West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

West Hollywood voters approved cityhood and elected a majority gay and lesbian city council, making the municipality the first “gay city” in the United States.

Summary of Event

Residents of West Hollywood, an area of Los Angeles County of less than two square miles, is sandwiched between the city of Beverly Hills and Hollywood (a district of the city of Los Angeles). West Hollywood voters chose to incorporate as an independent city on November 6, 1984, creating what has often been referred to as a “gay Camelot.” [kw]West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council (Nov. 6, 1984) [kw]Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council, West (Nov. 6, 1984) [kw]Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council, West Hollywood Incorporates with (Nov. 6, 1984) [kw]Gay and Lesbian City Council, West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority (Nov. 6, 1984) [kw]Lesbian City Council, West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and (Nov. 6, 1984) [kw]City Council, West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian (Nov. 6, 1984) West Hollywood, California, as first “gay city” [c]Government and politics;Nov. 6, 1984: West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council[1600] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 6, 1984: West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council[1600] Heilman, John Schulte, Steve Stone, Ron Terrigno, Valerie

Before incorporation, West Hollywood was already known as a haven for gays and lesbians—but especially for gay men—who frequent the gay nightclubs, shops, and organizations clustered, especially, around the western portion of the city’s Santa Monica Boulevard. The area is also known as “Boystown.” Because West Hollywood was, before its incorporation, a loosely governed part of greater Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Police Department did not have jurisdiction in the area. This enabled nightclubs and bars on Sunset Boulevard (the Sunset Strip) Sunset Strip to operate with fewer regulations than did clubs in adjacent Hollywood and Mid-City—a situation that was also favorable to many gay and lesbian businesses.

In the 1920’s, the Sunset Strip had been a trendy area for silent-film stars, and it flourished in the 1940’s with nightclubs such as the legendary Trocadero. In the 1960’s, West Hollywood became a center for the countercultural rock music scene in Southern California, and by the 1970’s, gay residents and entrepreneurs had begun to buy inexpensive real estate in the area, building a gay ghetto similar to those in San Francisco’s Castro district and New York City’s Greenwich Village. According to historian Moira Rachel Kenney, “Today, West Hollywood reflects all of these preincorporation cultures—hippie, rock, Hollywood star, and gay.”

West Hollywood in 1984 was populated mostly by older adults and by gay men, 90 percent of whom were renters. Confronted with the prospect of losing their rent control and of overdevelopment, as well as lacking solid local representation at the county level, the 1984 incorporation drive was motivated more by the desire to maintain rent controls and curb development than by the dream of creating a “gay city.” Ron Stone, a local gay activist and the incorporation-drive founder, wrote in the LA Weekly, a local, independent newspaper, that, “All this sub-dividing and separation makes West Hollywood a prime target for development. With no local government to turn to or take control of, citizens of the area who want to retain the village-like characteristics that attracted them in the first place have had a difficult time of it.”

Although West Hollywood’s gay and lesbian leadership first resisted incorporation, believing that the county’s “neglect” was useful for gay and lesbian residents, eventually they were convinced that supporting the incorporation of a “gay city” would likely be a good idea. Their efforts were bolstered by the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES), a tenants’ rights group that advocated rent control and brought older adults and nongay renters to the table. On November 6, West Hollywood residents voted to incorporate as an independent city, and they elected a five-member city council, a council with the first gay and lesbian majority in the nation.

On November 29, the new city council, including out gay members John Heilman and Steve Schulte and out lesbian member Valerie Terrigno, officially declared the birth of West Hollywood. The council chose Terrigno as West Hollywood’s mayor, making her the first mayor in the nation who was out as either lesbian or gay.

West Hollywood’s city council quickly passed a series of progressive measures to reward those who voted for incorporation—older adult renters and gays and lesbians. The council immediately established a rent-hike freeze, and in June of 1985, passed a rent-control law that was one of the strictest in the United States. The council also banned discrimination Civil rights;West Hollywood, California against gays and lesbians, established domestic partnership benefits for city employees, and established the first civil union registry Civil union registry, West Hollywood, California in the nation. In one now-legendary example of West Hollywood’s commitment to gay and lesbian rights, the entire city council marched to a local restaurant, Barney’s Beanery, to call for the removal of a sign it had that stated, “Fagots [sic] Stay Out.”

The early days of incorporated West Hollywood were also marked by growing pains as new city leaders learned how to deal with a fledgling bureaucracy, the demands of local constituents, and internal controversy. In August of 1985, Mayor Terrigno had ceded her position to John Heilman after several weeks of a public power struggle over the duties of the largely ceremonial position of mayor. Also, in April of 1986, after being convicted for embezzling funds prior to her filling her city position, Terrigno resigned from office.

Significance

According to historian Moira Rachel Kenney in her book Mapping Gay L.A. Mapping Gay L.A. (Kenney)[Mapping Gay LA] (2001), the incorporation of West Hollywood marks a transition in the LGBT rights movement in Los Angeles from focusing on short-term crisis management to creating longer-term community institutions by allying with other local groups, such as the older adults and the immigrant Russians who make up major portions of the West Hollywood population. In 1999, out of a population of 37,000, 19 percent were elderly and 10 to 15 percent were Russian immigrants.

West Hollywood, however, remains a city composed largely of gay, white men, with lesbians and queers of color making up a minority of the population; many lesbians and many queers of color do visit the city, but mostly on weekends. Despite the city’s history of supporting rent control, a 1999 state law allowed landlords to set rents at market rates after tenants vacated their apartments. Skyrocketing rents, as a result, have made West Hollywood financially out of reach for most middle- and lower-income people.

Economic developments have made West Hollywood a relatively exclusive neighborhood, but it has long since been established as a progressive city government that aims to serve its residents. West Hollywood, for example, was one of the first local governments to support sanctions against South Africa because of apartheid.

Benjamin Forest argues that West Hollywood’s identity as a new city was entwined with the construction of a new gay identity that included progressive politics and an orientation toward entertainment and consumption. While this new identity did not challenge existing political or social systems to any great extent, it did seek to demarginalize LGBT people and bring them more toward the center. West Hollywood, California, as first “gay city”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braun, Stephen. “West Hollywood, One Year Later.” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 1985, A1.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forest, Benjamin. “West Hollywood as Symbol: The Significance of Place in the Construction of a Gay Identity.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13 (1995): 133-157.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenney, Moira Rachel. Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Politics and Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moos, Adam. “The Grassroots in Action: Gays and Seniors Capture the Local State in West Hollywood, California.” In The Power of Geography, edited by Jennifer Wolch and Michael Dear. Boston: Unwyn Hyman, 1989.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Jane. “Producing ’Pride’ in West Hollywood: A Queer Cultural Capital for Queers with Cultural Capital.” Sexualities 6, no. 1 (2003): 65-94.

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