There Goes the Gayborhood!

West Hollywood has long billed itself as the queerest place on earth. But as the city becomes younger, straighter, and woker, its gay founding fathers are starting to feel left out

PLUMMER PARK IN THE summertime is an urban idyll. The happy shrieks of children frolicking in its playground. The pop of tennis balls being swatted around its immaculately maintained courts. The murmurs of old men huddled around chess tables. You would never guess that this oh-so-peaceful four-acre patch of green wedged between Santa Monica Boulevard and Fountain Avenue is on the front lines of an increasingly bitter battle for the heart and soul of West Hollywood.

The details of the argument over the park, which have to do with the installation of gender-neutral bathrooms, aren’t really important. Suffice to say that the dispute is the latest skirmish in a larger civil war over everything from policing to public transport to economic policy. On one side is the city’s old guard leadership—the now-sixty something gay men who founded WeHo in the 1980s, steered it through the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, and built the tiny city into one of the most famous and prosperous gay communities in the world. On the other is an energized new guard of activists and local politicians who have a starkly different vision for the city. Younger, woker, and sexually and ethnically more diverse, they’re determined to remake the city in their own image.

The war in West Hollywood is a microcosm of the schism that’s afflicting Democratic politics in general these days—pitting the millennial left’s feverish demands for sweeping change against the incrementalism favored by boomers. It’s A.O.C. versus Uncle Joe, played out in a 1.9-square-mile plot of land in Los Angeles County. 

When the city’s 35,000 residents vote in the midterms next November, they will set the course for WeHo in the next decade. But the election will also be a referendum on the whole idea of a gay city. Earlier gay neighborhoods were havens from violence and oppression. But as social and legal obstacles toward homosexuality declined, gay neighborhoods have shrunk as well. Strongholds like New York’s Chelsea and the Castro in San Francisco have seen an exodus of gay residents and influx of upwardly mobile straight couples and tech-savvy millennials. WeHo’s LGBTQ population shrank from 39 percent in 2013 to 33 percent in 2019. Younger gays and lesbians are still moving to WeHo, but the recent queer émigrés tend to align politically with fellow millennials and zoomers than with the battle-scarred veterans who built the place. But while WeHo’s woke set seems ascendant, the old-timers are not going down without a fight. “These kids are constantly railing against gentrification,” fumes a veteran WeHo businessman. “But they have no problem stealing West Hollywood from the gays.” 

John Erickson, 37, and Lindsey Horvath, 38, replaced two of WeHo’s most senior city council members. (PHOTOGRAPH: AMY SUSSMAN/GETTY IMAGES)

“WEST HOLLYWOOD is so important to so many young people,” says Chelsea Byers. The 32-year-old social impact consultant is mounting a maiden run for a seat on the West Hollywood City Council in 2022. Byers is seated at a WeHo café, surrounded by the young people she’s talking about—fresh-faced millennials reading Ibram Kendi, earnest zoomers in fashionable sneakers and eyewear tapping away at their laptops. “West Hollywood is a leader in terms of inclusivity,” she says. “We’re a feminist city. We’re a pro-choice city. We’re a sanctuary city.”

In 2020, an especially contentious election seismically reshaped the once-collegial WeHo council and significantly brought down the average age of its membership. Longtime councilmen John Heilman, 63, and John Duran, 61, both lost their seats to a pair of political upstarts—Sepi Shyne, 43, and John Erickson, 37. Heilman had held a seat on the council since WeHo’s incorporation in 1984 and served several terms as mayor. Duran, a WeHo political legend, lost his seat after a #MeToo scandal.

Heilman and Duran in many ways are avatars of the city’s old guard—gay, white, cisgender males, financially comfortable and established in their careers. They and their peers created West Hollywood at a time when gay rights were still largely theoretical, and they helped build the city into a safe zone that drew thousands of gays from around the world—all of which has informed their own more pragmatic, business-friendly politics.

“When we started the city of West Hollywood, some people said a city built on rent control and populated by gays and lesbians, seniors, and immigrants would never survive,” Heilman has said. “These critics said businesses would not want to locate in our city and eventually we would be bankrupt. We proved those naysayers wrong.”

Chelsea Byers, 32, is vying for a seat held by a retiring gay, male councilman. (PHOTOGRAPH: BRANDON WILLIAMS/GETTY IMAGES)

Keith Kaplan, 62, a gay resident of the city since before 1984 and a former chair of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, offers a similar sentiment. “West Hollywood,” he says, “is where we activated, where we motivated, where we marched.” 

Nevertheless, 2020’s election was a wake-up call for the gay boomers on the council. In fact, it was nothing short of a regime change. Shyne, an attorney and civil rights activist, and Erickson, a former mayoral aide turned communications director for Planned Parenthood, campaigned on progressive platforms backed by labor unions and racial-justice advocates. They rode into office on a change wave and quickly got to work alongside another millennial council member, Lindsey Horvath, 38, who’d been appointed to the council in 2015. The three are collectively referred to by West Hollywood insiders as “S.H.E.,” an acronym for their surnames, and make up the majority of the five-member council, with Mayor Lauren Meister, 62, and Councilman John D’Amico, 59, the last boomers still standing. 

“My governing principles are strongly influenced by the founding principles of our city,” Shyne insists, “which centered on protecting marginalized folks and valuing diversity, inclusion, and equity.” 

Still, the S.H.E. camp is acutely critical of capitalism, corporate America, and the criminal-justice system as it currently operates. And they believe the boomers they’re attempting to supplant are too attached to the prosperous status quo. The boomers, on the other hand, think the S.H.E.s are, at best, pie-in-the-sky dreamers who take for granted the struggles of the past and don’t understand how the world really works.

WEHOville, a popular local blog founded by former New York Times reporter Henry Scott, was sold off in 2020 and then subsequently snapped up by Larry Block, a veteran WeHo businessman whose eponymous Santa Monica Boulevard boutique has become the Bloomingdale’s of Boystown. Under Block’s aegis, the blog has been transformed into the Pravda of WeHo’s old guard, full of bile and gossip about the interlopers. 

Former councilmen and WeHo founding fathers John Duran, 61, and John Heilman, 63, were defeated in 2020 by candidates including 45-year-old Sepi Shyne. (PHOTOGRAPH: RODIN ECKENROTH/GETTY IMAGES)

Nick Rimedio, 41, is general manager of the Kimpton La Peer Hotel, and the current chair of the chamber of commerce. Like Kaplan, Heilman, and Duran, he counts himself among the city’s socially liberal, fiscally moderate proponents of the status quo, and views S.H.E. as unmoored from reality, bringing the city to “the brink of something really dangerous.” 

Case in point for Rimedio and the chamber: last September, the city council voted to approve the highest minimum wage for hotel workers in the country—$17.64 an hour—which has stoked fears among older West Hollywooders who envision a city emptied of small businesses and transformed into a mirror of its neighbor, Beverly Hills.

“If costs for businesses keep going up,” says Rimedio, “the only people who are going to be able to afford to come will be the very rich.” 

Not all the boomers in West Hollywood are quite so agitated by the young upstarts. Councilman D’Amico even joined his new millennial cohorts in voting for the boost in minimum wage for hotel workers. “Raising it to the highest in the country is using our small shoe that we know leaves an enormous footprint,” he says. Then again, D’Amico has decided not to run for another term in 2022. In fact, it’s his seat that Byers and other progressives are running to fill.

Another sticking point has centered on West Hollywood’s relationship with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Lacking its own police force, the city relies on the department for its policing needs, something that the new guard finds intolerable. 

Sepi Shyne with wife Ashley Shyne, the council’s first woman of color. (COURTESY OF SEPI SHYNE)

Nika Soon-Shiong, the 25-year-old daughter of Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, serves on the city’s Public Safety Commission (she was appointed by Horvath) and has pushed to cut the budget for West Hollywood’s sheriff’s station.

“When the complete picture of crime data and L.A.S.D. costs is laid out, it’s difficult to see how contract cities benefit from the L.A.S.D.’s monopoly over public safety narratives and budgets,” Soon-Shiong tweeted in April. Soon-Shiong’s positioning prompted sharp criticism from pro-police elements. In an op-ed for WEHOville, George Nickle, captain of the Eastside Neighborhood Watch Group, who has lived in West Hollywood for 17 years, trashed her proposal to cut ten deputies from the West Hollywood station, dubbing Soon-Shiong the “WeHo Ivanka.” In response, Horvath, who shares Soon-Shiong’s view of law enforcement, has characterized criticism of her as “rooted in racism, sexism, and othering of people in the community who had a different point of view.” 

Despite the furious backlash, in June the council voted 3-2 to reduce the sheriff’s force by four deputies while adding 30 unarmed, bike-riding “security ambassadors” who can’t make arrests. Given that WeHo’s crime rate more than doubled over the past year—including attempted rapes, armed robberies, and a rash of pickpocketing at nightclubs—the vote seemed counterintuitive. Led by S.H.E. council members Shyne and Horvath, and outgoing member D’Amico, the defunding measure was opposed by Erickson and Meister, who vowed not to vote for a new city budget if funding for the L.A.S.D. is cut. “You can’t expect us to have a public safety team where most of the people aren’t armed in order to defend our citizens,” Meister told WEHOville after the vote.

THE BATTLE unfolding in West Hollywood right now isn’t really about gay versus straight, although many in the younger guard are more diverse in their sexual and gender orientations. No, what a lot of this seems to be about is demographics. Erickson notes that nearly 50 percent of West Hollywood residents are now under 40, but prior to the 2020 election, only one member of the city council—Horvath—was younger than that. Shyne’s election marked the first time a woman of color was seated, despite nearly 30 percent of the city’s population identifying as nonwhite and 45 percent identifying as female. From Erickson’s point of view, all he and his cohorts want to do is open WeHo’s gates to a wider range of marginalized communities than just gay men.

“I don’t think West Hollywood is moving away from its past as a haven community for gay men,” he says. “What West Hollywood is doing is working to ensure that people from all walks of life know they have a home and a community here.”  The old guard, though, aren’t crazy about giving up control of the haven they created. They view the younger generation elbowing for power on the city council as naive and Pollyannaish.

Take Plummer Park. True, there have been problems with prostitutes and drug dealers flocking the park at night, but it remains a cherished urban sanctuary and a point of pride for a tiny metropolis literally built on pride. So in February, when the city council proposed redesigning the park’s bathrooms as gender-neutral with ceiling-to-floor doors that locked from the inside, it’s not surprising that all hell broke loose.

“I’m not quite sure what the point is,” complained former city council member Steve Martin at a Public Safety Commission meeting, “whether we’re trying to open up a bordello or we’re trying to create some kind of sex club. But this does not make any sense for Plummer Park.”

Of course, nobody on the council had any intention of opening a bordello. But in the end, the council passed the proposal, infuriating older West Hollywooders, who continue to worry that their beloved mecca is slipping away from them, while the city’s newer residents cheered the decision as proof of their own inclusiveness.

“I recognize that I’ve benefited from the generations who’ve come before me,” says Byers, who identifies as queer, before leaving the café with those millennial voters she’ll need in November. “I am so grateful I got to move out of Arizona and find a place like West Hollywood where I could live the life I envisioned for myself.”

This story is featured in the August 2022 issue of Los Angeles

(Photograph by Corina Marie at Tail o’ the Pup, June 2022.)

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