didn't use your real name for fear of reprisals, not only from harassment by the LAPD but the ever present possibility of losing your day job, family & friends. Dick Mitch became Dick Michaels, the editor; Bill Rau became Bill Rand; and I became "P.Nutz," jack of many trades. As many of you know I provided the so-called "humor" of the early Advocate in a monthly column titled "Mariposa de la Noche" (Butterfly of the Night). When I look at those columns in my mature years, I shudder. What a flamer I was! [No rebuttals, please].

The defining purpose of the early Advocate was to unite and inform the gay community of what was happening in their closed society. When Goodstein purchased it and took over, it evolved into a glossy fashion/celebrity magazine. Perhaps that is because the main stream media was now covering gay news and there was no particular need for a newspaper/magazine which specialized in such previously regularly occurring stories as bar raids, lewd conduct arrests, pro- and anti- legislation in various halls of government, etc.. So we became fabulous.

On Billy Glover's listserv commenting about the event, he wrote:

My god, I've become that old person in the tribe who passes along history to the children of the tribe.

P.Nutz/Jay Laurence/Aristide de Bitterbitch

And he was extraordinarily passionate about equality and the right of every person to choose. Here's part of an email discussion about gays in the military from January 2010:

The basis of my argument, and I would guess that of most of the folks in this group, is not the argument of "voluntary action," but of something we have all been marching, protesting, and voting for: EQUALITY. Look that word up in your Funkin Wagnalis. You either believe that all people were created equal or you don't. The right to not be fired from your job because of your sexual orientation just as heterosexuals are not fired from their jobs for being straight. The right to formally & contractualy commit to the one you love just as heterosexuals have the right to. The right to live in any neighborhood or to buy a house in any neighborhood you choose. The right to visit your spouse in a hospital and to legally inherit his/her estate. The right to work in any profession you choose: medical, police, fire fighters, teachers .... and, YES, the military if that is what we wish to do. For Republicans to dare say that I have NO right to (fill in the blank) will surely cause the hair to raise on the back of my neck, my eyes to squint angrily, and my nails to protrude in attack mode. To deny me, or anyone else, any right enjoyed by others is simply, and by definition, DISCRIMINATION. If you looked up that word EQUALITY, you will understand what the basis of my argument is all about.

Your humble bete noir ... Lady Aristide de Bitterbitch

Here's an email from December 2007 in which AJ and Billy talked about pre-Stonewall heroes Dorr Legg and Don Slater and "Putting Reagan in his place" after Ronald Reagan's death (my take is here). AJ agreed with Billy Glover's assessment that it might have been harder for the rights of blacks and women to have succeeded - to the extent they are successful now - had they been combined in fighting for a singular cause such as voting. AJ then wrote:

In Science of Mind there is a proverb which says "When an idea's time has come, nothing can stop it." Things just don't happen over night. Eventually, (that is, if Bush & Al Qaeda don't do us in) gay marriage will be a reality.

But it won't "just happen" like a mushroom popping out of the ground. It has taken decades of activism and keeping the issue before the citizens until the majority finally ceases to fear it.

Though many white people may still be racist, they don't raise a stink about having to eat in the same restaurant. That time came and through much struggle and loss of life, etc., the time eventually came to be. When I was in the military over 40 years ago, I was pretty much out to most of my friends ... none of them cared because they liked me and I was no perceivable threat to them. Only once did I encounter an act of violent homophobia and my straight buddies beat him up instead.

I believe there will be a woman president before the country is ready for a black president. A century ago there were only white male senators. Now there are many women senators. Now we have a black senator. I would guess that within 2 decades there will be an openly gay senator. Change evolves slowly ... look how long it took from single-celled amoeba to complex human.

When an idea's time has come, nothing can stop it. We were lucky to see so much [positive] change in our lifetime. We can feel proud that we had so much to do with creating that change.

AJ

Yes. Thank you.

(Crossposted at LGBT POV)


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