On the evening of Sunday, September 29, 1991, the streets of West Hollywood erupted in fury. Hundreds, then thousands, took to the streets, shouting, chanting, waving banners and placards, burning flags. For the next three weeks, Santa Monica Boulevard was the scene of noisy, almost nocturnal protests unprecedented since the end of the Vietnam War, spawning a new generation of activists.
It was a moment of spontaneous outrage that shaped the lives of countless people and re-energized a community numbed by the ravages of the AIDS pandemic. As protests rocked California from San Francisco to San Diego, West Hollywood was the epicenter of what has become a renaissance of LGBTQ activism. t
In a way, the origins of the AB 101 protests arose out of our complacency. The Life Lobby, the state lobbying organization, had worked for years to enact protections for gays and lesbians in the workplace. The bill passed through both houses of the Legislature and we were confident that Governor Pete Wilson, a moderate Republican, would sign the bill. Indeed, John Duran, the co-chair of the Life Lobby, was in the room when Wilson assured campaigners he would sign the bill.
But Wilson, like many California governors, harbored presidential ambitions. After the AB 101 landed on his desk, Wilson realized he was signing a bill banning employment discrimination against lesbians and gays, which wasn’t going to help him. more within the Republican Party.
While we waited, ACT UP and Queer Nation set up camp in Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. Wayne Karr, Rob Roberts and others announced they were camping and going on a hunger strike until Wilson signed the bill.
I had just succeeded Ivy Bottini as President of the Stonewall Democratic Club. At that time, the Club was much more involved in street activism than it is today. We volunteered to help keep the hunger strikers safe, staying up all night to make sure the encampment was not dismantled by the sheriff’s department.
On Saturday I spent the night at the camp and remember spending 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 be picked up by the media immediately.
When we had the veto at the end of the afternoon. We all felt betrayed and outraged. We agreed to walk from the encampment to San Vicente and block this intersection.
Morris Kight got us together and we agreed to alert our various organizations and come back at 5:00 pm. on the Internet or Twitter.
When I returned, there were maybe 30 people at the Crescent Heights camp. As our plan was to walk down downtown Santa Monica Boulevard and block off traffic, we waited a bit although Rob Roberts and others were anxious to walk. There were only about 50 of us when we started walking west. It didn’t look promising.
When we got to the Gold Coast, people came out and cheered. Earlier, people lined the streets to cheer us on.
As we advanced, people ran down the side streets of their apartments to join us. But by the time we reached La Cienega, there were at least a hundred of us.
As we passed 24 Hour Fitness, the second floor windows were lined with people watching us. As we passed the entrance, dozens of people were running out of the gymnasium in the streets. Suddenly people were cascading out of bars and restaurants; by the time we got to San Vicente there were at least 500 on the street. Soon there were over 1,000.
Tory Osborne, the Centre’s Executive Director, brought a flatbed truck that we used as a speaker’s platform. I was talking when this guy walked up to the truck with a California flag on it. Once on stage, the flag went up in flames; it was the opening visual of the local newspaper at 10 p.m. If Pete Wilson thought that issuing his veto on a Sunday would go unnoticed, he failed spectacularly.
The second night we closed Sunset and eventually ended up at Barney’s Beanery where the windows were smashed, avenging the infamous “Fagots Stay Out” sign. The protests continued night after night, called by various groups, but without any structure or leadership.
When people heard Wilson was at the LA County Art Museum for a reception for the President of Mexico, we paraded there. We disrupted Republican rallies in Century City, during a protest, the LAPD stomped on protesters under the hooves of their horses.
In one memorable moment, I remember leading a protest in Beverly Hills via Rodeo Drive and being confronted by a BHPD in full riot armor, armed with assault weapons. Just as we were heading back to Santa Monica Boulevard, we encountered a group of a few hundred latecomers who had arrived late and were led by trans-activist Connie Norman. I remember telling Connie we had just walked Beverly Hills to which Connie retorted, “Sugar, I promised these people we were going down Rodeo Drive and that’s where I intend. to take them away ”. I turned my group around and we all marched in Rodeo for the second time, enraging the BHPD.
On October 4, the protests made headlines in the Los Angeles Times. Media coverage was intense and random protesters were called in to give interviews broadcast on national television, reflecting the democratic spirit of the marches. There was nightly coverage for almost three weeks as these protests typically attracted thousands of demonstrators; nothing comparable to these protests would be seen again until the 2020 BLM protests.
The protests turned thousands of people into activists. Some people went out every night. Dr Scott Hitt, who headed ANGLE, the new gay political action committee, called the protests at the LA Times “the Stonewall of Los Angeles.” The marches were a training camp for activism.
The biggest protest probably started in San Vicente and headed west on Sunset to UCLA where we interrupted an outdoor speech by Wilson. Police said there were 5,000 in the streets; it seemed closer to ten thousand to me. As we walked back to West Hollywood, the sunset looked like a river of protesters.
One of the last protests ended badly. On November 15, Wilson was hosting a fundraiser at the Hyatt in Woodland Hills for Republican State Senator Ed Davis, former LAPD leader 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 blunted for his efforts.
At the end of the demonstration, we started to exit through a large parking lot. For some reason, the LAPD decided to form a line of officers to “escort” us. I was walking with Peter Mackler, the local National Coming Out Day official, when my rainbow flag was grabbed by an officer behind me. When I turned to see what was going on, the officer was in my face with the visor of his helmet down threateningly. He told me to keep walking, so we did. But then the officers took their batons and pushed us forward.
Peter turned and said “we are leaving” when a policeman 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 curb and crawled to wipe the blood off Peter’s face and assure him that 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 real police riot. Peter and I were quickly surrounded by a protective group of activists and I was able to take Peter to the emergency room. Peter successfully sued LADP for damages.
The marches created a renewed sense of community empowerment. Chris Fairchild initiated the West Hollywood Police Department initiative which was on the ballot in November 1992; he lost just five percentage points. ANGLE’s Scott Hitt and John Duran were making activism all the rage, mixing pool parties and politics.
I worked with the Clinton campaign to fund Stonewall’s opening of a campaign headquarters in West Hollywood where Zen is now located. It was vibrant with the energy of countless volunteers and Barbara Yaroslavsky, the supervisor’s wife, acted as the mother of the lair.
The newly empowered community was presented to an unlikely presidential candidate; David Mixner was promoting his college roommate Bill Clinton, who was governor of an obscure state like Arkansas. This guy has promised to end discrimination against gay men in the military and openly appoint gay men to key positions in Washington. Suddenly, LGBTQ issues became part of a nationwide presidential campaign.
While the ending might not have been as Hollywood as we would have liked, but thanks to AB 101’s veto, we were inspired to proactively claim our rightful position on the national stage. And it was started by a handful of scruffy hunger strikers in Crescent Heights and Santa Monica thirty years ago.