ON A RAINY SUNDAY LAST DECEMBER, A CROWD OF NEARLY A thousand people gathered around the corner from Frederick's of Hollywood in front of a bland '60s building. They were there to mark its transformation into something that could have barely been imagined three decades ago, a $7-million center for the gay men and lesbians of Greater Los Angeles. Nowhere else in the country is there an institution quite like it--nothing so big, so rich--dedicated to serving the social-service needs of gay people. A staff of more than 150 oversees everything from a youth shelter to artist-in-residence and mediation programs, serving thousands of clients a month. All the more ironic that the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center had bought this particular building for its new home. For it was here that the agency's founders came 22 years ago to ask the startled bureaucrats of the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status, one of the first such requests ever made in the nation for an explicitly homosexual organization.
Now 1625 N. Hudson Ave. is claimed by gigantic gay pride banners. Impossible to ignore, the center is an apt metaphor for the local gay community, which is asserting itself as never before, defying cherished stereotypes and, in some ways, upstaging the traditional gay power centers of New York and San Francisco.
Whether raising millions of dollars for AIDS in the grip of the worst regional recession since the 1930s, nipping at Hollywood's heels, taking to the streets by the thousands for raucous protests or raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Clinton campaign, the gay men and women of Los Angeles are shaping the national agenda of the gay rights movement and forging a new sense of themselves.
In doing so, they are rattling long-held perceptions that Los Angeles is gay playland and, outside of a handful of people, not to be taken very seriously.
"L.A. to a New York queer was nothing but a great place to visit and party and was considered to be politically off the map," says Peter Staley, a New York City AIDS activist whose group, the Treatment Action Group, is known for installing a giant replica of a condom over the home of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
No more, Staley says. "I think the change has been very dramatic."
These days, no national gay organization would dare ignore Greater Los Angeles. The major groups are establishing offices here, cultivating membership and tripping over themselves to dream up Hollywood fund-raisers.
"I think that Los Angeles is sort of the jewel in the gay and lesbian crown today," says an appreciative Urvashi Vaid, who until recently headed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), a Washington-based lobbying group that broke fund-raising ground with a 1991 dinner that drew unprecedented support from mainstream Hollywood, raising $100,000 for the organization.
Clearly, there has been a lot going on in a place where the typical gay has usually been more interested in developing his pectorals than his political power.
When Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a gay rights bill in 1991, it was Los Angeles, not AIDS-weary San Francisco, that boiled over into weeks of roving street demonstrations. ANGLE (Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality)--a small, exclusive group of L.A's major donors, including David Mixner, an intimate FOB (Friend of Bill)--took the lead in raising the $3.4 million in gay dollars donated to the Clinton campaign nationally, bringing in $1 million on its own. ANGLE and Hollywood mega-mogul David Geffen recently pulled together a national coalition to build support for the President's plan to lift the military ban on homosexuals. And it was Los Angeles to which the gay and lesbian task force turned when it chose Vaid's successor, Torie Osborn, former director of the community services center and the first from the West Coast to head the task force.
The entertainment industry is showering its largess and cachet on AIDS and gay-rights events in a manner unheard of not so many years ago. AIDS Project Los Angeles scooped up nearly $4 million in a single evening of Hollywood glitter last November, one of the most successful AIDS fund-raisers ever. In a town where major filmmakers have persistently ignored AIDS and generally preferred their gay and lesbian characters to be twisted, or at least limp-wristed, Warner Bros. and TriStar Pictures are now bankrolling movies with gay heroes and AIDS themes. Outside of Hollywood, Highways in Santa Monica is a hothouse of politically charged gay performance art, part of a vibrant cultural scene shaped by both the obscure and such nationally known and politically active figures as author Paul Monette, winner of last year's National Book Award for nonfiction.