In His Fight for the Equality of Others, Activist & Risk-Taker John Duran Found Himself
By Dann Dulin
Photography by Samuel Lippke
“Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future” —Oscar Wilde (playwright, 1854-1900)
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”—Reinhold Niebuhr (American theologian, 1892–1971)
Like glue, John Duran bonds to these words. The former mayor of West Hollywood (WeHo), California (he served four terms in seventeen years), Duran was diagnosed with HIV in 1994, and today he remains one of the few HIV-positive elected officials. For nearly twenty years John has been undetectable.
Feeling “different” during childhood, Duran, sixty, was raised in a lower middle class Latino family, along with three other siblings, in East Los Angeles. Spending many days alone, he had time to figure out how he fit in the world. First it was through fantasy and daydreaming, then singing, dancing, and acting. Later he found the “irony and insanity” of this world and captured its humor! Early on, he found being gay was a burden. Now John considers it a gift.
Like many who were coming of age in the late seventies, nights were brimming with social bar hopping, trolling towel-clad in bathhouses, and of course, tripping the light fantastic. It was decadent and delicious.
John Duran was like any typical teen or twenty-something. He danced up a disco storm at the iconic celebrity-infested Studio One in West Hollywood, where on certain nights you might be grinding next to one-name celebs like Mick, Liza, Wilt, and Cher——and sometimes even Barbra Streisand, with her kid sister Roslyn Kind [A&U, April 2006].
Many nights would find John boogying down to such hits as Alicia Bridges’ “I Love The Nightlife,” “More, More, More” by Andrea True Connection or Barry White’s “Love‘s Theme.” The frolicking-fueled nights whisked by, but John had no idea what was looming for him on the horizon.
Having first read about AIDS (in those days it was called GRID, gay-related immune deficiency) in The Advocate, a national gay newsmagazine, John didn’t think much about it. However, a couple of years later he decided to enter a UCLA Men’s Study. While in the study, he was negative for nearly ten years; then they discovered he seroconverted. John confronted the diagnosis by abusing alcohol and drugs. In 1996, with the help of AA, he got clean. Since November 5, 1996, Duran has been sober. Today, he still attends meetings.
In the eighties, John became a lawyer and established his own practice, The Duran Law Group in West Hollywood. Over the years, he’s represented more than a thousand clients living with HIV. On the personal end, Duran has lost over 100 friends to the epidemic. And he suffers from survivor’s guilt.
Through the years, John has established several organizations. He co-founded LIFE AIDS Lobby (established in 1985 to ensure full representation in the state Capitol for AIDS and LGBTQ), ANGLE (Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality), Equality California, and he secured the site for the West Hollywood Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center. John also created a series of crystal meth meetings, which has served as a template for other communities.
Duran served as legal counsel for ACT UP. In Kolcum v. Los Angeles County, he successfully sued Los Angeles County for denying HIV meds to inmates, and John was trial lawyer for the Los Angeles Needle Exchange Program.
Recently, Duran finished serving his three-year term as National Chairman of the NALEO Educational Fund (National Association of Latino Elected Officials), one of the largest Latino organizations in the U.S., representing 6,000 Latino elected officials and their constituencies. He also hosts a weekly national radio show on Channel Q called Sidebar With John Duran, which broadcasts in twenty-eight cities, as well as online. The show includes interviews and discussions about legal, political, health, and cultural topics for the LGBTQ community and its allies. It broadcasts every Friday from 10 a.m.–12 noon PST.
The activist has participated in AIDS Walks, and has biked in several AIDS Life/Cycles. Being on the frontlines of the epidemic, the prolific doer is currently writing a musical about the story of AIDS in Southern California and the heroism of the women and men who responded to it. It’s scheduled to premiere in Hollywood in the fall of 2020. “New York and San Francisco have told their stories about Stonewall and Harvey Milk. Los Angeles has its story too! I’m going to tell it.”
Duran has been compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger, perhaps because of his bulky toned body, and even to Bob Hope, due to his ski slope nose. “Both of these guys are Republicans!” scoffs John. “Obviously, we don’t share the same politics!”
The shoot-from-the-hip liberal possesses an eternal boyhood charm, and has the looks of a matinee idol. His splashy-spicy magnetism and cool fresh suaveness brings to mind Mark Ruffalo morphed with George Clooney.
Duran lives off the famous Sunset Strip in WeHo with his partner of twenty years, Mark Morris (“Kurt Young,” a former gay porn actor), and their two Jack Russell terriers, Dakota and Harley. When life gets a little tough nowadays, John turns to the The Golden Girls for relief! Or, he may pop in a DVD of his favorite childhood sitcom, Bewitched.
Dann Dulin: Bewitched! Next to I Love Lucy, it’s my ultimate favorite as well, John.
John Duran: [He laughs in a frenzy of hiccups.] I liked believing that I had magical powers just like Samantha. Twitch your nose and poof, you disappear! [He scrunches his nose imitating Sam, then pauses.] And of course, the bottom line of the story was about a misunderstood minority who had to hide from mortals while they lived in a colorful world they created.
Living with a stigma. Hmmm, sounds vaguely familiar….
It was a real treat when I got to meet Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick Sargent [who played the married couple, Samantha and Darrin Stephens)] They were both heavily involved in the fight against AIDS!
I do know that. Dick Sargent, the other actor who played Darrin, was the very first person I ever interviewed! What a gentleman he was. So sad they are both gone now. Has any “good” come from the AIDS epidemic for the gay community?
It was a heavy price the LGBTQ community paid for equality and freedom. Prior to AIDS, the path seemed so distant and unreachable. But then AIDS hit. It forced so many out of closets. Forced us to organize, to fundraise, to strategize, to create a unified people battling a plague. [He’s revved, choosing his words carefully.] I always tell young people there would be no “wedding cakes” today had we not paid the heavy price of sweat, blood, and tears in the epidemic.
Indeed, that’s the damn truth. Comment on HIV and youth today.
Young people are doing the same thing today that we did when I was young in the eighties——drinking, hooking up, meeting, and having sex. I don’t think that has ever changed. Sexual experimentation and clubbing are a natural fit for young people in their twenties, no matter what decade it is. What makes it difficult today is that there are now two generations of young people——millennials and Generation Z——who have never seen pneumocystis, toxoplasmosis, CMV retinitis, wasting syndrome or any of the other parts of the horror show we witnessed in the 1980’s.
And you know what? That’s okay by me! I wouldn’t wish that scenario on any generation of people again. I think the imagery of the boy whistling in the dark demonstrates the invulnerability that youth feels in general. I felt it. I felt I was immortal. I was young, strong, and full of hope and vitality.
That’s what youth’s about. We were superheroes!
I think the most powerful tool we can give young people is education about sex, drug use, STD/STI prevention, and unwanted pregnancy.
Information is golden, John. Explain how you acquired HIV.
I was in the UCLA Men’s Study, and had been negative for almost ten years, and then tissue from a lymph node was removed from my body and within one week of that procedure, I was hospitalized with pneumonia and thrush. At the time I was HIV-negative, but I had opportunistic infections! [He shakes his head and then moves it in a circle.] Everyone was puzzled and confused. Turns out that I seroconverted while the lymphatic procedure was done. Not sure whether the procedure triggered the seroconversion or whether it was coincidental. But weeks of blood labs and tests monitored my body as it went from HIV-negative to HIV-positive. Lots of doctors and scientists were watching and learning that the moment HIV enters the body, the immune system kicks into high gear with T cells engaged and battling!
What a head-trip you must have gone through!
Well, my diagnosis was quite a public event. My parents, family, and boyfriend were all there when I was HIV-negative and had pneumonia. I was in that bed for two weeks, so everyone found out the same time that I did. I never had to go through the trauma of how to tell people one at a time. Word spread very quickly. I was a bit more concerned about how my parents and friends were processing the news, so I didn’t have much time for my own head-trip.
Back in those times, AZT was the only drug available, which turned out to be quite toxic.
It was awful. Awful! [There’s a lull of conversation.] Now I am on a cocktail like everyone else.
What do you do to maintain your health today?
I have two personal trainers at the gym who have no mercy. My straight trainer makes me lift heavy [weights] to build muscle. My gay trainer pays attention to the “curves” in all the right places. [He giggles, feathering through his thick thatch of silver-streaked mane.] And of course I eat healthy and avoid all the bad foods, except for Dr. Pepper——my only weakness.
Was there a single moment of revelation that made you get sober?
Yes. Ironically, it was election night 1996. President Bill Clinton had just been re-elected to office and Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. I was in line to order the first of many “Tanqueray and tonics” like I did every night. But watching the election television coverage, I had a moment when I realized that Clinton and Gingrich were continuing to play political football with my community. I saw that I wasn’t being helpful [to my community]. I was just being tired, drunk, and hung-over. I figured with whatever time I had left, I wanted it to be useful. This meant that I stop drinking and using.
Good for you. You’ve lost many friends to this ghastly disease. How have you coped?
I haven’t. They are still fresh in my mind today. I loved them, and that love continues. I do believe that those of us who walked through the epidemic and survived have PTSD.
How could we not, huh?! There was so much loss.
I once asked a Holocaust survivor how she coped with all the deaths in her family. She wisely replied: “I didn’t reconcile. I loved them and miss them and will always remember them. I keep them alive by refusing to reconcile.” I thought that was great wisdom. I kept thinking I needed to “let it go” or “move on.” No. I hold them eternally.
Great advice. Being at death’s door one time, what did you learn from that encounter?
I was hospitalized a few times in the late nineties and was told to get my affairs in order. I am one of the “Lazarus Survivors” who came back from death’s door. [He pauses.] I don’t fear death. I do fear not living life fully.
Of course, I had witnessed so many friends who were dying at this same time, and some accepted death gracefully, and passed. Others raged with anger and defiance against death, but they also passed. So it seemed to me that my response to dying or death wasn’t really relevant.
So how did you deal with “…the time would come?”
By using the “one-day-at-a-time” [approach] from my 12-step program, I was grateful to just wake up in the morning. I would plan my day, monitor my progress, and at night, evaluate how I spent my time that day. Was it in a place of love and giving, or was it in a place of anger and resentment? Either option wasn’t going to travel with me through death’s door. But what mattered [to me] is what I left behind and how I made others feel. Just like I remember those friends who passed who looked me in the eye and said, “John. I love you.” I received it. Knew it, and said it back. That is what I remember to this day.
How lovely, John. Where did the roots of your activism develop?
My mother planted the seed. She’s a passionate Latina who was involved with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. She helped organize our neighborhood to build parks and recreation centers and fight off gang influence. She was my Cub Scout Den Mother and biggest cheerleader when I played right field during Little League Baseball——I sucked.
[John takes a beat.] When my first friend died from AIDS in 1985, I was ignited. Being an AIDS activist in the 1980s meant being fueled by anger, death, hospital rooms, tears, and loss. I think those of us that served in that time period was forged in fire. It gave us a reason for living and fighting. I went from being a shirtless dancer on the bass speaker at the Boom Boom Room in Laguna Beach to someone who would dine at the White House——and later get arrested at the White House. [After raising over $1 million for Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 1991, John was invited to a reception at the historical residence. A couple of years later, picketing there in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he was arrested.)]
[John takes a stern inhale.] The point being, that if this drunk barfly could sober up and do good——anyone can do great things with the guidance of mentors, the desire to matter, and the willingness to be courageous in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Your words are powerful. Who do you consider a hero in the epidemic?
[Duran robustly states unequivocally] Lesbians. Prior to AIDS, lesbians and gay men had separate communities of interest. We had absolutely no use for one another. AIDS changed that separateness. Lesbians are the segment of the population least likely to be infected with HIV. Yet, they responded to the call. They organized with gay men and straight allies. They held positions of leadership and fought hard for their gay brothers and for others infected with HIV. And they did it selflessly.
I have learned so much from my closest friends who are lesbians in the fight against AIDS, like attorney Diane Abbitt, journalist Karen Ocamb, Rabbi Denise Eger, and Lorri Jean at the LGBTQ Center. Gay men should feel deeply indebted to them for the sacrifices they made and for the role they played during the most awful period in our history.
I’m so glad you brought that up. It really should be mentioned more often.
I am so glad I was born at this time and place to be part of what we have created.
You’ve certainly accomplished a lot, thus far, in your life. I hope you’re not finished yet! [He winks and beams passionately.] What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Hmmmm, it’s been quite a journey so far. I have worked with some of the greatest people to accomplish amazing things. But at the end of the day, what means the most to me are the enduring friendships that I have. My loved ones matter to me.
Like who, John?
My high school girlfriends who went to my first gay bars with me. The friends I made at Disneyland during my college years who would go on to become LGBTQ advocates as straight allies; my friends who worked together in the trenches during the AIDS epidemic, being eyewitnesses to great tragedy and triumph; my friends in law and politics who wanted to change the world as much as I did and created organizations to win equality through the legislatures, courts, and the ballot boxes; my friends in the sober community who struggle one day at a time to stay sober and do good; and my biological and chosen family who love me.
[Lowering his head, as if bowing in gratitude, John speaks in a reverent rhythm.] When we gather, we can look each other in the eye and share deep emotional connections——without speaking a word. [With nary a bat of an eyelid and a boastful satisfied smile, John ends] ….That’s an accomplishment!
John Duran was interviewed for and appears in a new documentary, STUDIO ONE, which focuses on a club that was L.A.’s answer to Studio 54. Checkout the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OX3M-bODYk&feature=emb_title
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.