Another gay pioneer passes

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Advocate Co-founder Aristide Laurent, 1941 – 2011.

Obituaries are usually written in the impersonal “third person” style of proper journalism but we depart from that on this occasion because Aristide was a friend and this is very personal. He was born in Magnolia Springs, Alabama. Yes, there really is a town named that and yes, it is just as tiny a backwater as you might suppose. 

A less likely origin for a gay rights activist would be hard to imagine but all his life, Aristide loved the place and people in it. Sometimes they infuriated him, sometimes he’d joke about them, but he always loved them and was proud of his heritage as a descendant of an old Creole family.

 

Aristide Laurent was in the hospital still having some fun recently.

Aristide Laurent was in the hospital still having some fun recently. The notes are his own

Aristide had a lot of love. He was famous for his acid and ready wit and could wield sarcasm like a rapier against the bigoted, the self-important, the complacent and the pompous but the depths of his love showed in his dedication to liberating the LGBT community, to animal welfare and in his relationships with his enormous circle of devoted friends.

After high school, Aristide got out into the world by joining the Air Force in 1960. His sexual orientation was investigated during his service and investigated by federal agents again after his honorable discharge. They weren’t nice about it. They threatened him with the whole, old fashioned “G-man, J Edgar Hoover” tough guy routine but evidently, Magnolia Springs produces men that don’t scare easily. Aristide steadfastly refused to name names of gay fellow service members and basically told the suits to pound salt.

In spite of that treatment, Aristide remained proud of his service to the nation and, in the 1993 gay rights march in Washington D.C., carried a sign reading “I served my country. Did Rush Limbaugh?”

His experiences in the Air force awakened Aristide to the need for liberation. In 1967, he helped found the Los Angeles Advocate which eventually developed into the national LGBT publication we know today. After the Advocate was acquired by a new owner in 1975, Aristide left and helped found NewsWest to fill the need for a regional gay publication.

From the famous Compton Cafeteria Riot (which preceded Stonewall) down through the Act Up years, there was hardly a demonstration or LGBT rights event that Aristide wasn’t a part of. He once commented to me “I never intended to get arrested all those times – I just always seemed to be in the wrong place.” He was joking of course. Aristide was in fact, always in the right place – the place he was most needed. And he was never afraid of the consequences.

His most famous brush with the law, and no doubt in retrospect the funniest, was the infamous LAPD raid on a charity “slave auction” at the Mark IV Bathhouse. The auction, intended to raise money for the Gay Community Services Center, was utterly misunderstood by the unimaginative straights in the LAPD Vice Squad. They actually thought people were going to be sold into real, down-on-the-plantation slavery! They deployed over 100 cops at a cost of more than $150,000 and came in like gang busters, arresting 40 people including Aristide and charged them with slavery. It was a major public relations disaster for the Los Angeles police, left them looking absolutely ridiculous and stirred up the gay community’s wrath like a stick in a hornet’s nest. All charges were dropped, of course.

Aristide did well in business, running a printing firm and as a real estate investor. Unlike many activists, he understood that if your personal life isn’t on a firm foundation, you’re not in a position to help anyone else.

During a 15 year battle with cancer, Aristide was a beacon of personal courage. No matter how bad things got, he always found a way to make a joke out of it. His final days were spent surrounded by loving and caring friends who never left his side. May we all have such good fortune and may we all, as he did, deserve it. His final message to us all ended with “if you are reading this, I’m dead. Deader as the saying goes, than vaudeville. But don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve had a truly blessed life.”  

Aristide Laurent – he made a difference.

Advocate Co-founder Aristide Laurent, 1941 – 2011.

Obituaries are usually written in the impersonal “third person” style of proper journalism but we depart from that on this occasion because Aristide was a friend and this is very personal. He was born in Magnolia Springs, Alabama. Yes, there really is a town named that and yes, it is just as tiny a backwater as you might suppose.