Keynote – John Duran
@City of West Hollywood
Good afternoon, everyone. I’m very excited to be here talking to John Duran, who wears many hats in West Hollywood. As I’ve gotten to know John, I thought about three words that happen to all start with A that seem to describe him, and I think that that will come out in our conversation today. He’s very much an activist, an advocate, and actively involved. First, I want to applaud him for getting here together, which was no small feat, having missed or canceled flight, and going to a different airport, and driving. So thank you, John, for getting here.
But beyond that, John has been in West Hollywood for over 20 years. He has his own law practice, practicing law for over 30 years, practicing in both criminal and civil law. What struck me is how long John has been doing what he’s been doing, and that’s being an activist for many underrepresented communities. Long before we knew what LGBT was, John was out there promoting their rights and well-being.
When the AIDS epidemic hit the country, John was out front promoting prevention, promoting the medications that can help people. Beyond that, as if that weren’t enough, John is also, as I said, actively involved in pet welfare and anti-cruelty to animals, and he has been in the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Choir for 20 years, so you can see that he has a lot of spare time on his hands.
In this conversation today, we just want to talk a little bit about your activism, specifically I think we can start with the LGBT community. As I said before, LGBT was even a phrase that people knew or knew what it meant. You were out there defending the rights. So, how did that come to be for you? Where did you suddenly find yourself thrust into defending the rights of human citizens who deserve them?
Alright, thank you, and well first of all, greetings from the people of the city of West Hollywood where the women are strong and the men are pretty.
We are very proud of that distinction. We consider ourselves to be an outpost of the Bay Area in Southern California because we are surrounded by a lot of very conservative people all around us, but West Hollywood, very progressive, very much a Bohemian town, long history of 100 years of social activism, and it’s a great little area. It’s the famous Sunset Strip, if you know the Sunset Strip, obviously known for its LGBT population, but I didn’t start there. I mean, I started … When I was in college, I was working at Disneyland shooting Hippopotamus on the Jungle Cruise ride. That was my daily activity, and I thought I was going to become a corporate lawyer. That’s what I thought my plan was. I had an undergraduate degree in business. You know that expression, “Man plans. God laughs.” Because it so happened in my life.
I had no idea where I was going to end up. As I was getting out of law school, the worst pandemic to hit this globe in a long time struck Southern California, and I suddenly found myself redirected. I’ve been working on behalf of the LGBT community since the late 70’s, so yes, I’ve gone through disco, and dynasty, and alternative rock, and everything else. I’ve been around a while, and it’s been very interesting to watch the evolution of this.
Now, you’re probably all wondering why are we talking about a city because a lot of us are HR people or corporations, but I heard one of the earlier panels talk about a culture. I think that’s really critical, is establishing where the people are that you’ve got to talk to and meeting them where they are. Now, I have a small town, 35,000 people, 1.9 square miles. That means about 20,000 people per mile. We are as dense as parts of Manhattan, right, very dense culture of people, 40% of whom identify as LGBT.
So, it’s a very much an activist city, and there’s a culture that exists there. And, it’s a hot bed of mental issues at the same time, for a whole variety of reasons that we will probably get into in our discussion here, but we’ve had to come up with ways in which to address these issues over time.
My city was born in 1984. I mean, West Hollywood as a neighborhood has been around for a hundred years, but the city itself started in ’84, and if you know your timeline, you know ’84 was about the start of the AIDS epidemic also. It had been around ’80, ’81, suddenly plague hit the city. We just got born and we have no social service department, we have no mental health department, we have no ability to deliver services, we have no economic tax space, and here we are being presented the biggest challenge, I think, for a lot of American communities.
We had to develop something from scratch, and we got a very brilliant woman, named Jodie Curley, who came with the idea that rather than start city social services departments or mental health departments, well, because we had no money, so we couldn’t … Rather than do that internally at City Hall, we would contract with private sector social service agencies to deliver basic social services.
The Republicans thought we were great. We were using the private sector. The reality was we didn’t have any resources to rely on, so we had to come up with something innovative. In the course of 30 years, I think the West Hollywood … The great thing about small towns is we can service pilot projects for bigger cities about the delivery of services.
I know this conference is focused on mental health, and so I do want to stick to that. At least in my community, a lot of that revolves around addiction, around … Well, obviously, sexual identity and gender issues. Homelessness is a big issue, and then all the ills that go around the mental health issues, domestic violence, all sorts of other issues that we have to contend with.
So, it’s been a great period of time with this law practice, thinking I was going to do corporate law, and I became the attorney for Act Up Los Angeles, and the first Needle Exchange in Southern California, and medical marijuana long before there were initiatives on the ballot way back in the 80’s, and got to do all of this precedent setting stuff. It’s been great to travel that road and just come across all of the things that I’ve come across. I’m sorry, I’m hogging up all of the time now.
That’s quite alright. We talked earlier when Joe and Lori were on stage about punishment versus treatment …
Which seems to be also one of the torches you carry focuses on treatment rather than punishment. I know you focus on some folks with addiction in your practice and the crimes that they have committed, whether it’s a result of their addiction, or depending on how they are tied together. How are you approaching treatment instead of punishment?
Criminal justice, there’s crime and punishment, right? So on one side, you’ve got the District Attorney’s Office. They’re there for the punishment part. The harder part, and most DAs will admit this, is on the defense side because often, the defense side of any case, it’s not about proving the person innocent. I can’t. He or she is not innocent. It’s about getting them better so they don’t do it again.
Having to get in there and work with people to get them better means having to employ people like, therapists, psychiatrists, other professionals, other experts to come up with a plan for recovery and rehabilitation. I will tell you that you would think it would be depressing ’cause I would say maybe two out of 10, or three out of 10 cases are success stories, and the others are not. The others result in people getting rearrested or having to go to prison.
That would sound really depressing and sad, but it’s not. When you think about the two or three that actually do turn their lives around, and do end up getting back into society, and getting better.
Can you share a success story with us that helps keep you inspired to do the work that you’re doing?
Sure. I mean, there’s many. Let me just say, I want to start by talking to the mental health professionals who are here because I’m a success story. I’m gonna tell you why in a second. Having gone through the AIDS epidemic, I lost 104 friends between 1980 and 1995. The city of West Hollywood is 35,000 people. We lost 10,000 residents in 15 years. Everybody in that city knew somebody, or somebodies, who died. We had a community with severe mental trauma.
In fact, even today we have The Walking Wounded, women and men who rose to the occasion, who responded to the epidemic, who had to watch their neighbors, their lovers, their partners die horrible tragic deaths. You repeat that over by the thousands in one geographic place of 1.9 square miles, you’ve got a community with severe mental distress, right?
I had a therapist, Karen Robins, she moved to Santa Cruz. Maybe she’s here, maybe not. Anyway, Karen Robins was my lifesaver. I, of course, being a Latin male, you know Latino men, we don’t cry. We don’t cry. We don’t emote. We are just going to keep it in and suck it up, right? Not a good practice. Karen had the foresight to work with me. She said, “Those 104 friends, how do you know it’s 104?” I said, “I have a list. Every time somebody passed, I put his or her name on my list.” She said, “Great. Bring that list to our next session.” I’m like, “You are out of your mind. I know what you’re thinking we’re going to do, but we’re not going to do that.” She says, “Just bring the list.”
We walked through every person, every death, every life. It took weeks to get through. But at the end of the day, getting through all that, I began the road to recovery like some of your other speakers here, now I’ve got 20 years clean and sober, which is awesome, but I would not have been able to have done this work of being part of giving back to community had I not had those Monday three o’clock sessions on the couch with Karen Robins.
If it wasn’t for Karen Robins, and her having the patience to walk me through this and get me better so that I could get to a place to walk into a 12 Step meeting to try to put it all back together, then I was able to run for public office, get elected. I’ve been reelected now five times. I’ve been mayor of the city of West Hollywood four times. Everybody takes a turn being mayor. It’s very gay. Everybody gets a turn, so I’ve been mayor a handful of times.
All of that would not have been possible, but for the intersession of mental health, a mental health expert. It’s critical. I hate to be self-indulgent, but that is a true story.
I appreciate that, and thank you for sharing that story. As a result of your success, what are the programs that you put in place in West Hollywood to help with the mentally ill, and the substance use, and the folks suffering from HIV, and the consequential mental issues that result in?
Here’s what I’ve learned. I’ve learned a lot of things over the decades. One of the things I’ve learned: Marginalize communities and that can mean a lot of things. That can mean immigrant, it could mean people of religious minorities, Muslim, it could mean LGBT, it could mean a lot of things, people who feel marginalized on the outside. There’s a huge trust barrier that exists, a huge trust barrier. Anything that looks like establishment, or institution, law enforcement, City Hall is an immediate distrust that goes up.
I often have had to talk to people … I’ve got to meet people where they are. I have to go where they are because they’re not going to come to us, and so with our homelessness issue … Now the city, fortunately we’ve been able to build a very strong economic tax space now. We have the resources. On our homeless intervention, sending the sheriffs out every night to intervene with the homeless individuals wasn’t productive. As soon as the sheriff showed up, the homeless would scatter. We had no intervention going on.
We had to actually employ a licensed clinical social worker, and a psychiatrist, and a peer counselor, you know somebody who was formerly homeless, to go out as a team with law enforcement. You know what, the first one, two, three, five, seven times, not much, but after a while, these homeless women and men would start to see the same people have a conversation. “How’ve you been? Haven’t seen you. You were on this side of town. What’s going on?” Trust begins to build.
In the last six months, we’ve housed like 19 of those individuals. Now, it’s not enough. I want more, but it’s 19 women and men who are now in a sheltered place on the road often to recovery, re-employability, and it’s just those small steps of being able to reach out, but had we … And we tried it, just gone with law enforcement only, we never would’ve gotten, I think, to where we are today. So having to work and meet people where they are. This comes up a lot, I think, around other issues revolving sexuality, and STDs, and HIV prevention, I have to meet people exactly where they are.
We have … I introduced an item a few years ago to make West Hollywood one of the zero transmission cities, meaning we want to get to a place we have no AIDS deaths in our city and no new transmissions by 2018. So, that means a lot of the lifesaving drugs. We had to sort of meet them where they were, and for that, that means a lot of these social … Pardon me, I’m gonna say it. It’s being recorded … Hookup apps, like Grindr and Scruff, and other things like this to talk to them where they are to get a relationship going and a conversation going.
We are seeing some results and some progress in terms of getting to a place where we hopefully will be able to declare in 2018, we have no more transmissions. We haven’t had AIDS deaths. When you think about San Francisco, everyone in San Francisco put out a big headline in the newspaper, “No Obits.” It was a big historic day that people weren’t dying in San Francisco anymore. We’re seeing that also, and have seen that in Southern California, but to get to a place … No new transmission of HIV is gonna be a miraculous … From 1980 to 2020, wherever we end up, 40 years of my life, your life, all of our lives, to maybe see the beginning of the end of this epidemic would be phenomenal.
So, I think we are getting there, and it’s having to get people to look at things differently. We can’t talk about HIV transmission without that awful odious crystal methamphetamine overlay, and those of you in the mental health profession up here, this is an awful, awful thing. There’s nothing worse than crystal meth.
When I was young and on the Sunset Strip in the 70’s, what did we have? A little bit of marijuana, maybe a little bit of coke, a little alcohol. But this crystal meth thing is awful. It’s debilitating. It consumes lives, and destroys careers, and destroys families. To intervene with a crystal meth addict, it’s not “just say ‘no.’” “Just say ‘no’” gets us no where. Getting to the root of the issues around sexual identity, and isolation, and feeling isolated, and not connected to the world is where we had to get to in order to break up this pattern of behavior around sex, meth, and identity.
It’s not for the faint of heart, because there’s a lot of failure rate, but it’s good work when somebody actually does turn it around, and we do some of that.
I’m gonna turn the conversation a little bit to stigma, which is something we’ve talked about a number of times throughout today, as you would expect. It seems that at least within West Hollywood, a lot of the stigma of whether it’s addiction or sexual identity has dissipated to some degree. I’m curious if you can think about how that happened and how are we able to transfer that to other parts of either our lives, other parts of the country. How do we help continue to remove the stigma?
I’m gonna use crystal meth, since we’re kind of on that and I think it’s a big part of addiction and recovery at the moment in this country. Crystal meth, at least for certain segments of the gay community, was seen as a party drug, a drug of fun, a drug of sex and great times. For women with crystal meth, it was often an energy drug to do housework, yet two different subsets of people using the same drug, but for different reasons.
You know, women using meth because they needed to get a lot done and not seeing any sexual component to it, and gay men using crystal meth because it was all about staying up for hours and hours and sometimes days on end and sexual exploit. So we had two different people, same drug, but it had to do with the culture of what was going on.
To interrupt that, or have a conversation, neither population wanted to talk about the fact that they had an issue with the drug because to admit, “I have an issue with crystal meth,” means there’s certain identity factors that accompany that. What housewife in the San Fernando Valley wants to think, “I’m a meth addict,” you know? What gay male wants to think, “I’m a meth addict.”
Nobody wants to identify and put that label on herself or himself. So, we had to kind of get in there and dig a little deeper about what was at the root of all that, and we found different things for each of the populations. With the gay guys, we had to kind of get in there and realize that sex and meth, that’s not the beginning. The beginning is, what is meth? Then it was sex and meth, and then as we did the sex and … By the way, what was … Meth 101, we had 40 people come out. Second forum, which we called sex and meth, we had 140 people come out. People, “Oh, we’re gonna talk about sex,” and we did.
But underneath that, as we got through all that, what we got to at the bottom at the end of the day was isolation, feeling detached, being lonely, these are the issues that usually are left to mental health experts, and churches and synagogues. That’s where people are searching for identity for some attachment to community or some attachment to the divine. That was at the root there, so we thought, well is that possibly true over here with the women involved? It wasn’t the same path, but we got to the same place that it was feeling isolated and alone, and spouse not here, and not having the relationships of friends she had before, and feeling overwhelmed by everything that had come upon her now being a mother with children.
So, we got to develop programming them for each of the populations meeting them where they were. I think that’s a … When you think about one approach fits all, it’s not gonna happen. I would say that’s probably true for most corporations, most businesses. Every business corporation organization has a culture that’s created by the people who initiate it, who are there, who develop it over time, and it’s meeting people where they are in that culture to sort of unravel some of these issues.
Good, thank you. While you’re not a clinician …
You are actively involved in being a lawyer, which therefore kind of crosses into law enforcement, and interacting with those folks and the people who are being arrested. How would you … And you touched a little bit about it in your crystal meth example just now, but I’m curious if you would talk about how you’ve seen domestic violence come about, and how that has been related to substance use, and kind of the connection between those two.
They’re almost the same overlay. Most of the cases, and I must do … I don’t know, two or three domestic violence cases every week. So I have a lot of domestic cases I have in my office. Almost all of them involve alcohol, cocaine, and meth. By the way, zero marijuana. I just want to tell you. I have never seen a pothead commit an act of domestic violence ever in 30 years. I am just going to point that out. The sheriff’s gonna chuckle when I say this too. I said, “Have you ever made an arrest, somebody high on marijuana, domestic violence?”
No, they’re stoned. They’re sitting in the corner. They’re eating Doritos. Not happening, but with the stimulants, with cocaine, with crystal meth, with alcohol, it just steps away from violence, and fighting, and often it’s both parties who are either drunk or using. Unfortunately, a lot of the remedies that we have to address this in the courts have been approved by the legislature, but … I love the California legislature, but again, they’re trying a one blanket approach fits all, and it just doesn’t work. It’s not gonna work, and that’s why I think we see recidivism in this particular area.
A person who is being arrested for domestic violence, odds are it’s not the first time the police have been summoned. It’s just the latest time the police have been summoned, so it’s intervening into that and finding the proper role between where government steps into the home, ’cause that’s really what we’re doing. The government through the courts, and prosecutors, and City Hall are stepping into somebody’s living room and intervening in a situation that’s going from bad to worse with not only injury, but fatality as well possibly.
I guess I’m just going a long winded way of saying that we’re doing what we can, there’s more to be done, and I think at the end of the day, if we as a society can ever learn to deal with the issues around alcoholism and drug addiction, so much criminality would evaporate, ’cause so much criminality in our state is linked to substance use, which is linked to mental health issues. Breaking up those ties that bind all these issues together is, I think, what’s … We’re all up for the challenge of addressing that.
Okay. So John, I think we’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg in the work that you’ve done, the impact that you’ve had on your community for which I applaud you and just admire the work that you’ve done. I want to leave a few minutes for questions for John if anyone has questions.
That’s perfectly okay with me. I was afraid you were going to ask me about the sex and meth or something.
He’s the mayor, he’s used to getting a lot of questions.
I do have a question. Do you have a mental health court? Oh, sorry. Hi, I’m Nicole [inaudible 00:23:03], I’m the head of clinical development here at TalkSpace. I was wondering if you have a mental health court?
We do have one mental health court in Los Angeles on the west side. It primarily addresses the city of Santa Monica’s issues, which has a very large homeless population. We would love to have mental health courts in each of the courts of Los Angeles County. But sadly, the legislature is responsible for the funding of the courts, and the courts have been seeing severe cutbacks by California trying to balance its budget. It comes down to a budgetary issue. What we’ve had to do in terms of how to get around this is working closely with prosecuting agencies to … ‘Cause I think most DAs and prosecutors, I know a lot of them. I’ve known them all for many, many years. They really want people to get better too.
I mean, their role is the hammer. That’s their role as the prosecutor, “jail.” My role is how to get this person to get better, but I think they also have an interest in that as well. So having to work with them about developing probationary terms that include mental health counseling, psychiatric visits, possibly drug and alcohol testing, developing terms and conditions of probation so we can achieve similar results to the mental health court.
The mental health court addressed to Santa Monica, it’s primarily focused on homelessness, but the woman who is the judge in that court, she’s always sighing that she doesn’t have enough resources. She just doesn’t have enough resources. That’s sadly what it comes down to, so we’ve had to innovate and think of other ways to do that. Maybe you all have it better up here in Alameda and San Francisco County than we do down in Los Angeles County.
I have a question for you and I don’t think it will stump you. As you think about all of your many accomplishments over the years and there’s obviously plenty of them, can you tell us about the person that you are most proud of having helped?
Yeah. His name is Justin W. I’ll just say Justin W. for the moment. Justin was a heroin addict. He had been arrested eight or nine times, almost died twice, could not stop using heroin. His mother and father, their hearts were broken. He had been in and out of rehab, in and out of 12 Steps, continuously overdosing, and we just kept going back, and we just kept going back. They say, “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.” I don’t know what moment it was, whether it was the pressure from the courts, about the threat of jail, the intervention of the 12 Step meetings, Justin’s sponsor, Justin’s parents, all of these people coming together.
But ultimately at one point, Justin flipped. He stopped using. I don’t know if Justin can even identify what the one factor was that led to that, but he ended up getting clean, and then he took a cake for one, and then he took a cake for two, and then all of a sudden he had five years clean and sober.
Today, Justin is operating an alcohol and drug rehab in Los Angeles County. So, to see this heroin addict … I mean if you had seen him, 125 pounds of on death’s door, to go from that to actually running a nonprofit rehab facility to get other addicts clean and sober, I mean that’s just … It makes me want to cry, but we’re Latin. We don’t cry.
Any other questions for John?
So, I’m the sexuality expert at TalkSpace and one of my concerns …
There you are, okay.
One of my concerns is challenges related to sex work, and those in the industry, and those that are in the adult entertaining industry, specifically in California. It’s a tough place to be in that business with Prop 60 and some of the recent attempts to seek to criminalize those behaviors more. What I noticed a lot of the mental health and challenges with those individuals comes from society’s stigma and legal reactions to really normal healthy sexual behavior. I’m just wondering what your thoughts are and how that impacts West Hollywood.
Sure. So, I assume you’re asking about sex workers?
Sex workers and adult entertainers.
Okay. I actually have experience in this area.
Tell us about it.
Yeah, I’ll tell you about it. So back in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, I told you I was supposed to be a corporate lawyer and ended up becoming an HIV and AIDS lawyer, a lawyer for Act Up, and LGBT issues, and we had a waiting room. My three law partners and I, there were four of us, we all came from the big cities. There was someone from San Francisco, someone from New York, I was from LA, and somebody from Montreal.
We all gathered in this little office and we … Because at the time, no lawyers or law firms would do HIV and AIDS cases ’cause it was too controversial, people were afraid of catching it, all sorts of crazy stuff. The big … The ACLU and [inaudible 00:28:36] legal, they were looking for precedent setting cases, but the grunt work, nobody would do it in Southern California.
So, we started doing it and our waiting room became the most interesting place on Earth for a period of time, ’cause we had gay and bisexual men sitting by primarily women of color sex workers in the waiting room, hemophiliacs who were looking dazed and confused, people who had had blood transfusions that had gone wrong, and all of these people had one thing in common: They all had HIV.
Here we were having to deal with this epidemic, and the California legislature … Back then, I was the Chairman of the LIFE AIDS Lobby, which was the organization responsible for writing all of the laws here in the state of California on HIV and AIDS. The California legislature came to us and they said, “We need to go after the sex workers and criminalize their HIV status.” We protested, and they basically said, “Unless you give us this, we’re not gonna give you that.”
By the way, these were our Democratic friends. These were not Republicans. These were our Democratic allies who decided back in the mid 80’s that in order to appease the right wing, because they were afraid of losing elections, they were gonna have to criminalize HIV and its transmission by creating laws around mandatory testing for HIV about if you tested HIV positive, if you were a sex worker and you committed a second offense, second time it would be felony. [inaudible 00:30:19].
A lot of the laws that were written in the 1980’s on HIV and AIDS targeted vulnerable populations in the epidemic, one of those being sex workers. It’s awful. It’s terrible. Someday, I’m gonna write a book. There were really terrible stories about what politics did in the 80’s around HIV and AIDS.
Now today, the legislature is finally getting around to trying to get those laws off the books, and your own State Senator here in San Francisco, Senator Scott Wiener is the one leading the charge to take those old tired laws off the books. Hopefully that will happen. As you can tell, I’m a pretty lefty liberal guy, so … I know, surprise!
So the actual issue of sex workers is not any front to me in any way, but I think unfortunately that back in the early days, a lot of the criminalization around HIV and its transmission were targeted on them. Now, we’re looking at trying to remove that because a lot of those laws, it just drove the entire practice into the underground into really deep and dark places, and didn’t end up doing anything. If you look at the history of the enforcement of those laws, they were rarely used anyway, but it just created one of the nightmares around the epidemic, so I know there have been various efforts about legalizing it.
I know there are arguments on the other side, by the way, about how some people feel that it subjects women in a terrible way. I’ve heard the arguments, but I think if we can go to some degree to take some of these old laws off the books that were written during the scare of the epidemic, it’ll help us relieve the stigma around HIV, around sex, around mandatory testing, a lot of the other consequences that were put in place 30 years ago. It’s time to remove them. I know that’s probably coming at your question like this, but …
Am I having a stroke or are the lights fading?
The lights are fading. Thank you so very much for your time and this conversation.
My pleasure, my pleasure.