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COLUMN ONE : The 'Gay Camelot' Grows Up : 10 years after West Hollywood became a city, the euphoria has faded. But some say that a place where gays in government are routine shows that progress has been made.

June 27, 1994|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seldom had a new city grabbed the nation's spotlight the way West Hollywood did when it burst to life a decade ago.

Activists heralded a "Gay Camelot," where the city's large homosexual community would show the world that gays could govern as well as protest--and train political leaders for the next chapter of the gay rights struggle.

Reporters from as far as France and Japan captured the tearful and euphoric inauguration of the nation's first gay majority City Council. Stories featuring lesbian Mayor Valerie Terrigno ran in Asheville, N.C., and Ardmore, Okla.

"I still get chills from it," said Karen Ocamb, a lesbian writer who moved to West Hollywood in time to join the cityhood campaign. "It was like a social revolution. We were going to do all these wonderful things for all the people. Anything seemed possible."

Has Camelot lost its luster?

These days, as West Hollywood marks its 10th birthday, the only cameras at council sessions are from the local government cable channel. Some activists complain that gay residents have become complacent, that they care more about exercising their biceps than their clout as a potential voting bloc--about one-third of the city's 36,000 residents.

AIDS has wiped out potential leaders and plunged the community and City Hall into the grim work of keeping young people alive. And gay and lesbian issues seldom come up in local campaigns anymore--unthinkable to some a decade ago.

"The idea that West Hollywood would be a boot camp and training ground for gays and lesbians--that hasn't happened," said Councilman Steve Martin, who in April became the first new openly gay council member elected since cityhood was achieved. "Politically, it hasn't lived up."

A closer look, however, reveals that West Hollywood's gay revolution is very much alive, though in a far less flashy form than in the days after cityhood was achieved.

Gays and lesbians are represented throughout City Hall and on every city commission, including one credited with improving the uneasy relations between the gay community and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The city's benefits program for its workers' unmarried partners has become a model for communities across the country.

This success in nuts-and-bolts governing has made West Hollywood a national pioneer, many activists say. At a time when homosexuals elsewhere are taking to the streets seeking legal recognition, in West Hollywood they are making the laws--even the boring ones. That is an important new phase of the gay revolution, which this summer marks its 25th anniversary: In 1969, gays rioted after a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar.

"It's a little bit like falling in love and then living your life," said Virginia Apuzzo, a national gay rights leader and state housing official in New York. "There's the moment of revolution--the media and the lights. . . . Then there is the most important element of change. And that is the institutionalization of change."

West Hollywood is the undisputed center of gay life in Los Angeles, replacing Hollywood and, earlier, Downtown. Even on weeknights, the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard called Boys' Town pulses with club-hoppers and boasts dozens of bookstores, coffeehouses, health clubs and other businesses that are gay-owned or cater mainly to homosexuals. The city also hosts the region's annual Gay Pride festival.

By day, the sidewalks reflect another, older face. One in five residents is at least 65. Many are Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union. Organized by the city's dominant rent-control group, seniors are arguably the most potent political force in town and were crucial to the success of the cityhood vote.

The mostly amiable mix of gays and seniors has created a politics of tolerance. Straight politicians strongly advocate gay rights--and most any other cause with a liberal stamp. West Hollywood was the first city in the country to make Yom Kippur a legal holiday, and one of the first to avoid investing in South Africa and to enact a parental leave ordinance. It is probably the only place where a council meeting would open with men vamping to Madonna's "Vogue" in drag.

"It's not just gays," said Robert Craig, who publishes a gay magazine here and coined the term "Gay Camelot" during the cityhood campaign. "This is a human rights city."

It wasn't always so. The two-square-mile area, once a trolley town better known for being on the wrong side of the tracks from Beverly Hills, began developing into a major gay settlement in the 1960s. Homosexuals had earlier gathered mostly in bars in Silver Lake and Hollywood, but an increasingly aggressive policy of raids by the Los Angeles Police Department was landing even well-heeled community members in jail. Gays found refuge in an unincorporated pocket of the county just to the west, a sort of no man's land where hippies grooved to the emerging rock scene on the Sunset Strip and the sheriff seemed to care little if men danced with men.

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