By James Mills, West Hollywood, California
West Hollywood council member John Duran has been on the front lines of fights ever since his, “good friend Scott Fleener died of AIDS in 1985. My anger over his death propelled me into the politics of AIDS with ACT UP, led to concern and action in the LGBT rights field.
“Then I jumped into discrimination issues in general, like racial and gender discrimination causes, housing, and the other ‘social justice’ causes. I battle for the vulnerable.”
Now he fights for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to make changes that would affect far more people than he can influence from his seat in West Hollywood.
West Hollywood can be full of contradictions. The city is known for being a party destination with people coming from across the globe to go to the Sunset Strip clubs and the Boystown bars.
At the same time, the city’s recovery community grows in reputation and effectiveness, sometimes meeting to help people overcome drug and alcohol addictions within feet of the very bars that fed their addiction.
Nowhere is this contradiction more evident than Robertson Boulevard between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue in Boystown’s center. On one end of that block is the ultra popular Abbey, twice dubbed the Best Gay Bar by MTV’s Logo channel.
On the other end is the swanky Sur Restaurant and Bar, made famous by its owner Lisa Vanderpump of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” fame.
In between are numerous shops and restaurants, as well as a children’s playground, plus two major centers housing 12-step recovery meetings at virtually every hour of the day – The Log Cabin Community Center and the West Hollywood Recovery Center.
While these alcohol-oriented businesses and alcohol/drug recovery centers co-existing side by side might seem incredibly strange to some, West Hollywood city council member John Duran just sees it as business as usual.
Why such a focus on recovery in West Hollywood?
“Being in a highly urbanized area, that’s just one of the realities of the city,” says Mr. Duran, who has been on the City Council since 2001.
“We’ll have many opposing uses or opposing ideas side by side. You can have a church next to a bar or a children’s playground next to a bar and no one thinks anything about it.”
Mr. Duran says the Log Cabin and the Boystown gay bars developing almost side by side reflect the city’s history. “Long before there were internet chatrooms and Grindr and Scruff or other apps for people to meet one another, we physically went into bars to find one another,” says Mr. Duran.
“It was our version of church for a lot of the gay community’s history. Part of the whole development of Santa Monica Boulevard in the Boystown area was around gay people finding each other. The gay bars are part of the gay community’s history, but so are the rooms of recovery.”
The area now known as Boystown became a haven for gays in the 1950s, 60s and 70s because it was in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County and therefore gays could escape persecution by a homophobic Los Angeles Police Department.
Many gay bars developed there, as did the Log Cabin, which long predates the 1984 founding of the city.
“Log Cabin has been there forever,” says Mr. Duran, who has been sober since 1996 and still attends 12-step meetings regularly.
“Log Cabin has a lot of long-term sobriety for both gay and straight people. It really is an institution in the city of West Hollywood.”
Directly across the street from the Log Cabin is the West Hollywood Recovery Center which got its start in 2004 after the congregation at the United Methodist Church at Fountain and Fairfax avenues, a church that had housed dozens of 12-step meetings, opted to no longer rent rooms to recovery groups.
As a result many meetings were displaced until the city opened the first floor of the city-owned Werle Building to 12-step groups.
While only a few hundred people were expected to attend meetings there, a decade later, over 9,000 people a month go to meetings there.
“The Recovery Center has become as successful as the Log Cabin directly across the street,” says Mr. Duran.
“That says a lot about the need for rooms of recovery that there are two successful locations in the same block.”
Higher Rates of Addiction in gay community
The need for so many recovery meetings is because addiction rates are higher in the LGBT community. Estimates range from 30 to 45 percent of the LGBT population have alcohol and/or drug problems, compared to 15 percent of their straight counterparts.
Biological factors – addiction is believed to be hereditary – account for part of the higher rates, but societal pressures of conforming to heterosexual norms can also lead people to drink/use. Also factoring in is the fact that so much of gay social interaction centers around bars.
Drugs can also be commonplace in some gay circles, everything from marijuana to cocaine, heroine, crystal methamphetamine and many others. Mr. Duran believes the connection between sex and drugs is strong among gays.
“The fact is the gay community has a lot more sexual expression than other parts of the community,” reports Mr. Duran.
“A lot of the sexual activity that is currently occurring in the gay male community, not the lesbian but the gay male community, has an overlay of drug use, much more so than alcohol. The whole notion of ‘party and play,’ meaning use drugs and have sexual activity, makes that linkage obvious.”
A drug that has been seen surging use in the gay community is crystal methamphetamine, commonly known as “crystal” or “meth” “Tweaking” is especially popular because not only does it give an incredible high, it also can greatly enhance sexual stimulation.
However, meth can also impair judgment, meaning users often neglect to take precautions during sex. Thus, HIV infection rates among meth users is on the rise.
WeHo at center of Crystal Meth recovery While the 12-step recovery program Alcoholics Anonymous has existed since the 1930s, Crystal Meth Anonymous has only developed in recent years.
“The profiles of the two programs, even thought it may be the same community, are quite different,” says Mr. Duran. “I’ve heard from people who are struggling with meth addiction that they go to CMA to be reminded of what addiction looks like, but they add in meetings of AA to get into the solution and recovery side. A lot of the principles [of the two programs] are the same. The substances maybe different, but the recovery message is the same across the board.”
Watching a loved one in the midst of addiction can be frustrating and heartbreaking. But Mr. Duran reminds that there is nothing anyone can do until the addict is ready to get help.
For those who aren’t sure whether they have a problem, he recommends checking out an AA meeting to listen to what’s being said.
“Even though the story may not be identical to yours,” he says, “if you recognize the feelings that are expressed, you may have your answer.” T
he power of the personal testament In West Hollywood City Council member John Duran’s day job as a criminal defense attorney, he often defends clients on alcohol and drug related charges. And as a recovering alcoholic, he often hears stories similar to his own.
“I hear from clients all the time words like, ‘You just don’t understand,’ ‘You don’t know what I’m going through,’” says Mr. Duran, who has been sober for 17 years.
“That’s usually the moment that I come out completely as someone in recovery and share my own personal story. I actually do understand. I actually do know what someone is going through because I’ve been through it. I think a lot of my practice, it’s not based on proving people innocent because most of my accused clients are in fact users of alcohol and drugs; they have an issue and I’m directing them to get help.”Not all of his clients get the help they need. Some refuse help. Some try to get sober but relapse.
“In the course of a year, there’s always a handful of clients who overdose and die,” he reports.
“It’s heartbreaking as to why didn’t they make it and others do. I try to focus on those that do get better and do recover, that I see getting married and having kids and living full lives as happy out LGBT sober people. The reward that comes from seeing people’s lives come together far outweighs the pain of watching the few that despair and die.”
Mr. Duran’s recovery It took Mr. Duran a long time to accept he had a problem with drinking, but when he finally did, 12-step programs were there to help. “None of us ever dreamed that someday we would grow up to become an alcoholic or an addict. That was not the plan for any of us,” says Mr. Duran.
“For many years, I lived in denial of acknowledging that in fact I had become one. That was the hardest step to take, the first one [of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps], to admit I was powerless over alcohol and drugs. Even with all the evidence staring me in the face, I tried hard to not see it. When I finally accepted it and surrendered, that’s when life began for me. That was Nov. 5, 1996.”
Mr. Duran reports 12-step programs helped him build a stronger foundation for living, a place to feel grounded in his daily life, to understand his flaw and his assets.
“A lot of addicts are used to living on the extremes – high drama or low pity party; excitement and thrills or wanting to isolate,” he says. “Learning to live life in the middle of all that is what we have to do. If I’m working those [recovery] principles and working my [12-step] program, I will not be drawn to a drink or a drug again, to think that that’s my solution.”
While he says, “I don’t drink or use, no matter what,” he’s quick to add that he’s far from perfect at working a program. “It’s ‘Progress Not Perfection,’” he says. “I have gone through some of life’s more challenging situations sober,” he says.
“Some of the bumper sticker mantras that people think are silly are actually true. ‘One day at a time.’ I don’t think about not drinking or using tomorrow or how stressful June or November is going to be. Or not be. I just focus on today.”
Running for Supervisor
There are lots of 12-step meetings to help people stay sober, but initially getting sober often proves to be the challenge. That’s why rehab facilities have developed to help the addict get clean and start their journey of recovery.
“The real recovery starts at rehab,” Mr. Duran says. Currently, there is far greater demand for people wanting to go to rehab facilities than there are actual beds.
“There are alcoholics and addicts all throughout the city, it’s just what do we do about them,” reports Mr. Duran.
“They range from most chronic and severe mentally ill homeless that we see wandering around the Robertson [Boulevard] corridor to working alcoholics and addicts, people who are able to maintain a job and a life yet have a deep dark secret about their alcohol and drug use.
“When they finally hit rock bottom and it starts to impact family life and work and home and finances and possible tenancy, that’s usually when someone is in dire need of a facility. And there just aren’t enough beds.”
That limited number of beds is something that Mr. Duran would like to see changed if he wins his bid to join the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
He is running in the June primary for the 3rd district seat currently held by the termed-out Zev Yaroslavsky. The 3rd district covers the area from Hollywood to Santa Monica to Malibu and much of the Western San Fernando Valley.
“The Supervisors control the alcohol and drug funding in the county, the mental health funding in the county and the jail and sheriff funding in the county. These are all issues that I have a lot of experience with for the last 25 years,” says Mr. Duran.
“To have the ability to direct more addicts and alcoholics out of the jails and over into rehab so they can get better would be a fantastic remedy to be part of. Punishing people in jail for alcoholism and drug addiction does nothing. It only reinforces what they’re already thinking about themselves.”
Mr. Duran says that many of society’s ills such drunk driving fatalities, domestic abuse, mental illness and homelessness stem from alcohol and drug addiction. He believes his experience with both his personal recovery and dealing with the courts puts him in a unique position of understanding the root problem.
“Getting a chance to take the lessons I’ve learned 25 years in the criminal courts and to make the decisions that may not help hundreds of people, but instead tens of thousands of people, that would just be the ultimate high, if you’ll pardon the expression, for me.”
John Duran is running hard for County Supervisor, but is relaxed doing it. He credits his program of recovery in no small part.