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A Movement Sees Its Leaders Fall : Ravages of AIDS Force Gays to Shift Priorities

January 11, 1988|DAVID DEVOSS | Times Staff Writer

Eight years ago, Los Angeles County Human Relations commissioner Morris Kight vowed never to forget his fallen friends. After each death, he planted a tree in back of his McCadden Place home in Hollywood. He dedicated a flowering eucalyptus to the memory of Truman Capote. A magnolia marked the passing of Tennessee Williams. Today, his small garden has become a veritable forest in which 22 trees battle for sunlight.

Cried Behind His Arboretum

When yet another acquaintance of long standing, Sheldon Andelson, died two weeks ago from the effects of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Kight, 68, walked out to his arboretum and quietly began to cry.

"A brother is dead and I've run out of land," he said with a sigh. "Perhaps I can find space for a vine. Shelly deserves so much more."

For more than a decade, Andelson was the oak around which the city's emerging gay and lesbian community sought shelter. A successful lawyer and businessman whose friendship with former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown lead to his appointment as a University of California regent in 1981, Andelson was one of the first civic leaders to openly acknowledge his homosexuality.

In 1971 he helped found the Gay Community Service Center; he organized opposition to a 1978 initiative that would have prohibited homosexuals from teaching in public schools, and in subsequent years he became a major political fund-raiser whose contacts spanned the gulf between Hollywood Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Though his wealth helped finance a variety of gay-oriented support organizations, his primary value to Los Angeles' gay community was that of facilitator. His Bel-Air home was neutral ground where politicians from Washington, Sacramento judges, even local police, could informally meet gay leaders to exchange views on pressing problems and pending legislation.

In the gay and lesbian community, Andelson's visibility was regarded as a major victory, if only because it showed that it was possible to readily accept gay rights issues and still maintain one's professional standing in Southern California. Politicians found him an invaluable conduit to a rapidly organizing block of voters of undetermined size and political orientation.

"People who make political contributions are the ones who end up sitting next to the mayor and police chief," says Peter Scott, 49, founder of the Municipal Election Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), a gay-oriented political lobby. "That's the way the system works. We all went to his home and wrote big checks to ensure Shelly retained his visibility, since his influence was a measure of the gay movement's access to established political leaders."

Many of the politicians who courted Andelson, and were in turn befriended, were conspicuous at his Sunday memorial at UCLA's Royce Hall. But not even the emotion generated from testimonials by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Rand Schrader, and Andelson's brothers, Sherman and Arlen, could entirely overcome the concern of those mourners whose strength was diminished by complications of AIDS.

In his eulogy, Schrader touched on this concern: "Sheldon's fate was to die of this plague that is taking the lives of a generation. Some fear that the civil rights gains of gays and lesbians will be a victim of AIDS as well. During Sheldon's illness and at his death, I felt this despair. Will we lose our freedoms as we lose our friends and lovers?"

The degree to which AIDS has crippled the gay-lesbian movement is arguable. To a varying degree the disease has thinned the ranks of gay political leaders throughout the country. "Of my 15 closest friends, 12 have tested positive for AIDS," says David Mixner, the Los Angeles gay leader and peace activist who organized the abortive 1986 Great Peace March for global nuclear disarmament. "Over the past 2 1/2 years 70 close friends between the ages of 35 to 45 have died."

For Mixner, the AIDS plague has reinforced his determination to achieve political equality for the gay-lesbian community. "Once AIDS becomes the main priority in your life, you work 10 times harder educating people," he explains. "That's why a movement that once thought itself lucky to raise $500,000 now collects between $10 (million) to $20 million a year."

Money, however, does not always determine the fate of gay politicians. Peter Scott had organized a support group and was accepting contributions when a pernicious form of pneumonia common to AIDS victims shattered his presumptive campaign for the California Assembly's 46th district. "My first reaction--sheer terror--turned to anger by the time I left the hospital," he remembers. "AZT had prolonged my life, but now I knew elective politics was not the answer."

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