Young City at War
The Lavender Effect documents the early days of HIV/AIDS in West Hollywood
by Stevie St. John
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]ncorporated in 1984, Southern California LGBT enclave West Hollywood was a new city as the community faced the earliest, most devastating days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And LGBT people—marginalized, criminalized, and largely despised—united to care for the sick, to fight the scourge of the virus, and to propel forward the LGBT civil rights movement.
The Lavender Effect, a culturally and historically oriented nonprofit that aims to eventually establish a museum and cultural center in Hollywood, is releasing a series of video interviews that document the memories of people who played a role in the fight against the disease. Among those featured is John Duran, a West Hollywood City Councilmember and a longtime HIV/AIDS activist.
“It is not possible to put into words the trauma and devastation experienced by our community during the period from 1980–1995. We lost 10,000 souls in West Hollywood and our surrounding zip codes during that period of time,” Duran said. “That is the equivalent of having multiple bombs dropped on a small town where everyone lost someone they knew and loved. You would think that since it has been twenty years since the arrival of protease inhibitors that the pain has passed. It has not. It is buried just below the quickly closed scars that sewed onto ourselves to protect us from the trauma. But we now have a generation of community people walking the streets of West Hollywood with PTSD from this era.
“This project is the beginning of opening the scars and letting the pain out so that we can continue to heal. The city has also launched the construction of an AIDS monument in West Hollywood Park to not only memorialize the dead but to recognize the heroic efforts of the women and men who responded to the worst plague in our nation’s history.”
The Young City at War videos expand on the Lavender Effect’s previous Oral History Project videos—recorded starting in 2012—that record the stories of prominent LGBT and allied people who have played roles in LGBT history.
Andy Sacher, founding executive and creative director of the Lavender Effect, noted that there is a “sense of urgency” in recording these “interviews with pioneers,” as many document the memories of elders who will not be here to educate future generations. Sacher said that he grew up in a Jewish family and learned early on “how valuable it is for us to document history and to have it told firsthand from the people who lived it.” As part of the project, Sacher said, the organization chose some key content areas, including the community facing the “invisible enemy” of AIDS.
“Essentially we did not know what it was. Men were dying. They were shriveling up….Many men had these purple blotches all over their bodies….Their immune systems were just destroyed,” Sacher said of the early days of the epidemic.
The Oral History Project, which began with general LGBT activism stories, has expanded to include a round with an “intense focus” on West Hollywood and surrounding areas.
On World AIDS Day 2015, the Lavender Effect starting rolling out the Young City at War Oral History Project videos. The Young City at War project received a $10,000 grant from California Humanities, matched by a $10,000 grant from the city of West Hollywood. The organization also accepts donations to support the project on its website. At press time, the Young City at War webpage featured video interviews with eight people. They recalled the early days of AIDS and addressed topics such as homophobia, community activism, public policy, and the pain of losing loved ones and seeing the community decimated.
The Young City at War videos share a similar theme, but each subject often touched on different issues.
Some commented on painful goodbyes endured.
For example, Michael Weinstein, president and CEO of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, shares: “On the weekends, you were going from one hospital to another, and there were memorials constantly. And it seemed like supporting people you knew became…almost like a full-time occupation….You had no idea where it was going to strike and when it was going to strike and who it was going to strike.”
And here is Ivy Bottini, activist in the feminist and LGBT movements, commenting on her experience: “Every day, myself and everybody else in the community would get up and see death again, every day, and see men falling by the wayside getting sick, and we felt so helpless. We didn’t know how to stop it….We learned some really good lessons. We learned that we cannot walk this alone. Men and women have to work together—they have to. We also learned that there are allies out there. That there are people who understand, who believe that we’re born as we are. And we learned that you can’t just win things with just grassroots or just money. You’ve got to have both. I think the biggest thing we learned was that we can take care of ourselves if we have to.”
Other interviewees remarked about the hatred and homophobia of the era.
[quote_center]”We were the community they loved to hate…and AIDS gave them the perfect excuse….It was killing young men at the prime of their lives.”—Torie Osborn[/quote_center]Torie Osborn, former director of the LGBT center in Los Angeles and the National Lesbian & Gay Task Force, states: “We were the community they loved to hate…and AIDS gave them the perfect excuse….It was killing young men at the prime of their lives.”
Alison Arngrim [A&U, March 2002], a longtime AIDS advocate and actress who played Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie, recalls finding out that her friend and former costar Steve Tracy was dying and her subsequent AIDS activism: “I learned how suddenly you can just find out that you’re not going to live anymore and how quickly people can be gone and just die. I learned how horrible people can be—the people who burned down the houses with the children…the people who…threw families with children with HIV out of school and out of churches and out of their homes.”
And Dr. Michael Gottlieb, the physician who described AIDS as a new disease, bemoans the apathy of the era: “There was little happening in the way of a public response. You were swimming upstream. There was a lot of reluctance to do anything…I was shocked by the fact that gay people were so poorly regarded, that there wasn’t a concerted effort to get to the bottom of this….In 1984, I was asked to see a celebrity patient, Rock Hudson, and determined, in fact, that he did have AIDS ….I always knew his case had the potential to be some kind of turning point.”
In the end, as some of interview subjects remind, a community had been mobilized.
John Heilman, West Hollywood City Councilmember, states: “Everyone was walking around scared, but we had to go on….There was really a groundswell of activism….It really was the best of the community all coming together—not all agreeing but all doing something to address the problem….I don’t know how I got through it; I don’t know how any of us got through it—but we had to.”
John Duran, West Hollywood City Councilmember, also remembers the challenges of encouraging an appropriate response to the epidemic: “We learned the hard way how to organize, how to raise money, how to gather ourselves together, and you have to remember at the same time we were doing that, we had friends that were dropping left and right.”
Karen Ocamb, LGBT community journalist, bears witness to a shared empowerment: “The thing we can be most proud of is how we reacted to each other, how we embraced each other—being in the spiritual vanguard. Government and religion and in many cases our own families turned their backs on us, shunned us—said we were going to hell, said we were evil, said we were no good, said we should be ashamed of ourselves. You know, we stopped and we stood up, and we held our dying to our breasts and we said, ‘I love you. I love you. And you are a worthy person, and you are worthy of dignity. We belong here. We have a right here, and ours is a movement of love.’ … And what people… need to understand is that all our dead friends live still within us. We promised never to forget, and we won’t.”
Andy Sacher noted that the organization would like to expand in the future to include additional Young City at War interviews.
“This really does feel like just the beginning,” he said.
Log on to: www.thelavendereffect.org for more information. The nonprofit’s Oral History Project videos: www.thelavendereffect.org/projects/ohp; Young City at War videos: www.thelavendereffect.org/projects/ycaw.
Stevie St. John is an assistant editor at Brief Media, a veterinary medical publishing company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her byline has appeared in many LGBT publications.