On the evening of Sunday, September 29, 1991, the streets of West Hollywood erupted with fury. Hundreds, then thousands of people took to the streets, shouting, chanting, waving banners and signs, burning flags. For the next three weeks Santa Monica Boulevard was venue for nearly nightly raucous demonstrations that were unrivaled since the end of the Vietnam War, giving birth to a new generation of activists.
It was a moment of spontaneous outrage that shaped the lives of countless people and re-energized a community that was numb from the devastation of the AIDS Pandemic. While demonstrations rocked California from San Francisco to San Diego, West Hollywood was the epicenter of what became a Renaissance of LGBTQ activism. t
In some ways the origins of the AB 101 demonstrations arose from our complacency. The Life Lobby, the State lobbying organization, had been working for years to enact protections for gays and lesbians in the workplace. The bill passed both houses of the legislature and we were confident that Gov. Pete Wilson, a moderate Republican, would sign the bill into law. Indeed John Duran, the Life Lobby co-chair, was in the room when Wilson had assured activists he would sign the bill.
But Wilson, like many California governors, harbored presidential ambitions. After AB 101 landed on his desk it occurred to Wilson signing a bill that banned employment discrimination against lesbians and gay men was not going to help his further in the Republican Party.
As we waited, ACT UP and Queer Nation set up an encampment at Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. Wayne Karr, Rob Roberts and others announced they were camping out and going on a hunger strike until Wilson signed the bill.
I had just succeeded Ivy Bottini as president of Stonewall Democratic Club. In those days the Club was far more into street activism than it is today. We volunteered to help provide security for the hunger strikers, staying up all night to insure the encampment was not rousted by the Sheriff’s Department.
On Saturday I had spent the night at the encampment and I remember hanging out on Sunday with John Duran and other activists. There was a rumor that Wilson would issue his veto notice that afternoon in hopes that it would not get picked up immediately by the media.
When we got the word of veto in the late afternoon. We all felt betrayed and outraged. We agreed we would march from the encampment to San Vicente and block that intersection.
Morris Kight gathered us together and we agreed to alert our various organizations and return at 5:00 p.m. I vividly recall we broke up as Morris defiantly shouted “mobilize your phone trees!”, which now seems hopelessly quaint as we didn’t have access to the Internet or Twitter.
When I returned there were maybe 30 people at the Crescent Heights encampment. As our plan was to walk down the center of Santa Monica Boulevard and block traffic, we waited a bit even though Rob Roberts and others were anxious to get marching. We were only about fifty people when we started marching westward. It did not look promising.
When we got to the Gold Coast, people came out and applauded. Sooner people lined the streets to cheer us on.
As we went further people came running down the side streets from their apartments to join us. But by the time we hit La Cienega we were at least a hundred strong.
As we marched past 24 Hour Fitness, the windows along the second floor were lined with people watching us. By the time we passed the entrance, scores of people were streaming out of the gym into the streets. Suddenly people were cascading out of bars and restaurants; by the time we hit San Vicente there were at least 500 in the street. Soon there were over 1,000.
Tory Osborne, the Executive Director from the Center, brought a flatbed truck that we used as a speaker’s platform. I was speaking when this guy approached the truck with a California flag. Once he got to the stage the flag was engulfed in flames; that was the opening visual for the 10 p.m. local news. If Pete Wilson thought that by issuing his veto on a Sunday it would go unpublicized, he failed in a spectacular fashion.
On the second night we closed down Sunset and eventually wound up at Barney’s Beanery where the windows were broken out, avenging that establishment’s infamous “Faggots Stay Out” sign. The demonstrations went on night after night, called by various groups, but without any structure or leadership.
When people heard Wilson was at LA County Museum of Art for a reception for the President of Mexico, we marched there. We disrupted Republican gatherings in Century City, were at one demonstration mounted LAPD trampled protestors under the hoofs of their horses.
In one memorable moment I remember leading a demonstration through Beverly Hills via Rodeo Drive and being confronted with BHPD in full riot armor, armed with assault weapons. Just as we were getting back to Santa Monica Boulevard we ran into a group of a couple hundred stragglers who had arrived late and were being led by trans-activist Connie Norman. I remember telling Connie we just marched through Beverly Hills to which Connie retorted “Sugar I promised these people we were marching down Rodeo Drive and that’s where I intend to take them”. I turned my group around and we all marched Rodeo for a second time, enraging the BHPD.
By October 4th the demonstrations were on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. The media coverage was intense and random demonstrators were called upon to give interviews that aired on national television, reflecting the democratic spirit of the marches. There was coverage every night for nearly three weeks as these demonstrations generally drew thousands of protestors; nothing rivaling these protests would be seen again until 2020’s BLM demonstrations.
The demonstrations transformed thousands of people into activists. Some people were out every night. Dr. Scott Hitt, who led ANGLE, the new gay political action committee, described the demonstrations to the LA Times as “Los Angeles’ Stonewall”. The marches were a boot camp for activism.
Probably the biggest demonstration started at San Vicente and went west on Sunset to UCLA where we disrupted an outdoor speech being given by Wilson. The police said there were 5,000 in the streets; it looked closer to ten thousand to me. As we marched back to West Hollywood Sunset looked like a river of demonstrators.
One of the last demonstrations ended badly. On November 15th, Wilson was holding a fundraising event at the Hyatt in Woodland Hills, for Republican State Senator Ed Davis, a former LAPD Chief and nemesis of our community. There were at least three thousand demonstrators. AIDS activist Chris Fairchild, donned a tuxedo to disrupt Wilson’s speech and get unceremoniously thrown out for his efforts.
As the demonstration closed, we started leaving through a large parking lot. For some unknown reason the LAPD decided to form a line of officers to “escort” us. I was walking with Peter Mackler, the local head of National Coming Out Day, when my rainbow flag was grabbed by an officer behind me. When I turned around to see what was up, the officer was in my face with his helmet’s visor menacingly pulled down. He told me to keep walking, so we did. But then the officers took their batons and pushed us forward.
Peter turned around and said “we’re leaving” when an officer hit him in the face with his baton. Peter’s face was covered in blood and he was screaming “my eye, my eye”. I instinctively hit the pavement and crawled over to wipe the blood off Peter’s face and assure him both eyes were in place. But as I pulled him up the police charged and they were chasing people, swinging their batons. It became a full on police riot. Peter and I were soon surrounded by a protective group of activists and I was able to get Peter to an emergency room. Peter successfully sued the LADP for damages.
The marches created a renewed sense of community empowerment. Chris Fairchild launched the West Hollywood Police Department initiative that was on the ballot in November of 1992; it only lost by five percentage points. Scott Hitt and John Duran of ANGLE were making activism fashionable, mixing pool parties with politics.
I worked with the Clinton campaign to finance Stonewall’s opening of a West Hollywood campaign headquarters where Zen is now located. It was vibrant with the energy of countless volunteers and Barbara Yaroslavsky, the Supervisor’s wife, acted as den mother.
The newly empowered community was introduced to an unlikely presidential candidate; David Mixner was promoting his college roommate Bill Clinton, who was governor of some obscure state like Arkansas. This guy promised to end discrimination against gays in the military and appoint openly gay people to keys positions in D.C. Suddenly LGBTQ issues were part of a national presidential campaign.
While perhaps the ending was not as Hollywood as we would have liked, but thanks to the veto of AB 101 we were inspired to proactively claim our rightful position on the national stage. And it was sparked by a handful of bedraggled hunger strikers at Crescent Heights and Santa Monica thirty years ago.