Introducing ‘Lavender Pen’ by John Duran: a series of interviews with pioneering and iconic LGBT figures across Southern CA. These interviews highlight individuals who have stood the test of time for more than 25 years. John J. Duran has been an LGBT activist since 1979 – long before serving on the West Hollywood Council for 20 years. These peer to peer interviews capture the history of LGBT Southern CA from one pioneer to another.
Thirty five years ago, Michael Weinstein was just a graphic designer and businessman who felt compelled to fight the discrimination of people afflicted with AIDS. Today, he’s providing 1.5 million people all over the world with cutting-edge medical care regardless of their ability to pay. As co-founder and president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), Weinstein has turned the tide in the war against HIV/AIDS and the harmful stigmas attached to the disease.
Tell me about those early days of AIDS Hospice Foundation – before it was renamed AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Actually even before that in 1986 there was an initiative on the ballot to quarantine HIV positive people — Prop 64. And so that that’s how I got involved. I had been an activist going all the way back to my teen years, and I was in business at that time, and I had kind of retired from that, and a few of my friends really implored me or guilt-tripped me, saying ‘This is a crisis moment’ and I should be involved.
So they took me to one of the coalition meetings, and I said ‘I can’t do this.’ I said ‘OK, the campaigns are always west of La Brea; why don’t we do east of La Brea?’ So we created the Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee. We had a little office on Rowena and Silver Lake Boulevard above the pet store, and what happened was that we decided we wanted to have a torchlight march on the LaRouche headquarters (Lyndon LaRouche was the sponsor of Prop 64) which was over on Los Feliz Boulevard.
And this is before the internet, so the main way we publicized it was we gave out like 65,000 flyers. We didn’t know what the response would be and we had it at the Friendship Auditorium over on Riverside Drive and to our surprise 4,000 people showed up. And I think it was just that sense of outrage — it didn’t really have a channel. When the campaign ended — well, first of all in the early polling, it looked like it was going to pass overwhelmingly. I credit a lot of the defeat of it to a coalition of multi-denominational clergy, not so much to the campaign itself. But anyhow when that was over we said, ‘Well, we stopped something from bad from happening. What is it that people need right?’ We were looking at San Francisco, where they had the Coming Home Hospice there, and since there wasn’t any treatment at that time, average life expectancy was 13 months.
I said, ‘Well right now the most and the best we can do is give people a dignified death.’ It was very typical for people to die in the hallway of the county hospital. So the first big thing that we did as the LA Hospice Committee was we held a public hearing at Plummer Park. It was an all-day thing. Jackie Goldberg was there. Morris Knight, Laud Humphries, Richard Polanco, who’s a new assemblyman at that time. And we just gave 5 minutes to people. And for eight hours straight they testified as to what the circumstances were that they were facing — mothers, people living with AIDS, family members, sole providers — and we came out with a white paper on that very day. Chris Brownlie was the co-founder of AHF. He was rushed to County USC and he laid out a gurney for three days. Finally I called up at (Supervisor) Ed Edelman and I said please get him out of here.
And then within a matter of hours he was in a bed. So that really illustrated what the essence of the problem was. So we started out in that regard and meanwhile we were filing for our nonprofit status so we could get tax exempt donations, and shortly thereafter we were granted that. And our idea really was to be an advocacy organization. We weren’t thinking about providing direct care.
And then I got a call one day from David Kessler of Progressive Nursing Services and he said Barlow Hospital — I don’t even think I knew what it was — but he said Barlow Hospital is talking about transforming this place into an AIDS facility. And they started out as a tuberculosis hospital way back in the 1920s and he said ‘I’d like you to come look at it.’ We drove over there and it’s like a hundred steps from way up to where this building was. There was an old nurse’s dormitory and they offered it to us for a dollar a year.
That led to a commitment from Gene Lapietra (owner of Circus and Arena Discos) — he’s the first person to help us. So we took that commitment to the Los Angeles city council and said ‘We want you to match that gift.’ Then in turn we went to the state and said ‘Let us issue bonds that will help us complete it.’ So we got the money to build it.
Then we went to the county and there was a Republican conservative majority on the LA County Board of Supervisors at that time. Pete Schabaurum, Mike Antanovitch and Deane Dana. Antonovich made the statement that the way to deal with AIDS was for gays to turn straight. And so we did a protest with Metropolitan Community Church. We held a prayer vigil in front of his house and got a huge amount of publicity.
So we went to the Board of Supervisors asking them to give us $400,000 to operate. We had all our people there and Schabaurum said ‘Well Ed, why is all this money going to you to your district?’ And Edelman thought so fast and said ‘You’re absolutely right. I will amend my motion. We should have $400,000 for every district. We’re standing out in front and as Chris and I are being interviewed and I said I don’t think anyone has ever gone into the Board of Supervisors asking for $400,000 and winding up with five times as much.
You’ve hit so many topics so now I have to backtrack. You talked about politics west of La Brea and east of La Brea, so people may not realize that of course back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that MECLA —the Municipal Elections Committee Los Angeles — was one of the big powerhouses with a lot of people. There was Sheldon Anderson, Diane Abbitt, David Mixner, Peter Scott — but it sounds like there was something that you wanted to do that was different than that powerbase of West Hollywood and the West Side.
Well APLA came into existence a few years before AHF. It really publicized AIDS. It got the entertainment community mobilized with big events and that type of thing but it really focused on middle-class white gay men. And there was a justified sense of outrage by these men about how they were taxpaying members of the community, they were people in positions of authority — why were they being treated this way? But when it came to the east side and the south side, there were even fewer services available and no one was representing them. That’s part of what attracted Gene (LaPietra) to helping us and so MECLA people really didn’t support what we were doing.
I mean in fact they tried to set up something competing with us including Frontiers Newsmagazine Publisher Bob Craig and Ivy Bottini others got involved. In fact it was right down the street from where we are on Vista Del Mar; they were gonna set up something. It was also a big battle then. We contended that hospice care was a medical service; that it required doctors and nurses and that it couldn’t just be done in a rented three-bedroom house. We got legislation passed, Assemblyman Richard Polanco helped us to do that.
So then we renovated that building, we opened it the day after Christmas 1989. And then the situation was beginning to evolve where the treatment of the opportunistic infections was improving greatly, so life expectancy was improving. So people needed outpatient medical care. The county had a monopoly on it. They were providing all of it other than the private doctors but people who didn’t have money had to go to the county. And the county had long, long waits or there was no continuity of care.
And then in 1990, the Ryan White Care act passed and then all of a sudden it was a funding source for community programs and the county, of course, wanted to take all the money but the community people got to work together and we got money designated. So we created the first clinic that we had, which was Queen of Angels, which actually was named for a time after Richard Polanco, and we grew rapidly. So that was the beginning and he said ‘Well, we can’t really be operating clinics under the name AIDS Hospice Foundation, so it became AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Then we started opening other clinics in other parts of the city.
In 1996, we were involved in all the early research of the protease inhibitors and cocktail treatments. When the first one came out at the end of ‘95, but also looking forward, we said we’ve to bring as many people into the lifeboat of care as we can and that goes beyond L.A. The first place we went to was Florida where we gained a contract with the State of Florida. And so we started growing going there. And then there was sort of a battle in the community because the legacy organizations said we should put most of the money into social services and we were saying the majority of the money has to go to medical care because we have to get everybody treated.
At the same time we were operating hospices — at that point we had three facilities: Chris Brownlie Hospice, Carl Bean Hospice, and the Linn House. It was a very trying time for us because we felt that every person who was in the hospital deserved a chance to be on the medication. And we weren’t getting paid yet, there was no money available. So we went from December ‘95 to July ‘96 providing medications without being reimbursed.
At the same time, as people got it, it was literally like a phoenix from the ashes. In the previous years almost nobody left the houses. I mean occasionally they decided to go home to die or somebody came and said we’ll take care of them, but I would say 95 percent of the people, that was the last place they lived.
And so suddenly people were leaving — and that was our source of revenue. So we were between a rock and a hard place. And we almost went belly up at that time. We came very close to that. But then we started branching out to other places. We formed a partnership with Magic Johnson and started opening up clinics under the Magic Johnson name.
And then in 2000 I attended the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.
And I’d never been to South Africa. And like other people I had dumb ideas that it wouldn’t be possible to treat people there. There wasn’t enough infrastructure. That it wouldn’t be possible to treat people in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.