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Room for Change

TO reach its full potential, the Gay & Lesbian Center in L.A. needs to offer both personal services and political change, says its new director.

August 03, 1999|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Shore, co-chair of the center's board of directors, says, "This is a major organization with lots of things happening all the time. When we hired Gwenn, we were looking for someone with management skills who was also very plugged in to the issues. She has a wonderfully positive outlook, and even when things around her aren't always going well, she turns them around and reminds people of the track that we're on."

From 1971 to 1988, the Gay & Lesbian Center was led by a series of male directors. Since 1988, three women have held the job. That history reflects the sad fact that women have assumed more power in gay and lesbian organizations as AIDS has devastated the ranks of gay men.

The L.A. center was the first local organization to offer medical care to people with HIV and AIDS. Today, its disease-related efforts focus on AIDS education and prevention, and operation of an AIDS Clinic and a youth HIV clinic. Six years ago, the center inaugurated the California AIDS Ride, a bicycle trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles that raises funds and awareness. This year, 3,000 people participated, and the ride grossed $11.2 million, to be used to support HIV and AIDS services.

"AIDS continues to impact our community tremendously," Baldwin says. "In the past, people were, in huge numbers, dying of AIDS. They're living with AIDS now. That presents a whole new host of challenges that we have to address, such as returning to the workplace, having to deal with finances for a longer time."

The need for money to support medical research hasn't disappeared either.

Some of the center's services have become even more essential, precisely because people with AIDS are living longer. Now, a lot of money goes to providing drugs and the health care and mental health services for the people whose lives medications are prolonging.

Although gays are not the only group affected by AIDS, when the disease ripped through the homosexual community, it dragged fear and hate in its wake.

"Any time there's a panic, you're more likely to see broad, sweeping labeling," Baldwin explains. "AIDS certainly gave some people a handy tool with which to beat gays and lesbians about the head. But the real enemy is fear and ignorance."

Baldwin recognizes that her personal exposure to discrimination has been limited. She moved from Ohio, where she was born and her father was the mayor of Waite Hill, population 550, to Maine, to attend Bowdoin College. After graduation she went to Washington, D.C. Volunteering for the National Women's Political Caucus led to a job in the office of an Ohio congressman in the early '80s. Political work in Colorado and Oregon followed.

She was 34 and married when she fell in love with a woman. She now lives near Hancock Park with Jean Harris, who is executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, an organization that works for political change.

"Coming out was certainly the hardest thing I've had to do," she says. "I was very confident and comfortable with who I was. I was very much in love, and I had great faith that my family would not reject me. But there's always that last question in your mind before the words leave your mouth. I did lose some friends."

"If I had, in fact, lost my job," she adds, "I had more resources as an adult than somebody who is 15 who is kicked out of their house, abandoned by their religion and harassed daily at school."

Young people have been some of the greatest beneficiaries of the center's expansion. It operates a 24-bed residential shelter and a drop-in storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood that caters mostly to runaway and throwaway youths. Another education and outreach facility, on McCadden Place, is called the Village.

"There are 11 centers around the country that serve the health and social needs of gays and lesbians," says Eileen Durkin, executive director of the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago. "Of those, the L.A. center is, at least in terms of budget, by far the largest. Their financial resources allow them to serve a broad cross-section of the community. They do a terrific job."

Yet the need for the center's help never seems to diminish. California sunshine and the myth of Hollywood's glamour continue to attract troubled teenagers.

As Baldwin thinks of the lost and abused children whom the center gives food, clothing and counseling, Baldwin doesn't allow herself so much as a sigh.

"You can get completely paralyzed by the people who you're not able to serve," she says. "And yet, you have to do as much as you possibly can."

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Mimi Avins can be reached at mimi.avins@latimes.com.

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