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Laguna Beach Gay Life Ebbs Away : AIDS: Longtime haven for homosexuals now has the nation's highest rate of the dreaded disease.

COVER STORY: An occasional close-up look at people and places


LAGUNA BEACH — Banking away from the freeways toward the seashore, Laguna Canyon Road fairly sings of the beauty, escape and fun ahead. It skims past a shallow lagoon, then sweeps by towering eucalyptus trees and cattle grazing on hillsides.

The road spills out onto Coast Highway and Main Beach, where on a warm fall day the carefree and the bronzed play volleyball and bask in the sunshine.

In town, beyond the cookie and T-shirt shops, designer boutiques of gold and silk, Marieta Ermatinger, 63, stands in her laundry, The Cleaners, and talks of a side of Laguna that belies this idyllic picture.

It's a world she has come to know through some of her customers. She liked them and knew their names. Much cleaner than your average single male, they turned their socks right side out and paired them. Not even women do that, she said.

Then, all of a sudden, one day, they just didn't show up.

Some had mentioned that they were dying of AIDS and probably wouldn't be bringing in their laundry much longer. On others she recognized the cancerous purple splotches or gauntness that signaled the infections within.

A few were only kids in their 20s. One was a street person who brought in his sleeping bag for cleaning. The last one, a successful real estate agent, went--snap!--just like that, only the week before.

Some people ask her, how can you do their laundry? "I say they need laundry done like anybody else. I'm not sleeping with them for chrissakes."

The laundress dropped her chin into her palms, elbows on the counter. She stared unseeing out the front windows, past the whiz of cars, to the shimmering sea beyond. The scent of bleach lingered in the breeze. "Gosh," she said, shaking her head, "we've lost a lot of guys in this town."

Ten years into the epidemic, the ugly face of AIDS has surfaced in this picturesque community like no other.

Last year, the city's annual rate of new cases was 1.42 per 1,000 people, surpassing the 1.29 rate in San Francisco, the highest among major U.S. cities, according to the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The statistics come as no surprise to those who know that the town is a gay tourist mecca, where an estimated 25% of the 26,000 residents are gay. Since 1985, there have been 184 AIDS cases reported in Laguna Beach; 119 have died.

Yet, unlike San Francisco, AIDS in Laguna Beach remains curiously invisible to outsiders.

"You don't see people (with lesions) in restaurants. People don't talk about it nearly as much, even gay people," said Randy Shilts, author of the AIDS history "And the Band Played On." "It's striking how different it is down here. In some quarters you wouldn't even know it existed."

One reason, he said, is that "the reality of AIDS is so contrary to the Southern California ethos of youth and beauty."

Some also mention both the complex social structure of the town--a molecular arrangement of cliques that intersect occasionally--and the vested interest in denying the epidemic held by a few shopkeepers, arts promoters and closet gays.

"Laguna Beach is an oxymoron," said local writer and arts commissioner David Battenberg, who has lived in town for five years. "It's a creative-liberal-artistic, conservative-Republican community. You have die-hard supporters of radical right-wingers living at the top of the hill and their neighbors are a retired gay couple from Dallas who made a fortune in the design industry.

"Among the gays, there's a hierarchy. At the top there's the landholders, the money people and the executives. At the bottom, the new youth, the wayward boys of summer who hang out across from the gym or on Main Beach. In the middle are the guppies--the gay upwardly mobile--and the art group.

"It's an unusual cross-section. You'd think that would make everyone more understanding. It doesn't. Sometimes it makes them more hostile and closed."

Only by delving beneath the resort's surface, exploring its bars, beaches and living rooms, can one understand the complex fabric of the community, where nearly everyone has been touched by the specter of AIDS.

As early as the 1920s, gays began traveling to Laguna, a popular filming location, as part of the Hollywood movie crowd.

A tourist core developed and announced to the rest of Southern California, "It's OK to be non-traditional and come to this community," said Robert F. Gentry, a city councilman and one of the first openly gay elected officials in the state.

The beatniks, the hippies, the Hare Krishnas all followed.

In the '60s, word spread along a newly formed national underground that gays could vacation safely in Laguna Beach.

In the following decade, while middle-class homeowners were starting to transform the village with condos, Laguna emerged as a destination resort for gays, rivaling Fire Island in New York and Provincetown, Mass.

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