I am a native Angeleno. I joke with friends that I "did time" in the OC for more than 10 years. It felt like that at times.
I moved to Orange County in 1978 to work on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. I left the evils of LA city life, hoping the park's clean-cut, all-American kids would save my soul. I didn't realize there were hundreds of gay people there. Within three months of my arrival, I was dating Peter Pan! True story! And yes, Disneyland did save my soul—just not the way I predicted.
I volunteered to work on the hot line at the one-room-with-three-telephones Center OC when it was in Garden Grove. The gay bars in the county had no windows, thus hiding those of us inside from public inspection. There were no serious gay organizations back then other than the Center and the Metropolitan Community Church. The gay bars were the venues where we found one another: the DOK West, Newport Station, Little Shrimp and the Boom Boom Room in Laguna Beach.
AIDS changed everything, forcing us out of the shadows and into the medical establishment, politics and corporate life. I became a law clerk for attorneys Marjorie Rushforth and Georgia Garrett-Norris. One of the first major AIDS cases in the nation involved an Irvine schoolteacher named Vincent Chalk who was evicted from his classroom because he was HIV-positive. In federal court, we got him returned to his classroom.
Orange County politics were rough. The local GOP had some of the most notorious homophobes in the nation: congressmen Bill Dannemeyer and Bob Dornan and state Senator John Briggs. The gay community had to fight ballot initiatives sponsored by these demagogues, including propositions 6 (or the Briggs Initiative) and 102 (a.k.a. the Dannemeyer quarantine initiative). We fought back and won.
There were elected officials who were heroes and helped us in these early years. Moderate GOP members such as state senators John Seymour and Marian Bergeson and supervisors Harriett Weider and Tom Riley. There were also moderate Democrats who cast difficult votes to help us, including state Senator Cecil Green and Assemblyman Tom Umberg. However, we lost so many leaders during the epidemic. Many of the board members of gay organizations such as ASF (AIDS Services Foundation of OC) and the Center died. These incredible men lost—Dr. Don Hagan, Dr. Drew Barras, Mark Koupal, Werner Kuhn, Richard Reinsch, Dennis Cabaret, Kirk Linville, Frank Newman, just to name a few of the thousands.
With Lisa Kaye, Rachel Pena, Marty Schrank, Scott Westerfield, Michael Feldman and Hung Fan, I started the first Democratic club in the county for LGBT people: the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club. It was challenging to be a Democrat in Orange County until we helped get Umberg elected to the Assembly. In 1991, he cast the winning 41st vote to pass Assembly Bill 101, the employment non-discrimination bill.
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I started my own law practice in OC. Over a three-year period, my law partners, Joel Loquvam and Tom Kendricks, and I witnessed more than 1,000 deaths because of AIDS. We represented the county's first Pride festival, Orange County Cultural Pride at Centennial Park in Santa Ana. A parade was held, and protesters on both sides of the issue were arrested during a squabble with the city's police department. I also represented members of ACT UP and the Orange County Visibility League who were arrested for protesting at a speech given by Dannemeyer in which he claimed people with AIDS emitted "spores" that could harbor the virus. What a nut case! The protesters were acquitted at trial.
Someone plastered a swastika on my office door. My back porch in Santa Ana was mysteriously set on fire. I had a file drawer filled with hate mail. These events, coupled with all of the human loss to AIDS, was too much to bear at times. But I met such strong and courageous people, people whom I still count among my friends.
I left OC in 1990, and today, I enjoy life in West Hollywood, serving in public office, practicing law on the Sunset Strip, and leading statewide and national LGBT efforts. But I attribute my inner strength and tenacity to those trying times "behind the Orange Curtain," when I cut my political teeth. Those relationships with lesbians, gay men and straight allies in Orange County taught me what politics is all about, how to fight, how to lose with dignity and how to win with grace!
Is it better? You betcha!